Adopting Mordechai Vanunu

Reprinted from The National Catholic Reporter
November 24, 2000
by Claire Shaeffer-Duffy

Nick and Mary Eoloff, ages 71 and 68 respectively, have a family history similar to many Catholic couples of their generation. The soft-spoken couple from St. Paul, who met on a blind date, courted and got married 45 years ago. Six children arrived in 11 quick, exhausting years. He edited legal documents. She taught English at a public school and Our Lady of Peace Catholic High. Together, they relished their retirement and the grandchildren that kept coming and coming, sixteen at last count.

Recently, the Eoloffs added a new member to their family. On October 27, 2000 they marked their third anniversary as adoptive parents of Israel's most notorious political prisoner, the nuclear whistle blower Mordechai Vanunu, 46.

In the summer of 1986, Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, Israel's secret nuclear facility, provided photographs to The Sunday Times of London confirming that Israel, a purportedly non-nuclear state, possessed 100 to 200 warheads of advanced design. Kidnapped by Israeli agents on September 30, 1986, he has spent almost 12 years of his 18-year sentence in solitary confinement in Israel's Ashkelon Prison.

A prophet to some, a spy and traitor to others, Vanunu is, to Nick and Mary, their eldest child, the first on the list in Mary's litany for her children, prayed a "thousand times" throughout the unclaimed moments of the day. "Lord Jesus," she asks, "Son of the Living God, have mercy on Mordechai."

Aside from a small circle of family members, lawyers and priests, the Eoloffs are the only people ever to visit the incarcerated Vanunu, described by some as the most isolated prisoner in the history of Israeli prisons.

Nick and Mary first learned of Vanunu's case through a 1995 article in The Progressive magazine. They immediately began writing to him. He wrote back, and they forged a friendship through letters. Their sympathy for Vanunu was more than personal.

Agitator Campaign to
The Catholic Agitator is calling upon its entire readership to adopt Nuclear Whistle Blower Mordechai Vanunu.

As a convert to Christianity, Mordechai's heroic action of exposing Israel's secret nuclear weapons program was motivated entirely by a deep desire to be a Christian peacemaker. It is thus incumbent upon all of us who believe in this message to support him by writing letters of support and encouragement.

After 14 years in prison we must not allow this hero to lapse into despair. We urge you to adopt Mordechai as a special project and pray for him and write to him regularly. His address is:

Mordechai Vanunu
Ashkelon Prison
Ashkelon, Israel

Veteran members of Pax Christi, the couple has a long history of working for nuclear disarmament and human rights. In 1980, the Eoloffs wrote a textbook on conscientious objection for Catholic educators. They opposed US military intervention in Central America in the early 1980's, spoke out against the death penalty and torture, and protested the manufacture of nuclear weapon parts in their home state. Mary risked arrest six times in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Vanunu's case, the Eoloffs believed, needed more political support, so they wrote to their senators and congressman, two of whom asked U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to inquire into claims about the harsh conditions of the confinement. Albright replied that the Vanunu case was an internal issue for the Israelis and the US government would not intervene on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Vanunu, who by this time had spent ten years in isolation, began to show signs of mental deterioration. Deciphering his rambling, repetitious paragraphs of paranoia exhausted Mary, and she often delayed reading his letters. In early 1997, the Eoloffs "started to get worried." They wondered if Vanunu could retain his sanity during the remaining seven years of his sentence.

Israeli authorities maintained that Vanunu required isolation to protect him from others prisoners who might attack him, and to prohibit him from divulging classified information. Specifically, they feared he might give information on Israel's nuclear weapons program (Vanunu has said he has told all he knows) or speak about his abduction, which is considered to be a state secret by Israeli authorities but was a violation of Italian and international law. Vanunu has not agreed to remain silent about his kidnapping.

Immediately after his abduction in 1986, Vanunu was drugged, bound to a shipping crate "like an African slave," he told his brother, and brought to Israel. Israel did not acknowledge detaining Vanunu until Nov. 9, five weeks after his abduction. Author Mark Gaffney documents the early days of Vanunu's incarceration in his book Dimona the Third Temple? The Story Behind the Vanunu Revelation:

"For the first month he was kept in solitary confinement in total darkness in a tiny room - with only a mattress on the floor. During these first weeks, the authorities attempted to conceal his identity. They forced him to grow a beard, to wear a kind of hat usually worn by mental patients, and - further mocking him - they even tried to change his name to David Enosh, that is, David, 'human being'."

