Our Son Mordechai

Ha'aretz Weekend Magazine
December 24, 1999

By Neri Livneh

Two weeks ago Nick and Mary Eoloff, a God-fearing Christian couple from the USA, arrived in Israel. This was the retired couple's fourth visit to the Holy Land. They spent a week here but like on their previous visits, they saw very little. For the entire week they stayed at the modest pilgrims' hostel in Jaffa, biting their nails, awaiting a phone call. Ten hours before their flight back home, with all of their suitcases packed, they decided to take action. "I am used to these things," Mary explained. "We decided to drive to Ashkelon prison, to pound on the doors and fences, to beg, to explain, to threaten, to shout, to cry, to do everything necessary and ultimately, perhaps they would let us visit our son."

The plan worked beyond their expectations. Mary did not have time to shed a tear, and Nick had not yet voiced his arguments, when, as though by magic, the prison's electronic gate opened. "The guard asked us if we had come to visit Mordechai Vanunu," Nick recounted. "We said yes, we are his parents and he said: 'Please come in, welcome.'"

"Apparently God helped us," Mary remarked. Only when they returned that evening to Jaffa did they learn, that half an hour after they had left for Ashkelon, accompanied by Peter Hounam, the Sunday Times reporter who published Vanunu's revelations 13 years ago, Vanunu's lawyer had called to say that the visit that they had awaited for so long had been approved.

"It was wonderful," said Nick. "He looked fine, very optimistic. He is a man with a very gentle character. He was very happy to see us and of course, we were very happy."

"We love him very much and we had missed him very much," Mary added.

Three years ago the Eoloffs decided to adopt Mordechai Vanunu. They petitioned the court in the state of Minnesota and asked the judge whether the fact that Vanunu was being held in solitary confinement could serve as grounds for an adoption application motivated by a human rights concern. "The judge gave us a written opinion, that solitary confinement for such a long period" - by then Vanunu had been held in solitary for more than ten years - "could be considered to be a human rights violation," Nick said. "That opinion very much encouraged us and we decided to send Mordechai documents for an adoption application. Since Mordechai was already an adult, all that was needed for the procedure was his consent and Mordechai gave his consent and signed it in the presence of his brother, Asher."

- Did the court approve the application without any problem, just because Vanunu was in prison?

"It had nothing to do with the fact that he is in prison," Nick explained, "just that he was an adult. But since he was in prison and since the court established that there was a human rights violation, the judge agreed to approve the adoption without his physical presence in court, and he also agreed to waive the presentation of his birth certificate, since we explained that in Marrakesh, where Mordechai was born, it was not customary to issue birth certificates. In October 1997 we received Mordechai's adoption certificate and one month later we received from the court his birth certificate."

- What does the certificate say?

"It contains the original date of birth, and states that we are his parents."

- Why did you adopt Mordechai, and not a genuine orphan?

"We made it clear on every possible occasion, that we do not intend to usurp any rights of his biological parents or his biological family. All we want is to consider him as our son, and since that is acceptable to him and since his biological parents are not in contact with him, and since his situation touched us and we greatly appreciate his contribution to nuclear disarmament, which is something we support very much - we wanted to take this step in order to express the commitment that we feel towards him and our opposition to the manner in which he is treated and to the injustice that is being perpetrated against him. Now, when we have the status of legal parents, what we have to say is heard much more seriously and this way, we can also visit him on the few occasions that we are allowed to see him at all."

The Seventh Son

The Eoloffs have six children (the youngest is 30 years old) and 14 grandchildren. Before they retired Mary was a high school teacher and Nick, a lawyer by training, edited law books. They are very modest and likeable people and Mary attributes their relatively youthful appearance to "our belief in good" on the basis of which "we try to do good deeds, to live modestly and to fight evil."

They are Christians who, like Vanunu, belong to the Anglican Church, which they visit every Sunday, "and if the meaning of being religious is believing that good should win over evil and justice should overcome injustice and that every human being is created by God and that all people are equally loved by God, then you may say that we are religious. But our religion is not the kind that discriminates between Christians and Jews or Moslems."

- So the fact that you adopted Mordechai Vanunu has nothing to do with the fact that he converted to Christianity?

"Not at all. We would have adopted him even if he had been Jewish or Moslem. But perhaps it was easier for him to accept the adoption now by Christians like us, because when he gets out of prison he will want no connection with the State and what it represents, and his conversion was in fact an act that expressed his desire to sever that relationship."

The Eoloffs have a rich history of human rights activity. "I am the victim of a blind date," Mary joked, "but since that meeting it was obvious that Nick and I shared the same interest in humanitarian values and human rights." They were very active in the US peace movement in the sixties. Mary acted, voluntarily, as a spiritual counselor to criminal prisoners. They were members in movements for general disarmament and nuclear disarmament in particular, in organizations against torture and human rights violations, and against the death penalty.

Mary, who is the more active partner, has been arrested six times due to her activities. "I don't really like that style," Nick remarked gently. "I don't like those demonstrations at which the aim is for the demonstrators to get arrested, and they consider that to be an achievement. The demonstrations that I do are more quiet. For example, I belong to a group that opposes the sanctions against Iraq, because the sanctions harm children there, who die because of the lack of proper medical treatment. So what we do, for example, is to hand huge signs, or we hold silent vigils. Mary is different. She is capable of breaking into weapons plants to try and stop production. She always confronts the police. I'm not cut out for that, but I do appreciate her actions. My support in those cases is expressed in caring for the children while she was in detention."

