Under the Hot Israeli Sun, a Dynamic Movement Grows

The Promise of Broad-Based Support for Vanunu and Nuclear Abolition

by Felice Cohen-Joppa

A record 170 demonstrators gathered at the fence of Israel’s off-limits Dimona nuclear weapons reactor May 26 to press for its immediate closure. The event, organized by women from a variety of peace and justice, environmental, and feminist groups in observance of International Women’s Day of Peace and Disarmament, drew a few foreign guests and a good number of uniformed police and undercover security agents.

Present in spirit was Mordechai Vanunu, the 45-year-old former Dimona nuclear technician, now serving an 18-year prison term for leaking the story of Isreal’s secret nuclear arsenal, who told the crowd through the voice of his adoptive mother, “Nuclear weapons will lead to a second holocaust. The Dimona reactor is a second Auschwitz.”

The wind-blown, sunburned crowd, the most diverse as well as the largest ever to assemble at the remote desert reactor, rallied under the banner, “After the use of nuclear weapons,no side will have won.”

Palestinians from inside Israel and the Occupied Territories were there. Many youths joined with more seasoned activists. Members of the Black Hebrew community, based in Dimona City, sang a song dedicated to Vanunu.

Protesters were shaded by a peace tent within sight of Dimona’s distant dome, shimmering in the hot sun, and flanked by a bouquet of sunflowers symbolizing world aspirations for nuclear abolition, speakers addressed a variety of concerns.

Issam Makhoul, a member of the Israeli Knesset, received applause for having initiated last February’s first Knesset public debate on Israel’s nuclear policy.

Mary Eoloff of St. Paul, Minnesota, who, with her husband Nick, adopted Vanunu three years ago, moved the audience with her report from Ashkelon Prison, where the couple had visited their son the day before. She said that Mordechai appreciates all the efforts that are made for his release and all protests against nuclear weapons, and that he urged Israelis to continue and expand their anti-nuclear struggle.

Two days earlier the Eoloffs appeared as guests of honor before an audience of 100 at a Knesset panel discussion hosted by Knesset member Tamar Gozansky. The panelists discussed a variety of nuclear issues.

The gatherings at the Knesset and in the sun-baked Negev Desert underline the significant momentum in Israel with regard to Mordechai Vanunu and the secret nuclear arsenal he warned his fellow citizens about.

The grim reality is that after being caged in isolation for almost 12 years, Vanunu is still barred from mixing with Palestinian prisoners, still denied visits with all except his lawyer and a few close relatives, still subjected to censorship and long delays of his mail.

But the good news is that in Israel there is growing public awareness of Vanunu and his role as conscientious whistle-blower rather than spy or traitor--the false labels pinned on him by a lock-step judiciary and national media. There is also growing awareness of the nuclear weapons program which Vanunu first brought to public light and which the government still calls secret.

No longer can Israel and its leaders credibly ignore the existence of these weapons and the dangers they pose-to the environment, to the economy, to democracy, to peace and security. The shroud of secrecy and apathy has been rent by revelations from the long-secret trial of Mordechai Vanunu, which show him in a true light, by increasingly fair and favorable media coverage of his case, and by the Knesset’s historic decision to visit the once-taboo subject of nuclear weapons.

When I traveled to Israel for the first time in 1991 as part of a Women’s Peace delegation, I met few activists who were interested in discussing nuclear weapons or the case of Mordechai Vanunu. Since then, undeniable steps forward have led to this year’s broad-based demonstration.

There is no doubt about it: A dynamic and growing anti-nuclear movement, one which recognizes Vanunu’s sacrifice and calls for his freedom, is taking hold in Israel. And that must give Mordechai some hope.

(Editor’s note: The author is an associate coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu and co-editor of the Nuclear Resister, published in Tucson, Arizona. Accompanying her at the Israeli events was Marie Stone of London, representing the British Campaign to Free Vanunu and For a Nuclear-Free Middle East.)