The Passion According to Vanunu

"The Whistleblower of Dimona: Israel, Vanunu and the Bomb" by Yoel Cohen, Holmes & Meier, 381 pages, $45.

"The Whistleblower of Dimona: Israel, Vanunu and the Bomb" by Yoel Cohen, Holmes & Meier, 381 pages, $45.

When the country was all abuzz over Mordechai Vanunu, those of us who were accustomed to listening to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and loving him, were astonished and also angry. Leibowitz heaped fire and brimstone on the traitor - he had converted to Christianity! It was difficult to accept the wrath of the religiously observant intellectual, certainly for the secular among us, just as it was easy to identify with the decision of Vanunu's father, Shlomo, to turn his back on his son, who would no longer be using the religious items that his father peddled in Be'er Sheva.

In this book by Dr. Yoel Cohen, which deals extensively with Vanunu's motivation and intentions and principles and so on - because this is the only way to try to deal with the mud that is slung at him from every direction (sex, money, fame and suchlike) - readers will also find quite a few human details that explain this huge, simple betrayal.

But more than that, I will never forget Leibowitz in 1962 on the matter of our atomic weapons. We were at Hillel House in Jerusalem, and there was at that time the anti-nuclear group that included Eliezer Livneh, Efraim Orbach, experts and others (those who were not there can read about it in the now defunct newspaper Koteret Rashit of November 11, 1986, in "Twenty-Five Years Before Vanunu," by Yehuda Ben Moshe). Leibowitz completed his remarks, his roars, about the disaster they were preparing for us at Dimona "in secret."

At that time, who knew what it was about? And when, impertinently, I dared to ask where, what - he really scolded: "Idiots, why don't you go to the newsstand across the street and buy a newspaper from abroad?!"

We were all overwhelmed. Today I know that he exaggerated. It was possible to know even then, but it was not easy. The business with the French and Charles De Gaulle and their reactor and Algeria and Suez was barely over, and John Kennedy began to pressure David Ben-Gurion. He wanted inspection. And even in the United States, it isn't so easy to report on Israel.

In an article that was published recently in New York, Amos Elon, who was the Haaretz correspondent in the United States at the time, reports how Kennedy called Ben-Gurion (in the Dimona context) "a wild man," and The New York Times did not publish this. The text that he himself sent to Haaretz was not published. "My publisher," relates Elon, "asked me concentrate on other issues."

Everyone concentrated on other subjects. Cohen's book deals with everything that has to do with Vanunu, but its main thrust and importance lie in exactly this. He describes the way the holy trinity of security-media-law functions in such a way that we, the citizens, don't have a chance of understanding and then perhaps acting. The geniuses - they know, and they are protecting us. Until Vanunu comes along and breaks the tablets of the law. Cohen does this job very well.

Indeed, Leibowitz exaggerated. In the United States, too, it wasn't easy to know what was going on at Dimona. Journalists who were marginal or rejected at the time and later became legendary, like I.F. Stone, did write about it. But just like here, you had to really want to know in order to know. Cohen also does not think that it is his job to deal with the main political question - How is it that, more or less from Golda Meir on, that is, somewhere between Johnson and Nixon, the only significance of our famous "ambiguity" doctrine turned into a farce that played a double role.

They know

It allowed war-mongering Americans from Henry Kissinger to Paul Wolfowitz to pretend ignorance about everything having to do with Dimona, and her daughters, and it allowed the government of Israel to keep from its citizens the information that the outside world knew. The Americans who refuse to allow United Nations inspectors to look for "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, for fear there aren't any, find it difficult to enable their own inspectors to do a decent job in Dimona, for fear of what they know is there. This is the part of the continuing farce (the American part, which is of great interest to us), whereas the Israeli part of the farce - the way they are pulling the wool over our eyes - had its earthquake with Vanunu.

And thus today we have an interesting conjunction of two victories, and we shall see how they manage together. First of all, those engaged in "the holy work" have won: If any of the Vanunus or the professors entertained the hope that in conscientious struggle it was possible to stop the build-up of the nuclear arsenal, the game has long been over. Israel is a nuclear power. Everybody knows this.

The arguments that remain are all of the Mahaneh Yehuda produce market variety - arguments over numbers, kinds of pipes, planes, submarines - but for better or for worse, a nuclear power. In any case, the security importance is marginal, as was proved by the glider that launched the first intifada, and by the suicide bombers of the second intifada, the significance for security is marginal. Apparently when the conferences on the credibility of Israeli deterrence took place, these individuals were in the men's room.

The second and impressive victory, with which Cohen's book deals, is Vanunu's victory. First of all, they did not manage to drive him crazy! At the height of the period of his cruel solitary confinement, I spoke to two people who had visited him, and their impression was that they were indeed succeeding in driving him crazy. He looked wiped out in his cell. But no. He has won, and he is that same healthy, odd fellow, Mordechai Vanunu. Apparently what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

And his major victory - it is now possible to talk about everything, and people are talking, and will talk, and even if Dimona's father, Shimon Peres, brings along former Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, and together they sing the duet "Israel will not be the first `to introduce' nuclear weapons into the Middle East," and 10 collaborating journalists will dance around them with their mouths shut, it will not do them any good. Israel is indeed the first, and has not only "introduced" nuclear weapons, but also has considerable commercial quantities of those weapons.