In 1980 the Eoloffs wrote a book that counseled youngsters on how to be conscientious objectors. "We oppose any and every army, because the purpose of an army is to destroy life," Mary explained.

- After a childhood in the shadow of demonstrations, protests and arrests, didn't your children, out of rebellion and as usually happens, become terrible conservatives?

"No," said Nick. "When they were children we managed a very reasonable household and they never complained. Even now, as adults, they say that they have no complaints. They are very supportive of our ideals, but naturally we do not try to recruit them for our activities. They have their own lives."

- Truthfully, how did they react to a new brother in the family?

"They were supportive of out action, they support Mordechai and what he did, although of course, not all of them are as committed to him as we are. You could say that three of them were less enthusiastic, but three were very enthusiastic. Our youngest son, Jonathan, even came with us once on a visit and he was as impressed as we were. I hope that it was mutual."

The First Visit in Prison The first time that the Eoloffs heard about Vanunu was in 1995. That was nine years after the article in the Sunday Times, in which Vanunu exposed the secrets of the nuclear reactor in Dimona. "We read an article about him in a newspaper and we were very impressed," Mary said. "First of all, by his courageous war against nuclear weapons, which was very close to our principles, but I was also very impressed by the manner in which he withstood the mistreatment to which he was subjected as the result of his adherence to his principles. I told Nick that we should get to know him and we decided to start corresponding with him. We wrote to him and he answered and we started to like him more and more, but we didn't manage to see him."

They joined the campaign for Vanunu in the USA. "We sent a petition to Clinton, asking him to help get Mordechai out of solitary confinement and to work for getting us permission to visit him, we wrote letters to all of the authorities in Israel, and nothing helped. We wanted to meet Mordechai face to face and there was no way to do it, so we decided to adopt him and that's what we did. Several months after we adopted him, in February 1998, while he was still in solitary, they permitted us to visit him for the first time."

"At that time he was behind bars and a net, just like a sort of cage, and we only managed to touch a finger that he stuck out through the bars," Nick recalled. "But even then we were very happy. When we waited for them to bring him to that visit, we sat in a prefab room and next to us was a lawyer who was waiting for his client. When the client arrived he said 'Shalom' and asked us who we had come to visit, and when we told him he held out his hand and said: 'Nice to meet you, I am Marcus Klingberg.' Later I heard that he, as well, was considered to be a dangerous spy, like Mordechai. After all, it's pretty ridiculous, the whole story about spies who can't be seen because they endanger State security."

- What do you feel when you see Vanunu?

"I feel that I love him very much, but I stay calm."

- I understand what you get out of the adoption, but what will Mordechai benefit?

"When we adopted him we thought that it would get him US citizenship. He wants very much, after he gets out of prison, to become an American citizen. He can come to us to Minnesota and if he wishes, he can come with us to church, but as far as we are concerned, he can go to a synagogue or go nowhere. In any event, only after we adopted him we found out that an adopted person only gets US citizenship if they are under 16 years old. In any case, the fact that he is now considered to be our son will possibly make the citizenship process easier, because it is easier to become a US citizen if one has first degree relatives."

- Mordechai has three brothers who maintain contact with him: Asher, Meir and Danny. How did they react to the idea of adoption?

"We are mainly in contact with Asher, and Asher supported the idea. In any event, we don't do anything without consulting him. We do not approach political figures if he doesn't agree that it's a good idea. Our rule is to first allow Mordechai's biological family to act."

- Do you know how Mordechai's parents reacted to your adoption?

"We imagine that they were not happy, but it is all up to him. At his age, only he can determine if he can be adopted, or not."

Prayers Also Helped The Eoloffs had the impression that even after more than 11 years in solitary confinement, Vanunu has managed to retain his sanity. Nick Eoloff attributes this to the fact that he has constantly read books and received letters. "For example, towards Christmas he received what I estimate as 1,000 cards and letters. People wrote to him all the time, people constantly fought for him. Besides, he is a very strong person who deeply believed in what he did and that feeling helped him to stay sane."

Mary thinks that prayers also helped. "So many people devotedly pray for him, it must help," she says. The prayers, they believe, like the intensive protest actions, lobbying and mobilizing public support in Israel and mainly abroad, will also ultimately help Vanunu's early release from prison. "What is happening to him is unjust. He paid a high price for what he did, for his beliefs and his principles. Just as it was unjust and inhuman and a violation of human rights to keep him in solitary confinement for so long, it is unjust to deny him parole for good behavior. It seems to be simply arbitrary and vindictive. But justice will overcome in the end, and we hope that he will get out of prison soon and come home with us, to Minnesota. That is his home, we are all waiting for him there - Nick, myself and our eldest grandchild."

- What is the first thing that you will do with him?

"Oh, there's so much to do. First of all he needs help to recover. He has undergone very harsh situations. He must be helped to digest what he has been through and helped to adjust to a new life, a life of freedom and independence. A life that is as normal as possible. Perhaps he will want to start a family, he will certainly want to find a job, to start living, to have a normal life. Our hope is that it will happen quickly. We are not getting any younger."

- Will he call you mother and father?

"Oh, no. He'll certainly call us what he calls us now, just Nick and Mary. But for us he is like one more son."