American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Still Small Voice in the Nuclear Era
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the Saints Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, MA and writes regularly for their publication, the Catholic Radical.
In late autumn of 1986, 31-year-old Mordechai Vanunu, facing prolonged imprisonment for the crimes of espionage and treason, tried to explain his actions to his bewildered mother. The eldest son of a close-knit, Orthodox family and a former technician at Dimona, Israel's nuclear reactor, Vanunu had just disclosed his government's most classified secrets to the London Sunday Times. His surreptitiously taken photos revealed that "non-nuclear" Israel was sitting on 100 to 200 nuclear weapons.
"I wanted," he told his mother, "to confirm what everybody knows....I wanted the matter to come under orderly supervision....Now (the government) can no longer lie...and say that we don't have nuclear weapons, now everyone knows."
In late January of this year, the still-incarcerated Vanunu--who has endured eleven and a half years of solitary confinement--received an invitation from Knesset member (MK) Issam Mahoul to attend an unprecedented open debate in Israel's parliament. The topic? Israel's nuclear policy. Implicit in the invitation was an acknowledgment of the country's nuclear arsenal. Prior to this year, Israel's nuclear issues were, "for security reasons," resolved behind closed doors in the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committees. Mahoul's threat to contest the constitutionality of this censorship in the Israeli Supreme Court influenced the parliament's dramatic about-face; but it was the changing public sentiment towards Vanunu and his "secrets" which empowered the MK to bring the country's most taboo topic to its central political forum. Among those in attendance at the historical Knesset session were: US nuclear scientist Dr. Ray Kidder, former researcher at Lawrence-Livermore Labs, members of the Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu and for a Middle East Free of Atomic, Biological and Chemical Weapons, representatives of the World Committee of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and representatives from the embassies of Egypt and Russia. Their presence, according to Mahoul, indicated a commitment to breaking through Israel's longstanding silence on the nuclear issue.
The Knesset's inclusion of the nuclear debates on their agenda marks a small triumph for the tenacity of truth and the power of conscience to expose the State when it indulges in duplicitous policies. Conscience prompted Vanunu's disclosure. "I have no choice," he wrote in an impassioned poem titled from Ashkelon Prison. "I'm a little man, a citizen, one of the people, but I'll do what I have to. I've heard the voice of my conscience and there's nowhere to hide."
Vanunu's dictates of conscience, however, clashed directly with the Israeli government's policy of nuclear "ambiguity." The policy allowed Israel the duplicitous options of rattling the nuclear sword while avoiding international and regional agreements on non-proliferation, disarmament, and monitoring. Ambiguity required concealing Israel's nuclear arsenal from Israeli citizens. The government told Israelis that the Dimona complex included a textile factory which produced socks! Shimon Peres, acting prime minister when Vanunu was abducted and secretly tried, justified this deception by saying, "The public knows that there are things that they don't want to know." Vanunu was labelled a traitor. Although foreign friends endorsed his cause, he remained a pariah in Israel for the first ten years of his incarceration.
In 1996, a one-act play sympathetic to Vanunu and his message drew large and appreciative audiences in Tel Aviv. In 1997, 50 Israelis joined internationals for an unprecedented demonstration outside the gates of Dimona. In November '99, Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily, published excerpts from the transcripts of Vanunu's secret trial. Many believe that the transcripts, which revealed a thoughtful and conscientious Vanunu, facilitated the possibility of Mahoul's Knesset resolution. The following day, the newspaper's military analyst wrote a piece entitled "The Death of the Ambiguity."
Most notable was a column by Moshe Vardi, Yediot's editor-in-chief, defending the paper's decision to publish the transcripts. His comments indicate that the "traitor's" truth had gained center stage in Israeli political consciousness: "From its very beginning it was not only the Vanunu Affair but also a crossroads for the Israeli public. The affair matured us, put wrinkles in our innocence, gave us knowledge that we had previously avoided--whether we had no other choice or out of choice."
It is naive to assume that disclosure will lead to the instant disarmament, or even the regulation, of Israel's nuclear arsenal, but as Vanunu knew 14 years ago, it is a step in the right direction. Mahoul's Knesset resolution was in actuality only a single speech that degenerated into a shouting match and a walk-out by some members of parliament. Nonetheless, his critique of Israel's nuclear agenda was televised and public discussion occurred outside Knesset walls and continues. "Nuclear ambiguity," Mahoul asserted, "is nothing but self-delusion, and has long ago ceased to be effective. The entire world now knows that Israel has a huge stockpile of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and that it serves as the cornerstone for the nuclear arms race in the Middle East." Within days of Mahoul's exposé, the Israeli press quoted Professor Uzi Even, former senior scientist at Dimona and potential candidate for the Knesset, who described the reactor as "old and dangerous" and recommended its phased closeout.
In this nuclear era, the Vanunu affair is everyone's affair, for, like him, we are all incarcerated by the policies of nuclear states. The US arsenal that ensnares every American is far greater than the wall of nuclear "security" surrounding Israel. If we grow weary, choking in prisons of our own making, let us remember Vanunu and his witness. His story reminds us that the "still small voice" is one of God's greatest resources for restoring peace to our planet.
For information on the Campaign for a Nuclear-free Middle East: US Vanunu Campaign, 2206 Fox Avenue, Madison, WI 53711
Addendum: The Sunday Times of London recently reported that "Israel plans to lay nuclear mines in the Golan Heights to prevent a Syrian attack after it withdraws." Israel has denied the plans. The Sunday Times also said that Dimona provides the tritium needed to manufacture the neutron mines "in defiance of American attempts to persuade Israel to join the so-called fissile material cut-off treaty."