Not that tomorrow, media personalities like Yair Lapid or Nissim Mishal or Rafi Reshef or Arie Shavit will rush to invite Vanunu for a "conversation," or for that matter Yoel Cohen. But the game of concealment is over. Everything is open. If anyone is at all interested.

The dynamic between these two victories is what should be happening in a small, democratic country that is nuclearized up to its neck, which hopes perhaps to live that way and not end up like Samson. There is something to be said about each of these two victories.

If there were a serious - that is, free - debate in our country about the subject that Vanunu put on the agenda, it would turn out that there are different opinions, and there are options that have to do with the potential use and development of nuclear weapons, and dangers, and therefore it is necessary to debate these options. But the main thing is that it would turn out that the debate itself is an essential part of this scary business, because it has to do with intentions and deterrence, and therefore talking is part of the arsenal.

Perhaps these are not the things that Vanunu dealt with during the time he spent at the philosophy department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. Avner Cohen, who started out as a philosopher and is devoting his life to atomic matters in Israel, does not touch upon this debate either in his very useful book, "Israel and the Bomb."

Devil's bargains

And so, thus begins the theoretical analysis by David Lewis, who was one of the wonderful philosophers of the past generation, in his brilliant article "Devil's Bargains and the Real World": "That paradox of deterrence, in a nutshell, is as follows. Your best way to dissuade someone from doing harm may be to threaten retaliation if he does. And idle threats may not suffice. To succeed in deterring, you may have to form a genuine, effective conditional intention. You may have to do something that would indeed leave you disposed to retaliate if, despite your efforts, he does that thing which you sought to deter. It seems that forming the intention to retaliate would be the right thing to do if, all things considered, that was the best way to prevent harm. Yet it may also be, foreseeably, that should the occasion arise, it would serve no good purpose to retaliate. It would just inflict further, useless harm. Then it seems that retaliating would be the wrong thing to do. Thus it seems, incredibly, that it may be right to form the conditional intention, wrong to fulfill it. That is the paradox."

When the discussion begins from this point, it continues more or less like this: It could be said - as the influential Christian philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny said, and as the Jewish Leibowitz apparently thought - that after all, it is not right (not moral?) to create the dreadful intention in the first place. This is one side of the paradox. And it could be said, as many secular people and believers say, that after all, it would be right to carry out the intention. Translation: They bombed us, we bomb them and so on, until ... This is the other side of the paradox.

The discussion of these possibilities is scary and essential, and it does not exist here. But it is clear to anyone with eyes in his head that Vanunu did a great service to the architects of the bomb, the great defenders of our children's future. For if they wanted everyone to know, they got what they wanted. And if they wanted to hide it from us, the Israelis, so that we won't know - since censorship is only against us - then, again, they got what they wanted: It is so easy to claim that he was a traitor, a madman, a sex-and-lucre fiend and so on - it was not us who exposed this person, and all the other amazing ramifications of "the Vanunu affair," which the book under review here diligently and precisely documents.

In this sense, the benefit to Israel in the international publication of Vanunu's photographs, plus the effort by the Mossad and our other intelligent [sic] organizations to give him maximal exposure, with an abduction drama straight from the thrillers - all this provides tempting material for the conspiracy theories, for which Cohen brings bits of evidence in his book.

Was everything planned by our own excellent boys? The guardian of Israel shall not slumber, and he is wise, so did he send poor Motti on a mission of self-exposure and self-abduction? Hence - according to this logic - the endless mantra we keep hearing about "the damage that Vanunu caused (because he revealed the truth? Because he lied? Because what he revealed isn't worth anything?).

Against these conspiracy theories there is no point in bringing the knock-out refutation. Look how they are punishing him in prison, like they never tortured anyone (Jewish) before. Answers like that and others ignore the conclusion, or more precisely - the surrealistic sense that arises from reading the laden pages of this book - please don't attribute too much rationality to these people. Carelessness, yes; sloppiness yes; impudence and chutzpa, as much as you like; arrogant paternalism, of course; and vengefulness, vengefulness against the citizen who dared to violate the laws of the sacred security loyalty and gave himself permission to think for himself.

There is this person we watch on television, a certain Shabtai Shavit, who is said to have been the head of the Mossad at some time or other, and he, to the question of what other "secrets" Vanunu could reveal today (After 20 years? The same rusty pipes?) replies with a pious sermon about the history of the Jewish people, especially after the Holocaust. He then disappears from the "discussion," that is, from the studio. Or we hear Likud MK Dr. Yuval Steinitz, our new protector, insulting, "explaining" that Vanunu is a real Elhanan Tennenbaum - I mean that Tennenbaum is almost a Vanunu (When did Vanunu cheat? Sell you old medicines?). And then we get a sense that everything here is either a comic book or a horror story by Stephen King.