Amnesty International reports that during his "secret detention he was apparently interrogated and made a confession."

Vanunu was charged on two main counts: assistance to an enemy and aggravated espionage. His trial began on Aug. 30, 1987, under what Gaffney describes as "exceptional security measures." A concrete and canvas tunnel was constructed to conceal his entry into the court. "Those who did catch a glimpse," Gaffney writes, "reported that Vanunu was taken in handcuffs, with his head concealed by a motorcyclist's helmet. A police siren wailed as he was led in, apparently to prevent the prisoner from being heard if he tried to call out to newsmen." In every subsequent court appearance following his trial, Vanunu has been prevented from speaking, according to Amnesty International, "sometimes by being physically gagged."

Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of Vanunu as "cruel, inhuman and degrading." His imprisonment included years of confinement to a 6-by-9-foot cell (expanded by 3 feet in the mid-90's) with constant camera surveillance and 24-hour fluorescent lighting. (The lights were later shut off at night in response to international pressure.)

During his two hours of daily exercise, the authorities threw up burlap sacking around the prison yard, concealing him from other inmates. He went on hunger strikes to protest his conditions. Once, he smeared shaving cream on the eye of the camera. For the first five years, he read the New Testament daily, out loud, to keep his faith and his sanity.

Vanunu, a Jew, became a Christian shortly before he exposed Israel's secrets. His conversion influenced that decision. In a letter to his friend and spiritual mentor, David Smith, an Anglican priest, Vanunu wrote on March 25, 1989: "How to follow Jesus. I want to say that I am an ordinary man, but when I understood my mission, I was like the prophet Jonah. I ran away. I wanted to find who is my God and Lord. Then I found Jesus Christ and when I accepted him and became Christ's body, I said here I am. I will follow you, and decided to tell all the world about the things that are going on in Israel, to warn them of the possibility of a nuclear war in the Middle East."

Alienated from the Israeli state and much of his biological family, Vanunu hopes to reside in the United States after his release. His biological parents are pious Orthodox Jews who migrated from Morocco to Israel. Author Gaffney says Vanunu's parents loved their son dearly but found his conversion to Christianity and his political ignominy too much to bear. As parents of a "traitor," they endured ostracism and even physical assault. After a few nightmarish visits to Ashkelon prison, they stopped coming and severed communications with their son.

Vanunu is currently visited by three of his ten siblings, brothers Danny, Meir and Asher.

The Eoloffs were naïve about adoption. "Our decision to adopt Vanunu was an idea born of frustration," said Nick. "We were naïve. We always thought Israel wanted to get rid of him, to get him off their hands. We thought that if we adopt him, he will get out. [The Eoloffs incorrectly thought adoption would provide instant US citizenship.] After we posed the proposition as a means of getting him out, Vanunu said yes.

In February, 1997, Nick submitted a petition for adoption with the Juvenile Court of Ramsey County, Minn., along with the requisite fee of $125. What followed was a roller coaster of legal maneuvers. The court initially rejected the adoption request, and then reconsidered it after finding a legal precedent for an adult adopting an adult in the state of Minnesota.

Recognizing the exceptional circumstances of the case, the court waived two of the three requirements for an adult adoption: no birth certificate was needed (Marrakech, Morocco, did not keep such records), nor was Vanunu required to appear in court. On Oct. 27, Judge John Connelly granted the adoption. A month later, Ramsey County issued a birth certificate for Mordechai Vanunu. It contains the original date of birth and states that Nick and Mary are his parents.

Eager to meet their new son, the Eoloffs booked a flight to Tel Aviv in February, 1998. Their letters to US and Israeli government officials requesting permission to visit Vanunu had remained unanswered. They flew out of St. Paul, still not knowing if the long-awaited meeting with their seventh child would happen. Upon landing, they got a room in an obscure hotel in Bethlehem and plotted how to penetrate the formidable Ashkelon prison. They knew no one in Israel.

