Nuclear Whistle-blower Vanunu Is Israel's Edward Snowden

Vanunu acted out of the same motive as America's whistle-blower, but was decades ahead of his time.

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
Nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.
Nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.Credit: Moti Kimche
Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

The interview Channel 2 conducted with Mordechai Vanunu earlier this month was fascinating and informative. This was the first time that the Israeli public got a look at the life and the world of the person who in Israel is considered the ultimate traitor. For the first time, Vanunu was making an appearance on an Israeli media outlet as a flesh-and-blood human being.

It was also a courageous interview. Up to now, Vanunu had refused to speak to the Israeli public in his own language. Israelis had rejected him, and he rejected them. This interview was also a blatant and defiant violation of the draconian limitations that have been imposed upon him since his 2004 release from prison. True, Vanunu had also violated the restrictions in the past, and was punished for it, but then he did it in a low-profile manner with third-rank foreign media outlets. This time he did it openly and in Hebrew.

More than 30 years ago, Vanunu and I worked at the small philosophy department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I was a young lecturer who had just returned from the United States with an interest in the nuclear issue and ethics, and Vanunu was a teaching assistant and Master’s degree student interested in existentialism and political philosophy. We encountered one another in the department from time to time, but he wasn’t one of my students, and to the best of my recollection, I never had a serious conversation with him.

One way or another, in my eyes, Mordechai Vanunu was the original Edward Snowden, but the world of the 1980s, still in the midst of the Cold War, was then foreign and alien to Snowdens. And unlike Edward Snowden himself, Vanunu was terribly nave. While Snowden managed to reveal his secrets to the world and to a certain extent still retain his personal freedom, Vanunu lost his freedom even before his revelations were made public.

Like Snowden, Vanunu was not a spy, but rather a whistleblower. But much more than Snowden did, through his revelations, Vanunu betrayed the deepest Israeli conspiracy of silence: the desire not to know what was happening at the secret complex at Dimona. Unlike Snowden, who was successful in spurring national and global debate through his revelations, Vanunu suffered nearly total failure in his attempt to break the Israeli taboo. The conspiracy of silence remained intact.

The success of the Channel 2 interview was in its revelation of Mordechai Vanunu, the man, for all he is, and also what he isn’t. He really does have rare persistence and personal resilience. The fact that he survived more than a decade in total solitary confinement, on the pretext of security but in fact out of a desire to break him emotionally, is an amazing accomplishment.

The interview also demonstrated the extent to which Snowden’s predecessor was different from the actual Edward Snowden. Vanunu doesn’t have the sophistication, the ability to turn a phrase and the practical smarts that Snowden does. Nonetheless, Vanunu’s explanation for doing what he did is identical to Snowden’s explanation. Roughly put, Vanunu said the following: I was in possession of rare information. I was convinced that it needed to become public, and I had to disclose it to the world because I knew no one else would. Even those who object to what Vanunu (or Snowden) did can’t help but appreciate their courage and the fact that they were acting according to their own consciences.

The bottom line is that the Channel 2 television interview revealed the intensity of Israeli vindictiveness. When it comes to the one and only sacred national taboo, Israel does not forget and will always bear a grudge. The time has come to leave this brave man alone and let him go where he pleases.

The writer is professor of nuclear studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California and author of “Israel and the Bomb.”

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