So when I recall that I have family and friends whom I love in Be'er Sheva, and I recall how Yoel Cohen started his book, telling us how Vanunu was affected by the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred when he was already in Australia, and he then decided to make public what he knew; and also that I have friends in Jerusalem, who are happy that they fled Kiev before Chernobyl, and I remember that like Kiev - how far is Tel Aviv from Dimona, after all? Is it any wonder then that I switch to the Sports Channel? Just don't give me the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, don't give me "with us in the studio is" Dr. Uzi Arad, together with a guilt-ridden ex-Shin-Betnik.

There are quite a few moving points in Cohen's book. Here is the professional, serious British journalist Peter Hounam, a true friend from The Sunday Times, who did not abandon Vanunu and was ashamed of his newspaper's despicable behavior toward Vanunu - using him and dumping him. A book by him about Vanunu and the press would be wonderful; and here is the brother, Meir Vanunu, intelligent, tough and loyal.

He doesn't let go. I met him once for two minutes and thought to myself how these two brothers could have blossomed had their parents immigrated with them from Marrakesh to Paris or to Montreal and not plonked them down in Be'er Sheva, to grow up in the market alongside the Ishmaelites, in the backyard of the atomic waste. And here in the book is this amazing photograph by Time photographer David Rubinger, the only photograph that was passed by the censorship in 1960. In the background there are a few distant buildings, some antennas and a sort of erection, and something round, and a camel. The foreground of the black and white photograph is earth with some thorny plants of the type with which every infantryman who has crouched in the Negev is familiar; no spy satellites, no photography drones, nothing - just a camel, sad eyes, a hump and a neck in profile. Try telling him, my camel from that famous song, you too are spin; oh my, camel my camel, never mind those thorns; beneath your feet are six subterranean stories with pipes and cisterns - a national suicide belt.

And what is even more moving about the book is its author - Dr. Cohen immigrated to Israel from England, an experienced journalist, an expert on the media, an observant Jew and apparently the world's expert on Vanunu. "The Whistleblower" is the third edition of his book, first published in 1992, and he says of himself that apart from the important additions - transcripts of the trial, the study of the treacherous behavior of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, the crooked acts of Robert Maxwell's Sunday Mirror and more - the current edition is also a result of his own process of disillusionment. A new immigrant, a professional, talented, industrious, fair, what the religious call "a man of values" - and like the hero of his book, he slowly realizes where he is. He increasingly understands, likes (admires?). Vanunu, from his solitary confinement, does not reply to his letter; more and more he is bemused by his new country, and angry at it. Not like a Moroccan; like an Englishman - but angry.

If I were the publisher of the Hebrew edition, I would not be able to convey the sense of praise that the English term "whistleblower" connotes. In Hebrew, in a culture that sanctified blind loyalty (never mind why), this comes out "the informer," or in Israeli, the "shtinker." Not quite praiseworthy. I would perhaps look for a title that fits the writer and his hero: "The Power of Naivete," say.

Cohen's book is full of typos and begs for serious editing; it contains unnecessary repetitions and with proper cuts could be far more interesting. But it is worthy of just such an improvement, and as it is important and replete with facts, "secrets," heroes and stories, it is a pity that no decent Hebrew publisher has yet been found. When one is found, we will gain a lot. And then a young Hebrew screenwriter will come along who did not know all the protagonists, and he will read it and be able to conceive a great television series - provisional title, "In Praise of Folly."

And then at long last somebody real will come along, and she perhaps will write a book about the confused young man who entered Ashkelon Prison in 1986 battered and cheated after he photographed those toys "because he might do something with them, but doesn't know exactly what," Vanunu 1986, and he is coming out through the prison gates now, Vanunu 2004, determined, stubborn, and along with the rest of us - manifestly unambiguous.

For the benefit of the researchers for that television series, it is possible to begin here - It is quite worthwhile to start at places like this and thus avoid the usual nonsense, interviews with those who know (and know more, but ...).

And in the book that will one day be written, the book about the child Mordechai who lived quietly with his family in Marrakesh, and somewhere "on the way to Be'er Sheva" (as another song says) became Motti, and about the person responsible for security at Institute 2 in Dimona who "just happened" to have been the manifestly illegal commander of the massacre we committed at Kfar Kassem shortly after the boy was born in Morocco.

That person in charge, together with his colleagues, wrongly thought that the strange Moroccan had become a Palmachnik, a kind of Motti. That book, which will be far more wonderful than all our endlessly commissioned biographies, I recommend to open with one of the simplest and most elegant sentences at the end of Yoel Cohen's book: "In a sense, the Vanunu who will emerge in 2004 will be, if not by design, the making of the Israeli judicial-defense establishment." And thus he embarks on his new tortured path, Motti, with the passion to continue and carry the cross for all of us, nailed.