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Index on Censorship interview 3/2004

More Sinned Against Than Sinning

James Thackara

Eighteen years ago, Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli scientist working at Dimona nuclear facility, revealed that Israel had an atomic bomb project, a secret that had clouded US-Israeli relations since the days of Kennedy and Ben Gurion, and might have involved collusion between the countries, Vanunu was kidnapped in Italy, returned to Israel and sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment, nearly 12 of which he spent in solitary confinement. In April this year, James Thackara went to Israel for Index on Censorship to greet Vanunu on his release from Ashkolon Prison. Ursula Owen interviewed Thackara on his return.

First of all, I was astonished that though the international press was outside the gates of Ashkolon to cover the release of Vanunu, not one interview, as far as I could see, devoted itself to any heightened or visionary debate about the morality and the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel or anywhere else.

Israelis call their position on nuclear weapons their ‘nuclear ambiguity’. That ambiguity has legal significance, reflecting in turn a moral riddle. A few years ago, the UN General Assembly brought a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, on the legality or otherwise of nuclear weapons. The Algerian president of the court passed on it, saying, in effect: ‘Nuclear weapons are legal in times of peace, illegal in times of war.’ In some way, this reflected the concept of ambiguity. But in the case of Israel, it also reflects the nature of the Holocaust State: the Jewish people’s plight in the twentieth century and the nature of the Jewish state in relation to all other states. It is a unique state aware of its uniqueness; the rest of the world is also aware of its uniqueness; and it deals with things in a unique way.

We have Israel saying it doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and they could have anything from 150 to 400 warheads, some of them thermonuclear; it also has three German submarines able to carry cruise missiles. It’s a major world nuclear power. We invaded Iraq for weapons that do not seem to exist (though they might have been close to existence at once time). The Israelis have avoided the kinds of inspections required by the Atomic Energy Agency by staging vernissage inspections by the US. I think it has put both countries in quite an awkward position.

When Truman became president in 1945, at the time of Potsdam, he didn’t even know there was a BOMB so, when he was told, he thought it was just a slightly larger bomb. He wasn’t particularly distressed to go along with the Army’s powerful ambition to drop the bomb. The business of secrecy is very dangerous in nuclear weapons.

It’s important to remember that nuclear technology has gotten way ahead of morality. However, simply to deny a secret project belongs to the primitive stage of nuclear weapons, the 1940s and 1950s. We are moving out of that stage; and my comment at the moment I met Mordechai Vanunu was that his release meant the necessary end of it.

Nuclear weapons are very much a project of twentieth century ideologies; ironically, the people building nuclear weapons often felt they could bring peace to the world. In the early stages, when the US and the USSR had primordial power over this project, it produced a kind of “conversation” between Russians and Americans, a peaceful conversation based on the assumption that since they both had nuclear weapons and could incinerate each other and everybody else, they weren’t going to do things in the usual way but would use little countries around the world to fight proxy wars for them. And that’s how they did it, all conducted with the pawns and not the major pieces.

Now, more and more countries have nuclear weapons. And lo and behold, this is very uncomfortable for those countries that thought they had this power, because they were rather responsible; now other people with religions that don’t agree with them, with racial prejudices that aren’t in accord with them, don’t actually accept everything the primordial groups tells them. So there is now a kind of nuclear community, in which there is a discourse that goes on within the nuclear establishment, which is a kind of alternative government.

For Israel, the exclusiveness of what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is enshrined in their state. This exclusiveness, they believe, allows them to do things that other states do not do. It is at the root of why they have not joined the Atomic Energy Agency and do not reveal their nuclear capability. They have great confidence in their superior moral nature, and feel justified by the imperative of survival. Israel feels it is surrounded by anti-Semitic, aggressive people. For Ariel Sharon, this involves occupational thuggery that has put Israel in the position of a neo-colonial country.

Vanunu’s abduction in 1986 came at a time of flux for Israel: it was redefining itself, having a form of identity crisis. It had occupied territories after the 1967 war and it gradually became clear that the territories were not going to be returned. This produced a moral dilemma for Israel as well as security issues on the ground. The fact that Israel had a nuclear project was not at the forefront if most Israeli anxieties, problems, and guilt. It was developing its nuclear project and what was apparently a reactor project was moving into a weapons project.

Vanunu initially took security oaths based on a research project; he was not concerned about that. Gradually, however, he become aware that he was being involved with major proliferation. He found himself inside a human organisation - the world’s nuclear community. He decided to take responsibility for what he was doing. This was particularly poignant for him because he wasn’t a high-level scientist and he is often insulted by those who claim he is not important enough to be taken seriously. He decided he didn’t want to be involved in this lie any longer and was gradually persuaded that it was important for him to say something.

While we waited for Vanunu to come out of prison I was interviewed by what I believe is the second largest paper in Israel, Ma’ariv. The journalist became more and more interested, more and more sober. At the end he turned to me and said: “I want to speak to you personally. The Israel that Vanunu is coming out into is not the Israel he went in from. I believe that Vanunu will be accepted and admired by my generation of Israelis.” He made a personally apology to me about what happened to Vanunu. The interview did not get into the paper and, a few days later, they conducted a poll asking Israelis what they thought should happen to Vanunu. One of the options offered was “kill him”. Paranoia has produced the most appalling kind of conservatism. And this plays into the nuclear state aspect of Israel, because nucleonics is always totalitarian, undemocratic and conservative. But the poll in Ha’aretz showed something like 50 per cent wanted him released. 30 pere cent thought he should be kept under house arrest and silenced, and maybe 20 per cent that he should go on being punished forever.