Ashkelon prison is a nondescript, one-story building occupying a long block of Mediterranean coastline. The glistening waters of the sea are the eye's only respite from the dry, dusty environs. Walls fortified with coiled barbed wire enclose the prison compound with approximately 200 Palestinian political prisoners, Israeli common criminals, Professor Abraham Marcus Klingberg, the scientist who sold state secrets to the Soviet Union, and Vanunu. A driveway leads up to the prison's only entrance, and no visitor may enter without first checking in at the guard shack.

Mick and Mary couldn't get past the shack. After a 45-minute wait, the prison warden came out, and Mary, who was clutching a bouquet of yellow daffodils intended for nature-deprived Vanunu, innocently requested a visit and handed the official her gift. "Could you," said asked, "give these to Mordechai?" Perhaps touched by the couple's guilelessness, the warden promised to call them the next day.

Miraculously, the visit was approved. The starkness of that first visit with Mordechai is forever etched in Mary's memory. "We were shown into a cold, bare, sterile room," she said. Mordechai's brothers, Meir and Asher, who had accompanied the Eoloffs, stood on their left. Vanunu stood behind a wall of fine mesh steel with an English-speaking guard beside him, closely monitoring their conversation. The Eoloffs and Vanunu wept quietly. "He looked like such an old man. So old," said Mary. "When I saw him I thought, "It is so inhuman to be meeting him this way. This man is like a fish in a cage.""

In March of 1998, Vanunu was released from solitary confinement and housed in the general prison population, and, according to the Eoloffs, his health and appearance improved with the transition.

The friendship between the unassuming Midwestern couple and the impassioned inmate matured over subsequent visits - six thus far. Vanunu, who used to converse almost obsessively about nuclear weapons, now indulges in personal revelations and even argues with his adoptive parents. He begs the Eoloffs to be more specific in their correspondence. "In your letters," he told them, "I want to know when the dog barks, when it is your birthday. That keeps me alive."

Vanunu worries about his health, and Nick encourages him to keep exercising. Vanunu loves opera. He loves chocolate. He reads history and admits, without cracking a smile, that he has "no time" to read a novel. He disagrees with the Eoloff's critique of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and prefers Newsweek to the not-so-mainstream publications they have subscribed for him. He wants to improve his English. He wants to marry and have a family. When he writes to a woman, he always asks for her picture.

"Vanunu is no person up on a pedestal," said Nick. "He is just like you and me." Some consider the actions of this ordinary man to be extraordinarily significant. Sam Day, coordinator for the US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, said that the photos Vanunu gave to The Sunday Times "confirmed to the world for the first time that Israel did indeed have a secret nuclear weapons program. And [a] much bigger [program] than anyone expected. Vanunu's act," Day said, "launched the first opening of public debate about what was going on behind the backs of the Israeli public in its government's production of secret weapons of mass destruction." Day sees Vanunu as an "example for others involved in nuclear production. He demonstrates the kind of acts of conscience that can be done to blow the whistle."

In February 2000, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, held an unprecedented public debate on Israeli nuclear policy. Prior to the February forum, Israel's nuclear issues were resolved behind closed doors in the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee, and the government maintained a policy of nuclear "ambiguity," neither confirming nor denying the country's nuclear arsenal.

In November of 1999, Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily, published excerpts from transcripts of Vanunu's trial, which revealed a thoughtful and conscientious Vanunu and facilitated the possibility of the Knesset debate. The day after the transcripts were published, the newspaper's military analyst wrote a piece headlined "The Death of the Ambiguity."

Vanunu's 18-year sentence ends in September 2004. Since his release from solitary in March, 1998, he has spent an additional four months in isolation as punishment for minor infractions. The Eoloffs know Vanunu will need a lot of assistance recovering from the trauma of his incarceration and, like any good parents, they want to provide a stable base for his new beginnings.

Anticipating some of his practical needs upon his release, Nick has already opened a bank account for him in St. Paul, Minn. Meanwhile, in between the bi-annual visits to Ashkelon, which Vanunu has requested, the Eoloffs tirelessly tell his story and support his cause, global nuclear disarmament. Asked how this seventh child had changed her, Mary quietly mused, "In my mind, I believe we are all one. This adoption concretizes it."

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the Worchester Catholic Worker.