In a North London liberal synagogue, I heard a man who claimed to have been at the Dimona project say: “Vanunu betrayed Judaism, he converted to Christianity, he was a low level technician. He betrayed his family, they denounced him. He betrayed the Jewish state. He is no better than Adolf Eichmann. He should be executed.”

We are not going to have disarmament in our lifetime, or the lifetime of our children, but in 100 years civilisation will evolve away from nuclear weapons. Meanwhile the presence of nuclear weapons in Israel is Israel’s greatest impetus to joining the community of all the races and religions of the world as an equal - if it admits they are there. I can’t say that to build instruments that are portable gas chambers and weapons of extinction is a sign that the human species is a sane species on the planet. However, given the primitive state that humanity is in and has been in for a long time, I would say that to have nuclear weapons is to assume an enormous, aggravated responsibility. A few years ago, the Marshall McLuhan Institute in Canada said that nuclear weapons were the great teacher, and there should be a nuke in every marketplace. I would say there is a moral content in nuclear weapons, because it involves a conjunction of moral authority and powers of mass ecological destruction. When God wanted to punish people in the Old Testament, He infested the world with floods, plagues and violence. Nuclear weapons are a plague and a flood - it is in fact the Old Testament God enshrined in science.

In the post-Darwinian age, a large number of people say God doesn’t exist, or God is dead. Even if they claim to believe in God, people feel that they should be doing something to improve the planet. If you take on nuclear weapons, in a sense you are saying, well, God might have had virtue on his side but we have gone beyond God now; man is responsible for everything. Every last ant on this planet is in the realm of human responsibility. And this weapon is saying to us, don’t let other people solve your problems, don’t argue with your neighbour because you are not going to get anywhere with him, because antithesis is going to produce Armageddon. For God’s sake, get on with solving the problems of the world. And here I would admonish the Israeli state: nuclear knowledge has a sacred aspect to it. It is something that belongs to everybody and when Klaus Fuchs gave away the secret of the implosion principle to the Soviets, he did it because he felt tortured that nuclear knowledge, which is larger than any nation or religion, was not being shared - in this case with our ally, Russia.

An Israeli negotiator said - and Afif Safieh, a Christian representative of the PLO, made similar comments - that in every negotiation with the PLO the fact that Israel has a project is an appallingly disheartening aspect of the discussion, because it is saying Israel is absolute. And this creates a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Syrians - everybody - would like to have nukes so they can sit at the negotiating table with the Israelis.

Nuclear weapons are dangerous things to have on your territory because they not only give you a kind of sovereignty and immense moral prestige if they are not abused, they also put you in a position of having to defend your terrain that the nuclear project is on because it is too dangerous to have it fall into anyone else’s hands - Osama Bin Laden’s, for instance.

I think the release of Vanunu will force Israel to come clean. It’s important that Vanunu walks as a free man on the planet, is not assassinated, is not harassed, not muzzled. After being locked away for 18 years, how could he have secrets dangerous to Israel security? After 18 years quarantine, a head of Dimona would not be likely to have up-to-date dangerous secrets - especially as Vanunu put everything he knew in the public domain in 1986. Vanunu wants to leave Israel, he’s said that in letters, he has been totally open about it. He wants to go to Congress - to do what? It seems that so great is the angst underlying US-Israeli relations that the same people who use US tractors to trash the homes of unarmed old women can’t find the courage to give this man the passport he is guaranteed by Israeli law.

At the moment he’s living in an Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem, quite close to the old city, to the Damascus gate. When I visited him, there were heavily armed police at both ends of the road, presumably to protect him. It would be a major international incident for Israel if anything were to happen to him; they don’t want him dead. There were conspicuous Shin Beit [Israeli secret service agents] outside masquerading as reporters. To get in, I just had to hand a slip of paper to an attendant of the church saying, “James, Index on Censorship”. He came back five minutes late, the gates were cleared, I was let in and we walked straight across the cloister into the colonnade. He looked over his shoulder and then said, “Now go left”. We hurried down the colonnade into an austere cloister with a long monk’s table. And there, after eighteen years, was Mordechai Vanunu sitting at the end of the table, with one brother Asher on the other side and Meir, his other brother, at the end. He rose to meet me - he’d been told by his brother who I was - and we spoke for maybe half an hour. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. Because this man was totally calm, totally gentle, totally unhostile, apparently not angry, completely sane, witty and funny, and innocent. I put the question: how did he stay sane? And he said that they would question him regularly, he was under continual questioning because they wanted to understand why he felt the way he did. As I understood it, his reply was that he was able to preserve his sanity by something I took to be akin to personal ideological discourse. He would spend his whole time thinking about what they had said, what the implications were, and replying to them. This mixture of Socratic discipline, heavy exercise, these confrontations with his persecutors, but also his interlocutors and his contact with humanity, was what preserved his rational powers and kept him calm; probably even, I would imagine, supplied him with a certain sense of humour in a situation that was far from funny.

I would emphasise, and I don’t think Vanunu would argue with me, that this man should not be seen as first and foremost a human rights victim. It is a human rights case, but he had access to certain newspapers, he was able to read, he asked his friends to send him videos and films. This was not a man who was nailed to a cross and hung in public view; this was a man who was kept out of sight to guard a secret. I think it’s important to see that this man is a censorship hero of a very particular kind.

This man was crucified in a modern way. He was quietly separated from humanity and made a prisoner of the nuclear state, which would not allow him to debate what every human being on the planet should be debating. This is a particular kind of modern psychopathology; it is insane; it reflects the psychotic state the human species is in.

James Thackara has had a long involvement in nuclear issues and the Vanunu case, and is the author of America’s Children (Chatto & Windus, 1984), a novel dealing with the Manhattan Project and the fate of Robert Oppenheimer.

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