An Interview with Sam Day

[Ed. note: This interview with Sam Day was conducted in Los Angeles just weeks before Sam's unexpected death on January 26, 2001. It was published as scheduled in the February 2001 issue of the Catholic Agitator.]

Sam Day is the Director of the Free Mordechai Vanunu Campaign. He is the former editor of both The Progressive magazine and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In addition to being the founder of Nukewatch, he is an anti-nuclear activist who lost his eyesight while spending time in jail for his beliefs.

An Interview with Sam Day:

Agitator:  Could you give our readers a brief description of Mordechai Vanunu's situation, starting with what precipitated his arrest and imprisonment?

Sam:  Mordechai has completed his 14th year of an 18-year prison term, and most of those 14 years were spent in solitary confinement. He was released from solitary three years ago, but psychologically he really is still in solitary. Because of very strong security restrictions, his visiting list has not been improved. He can visit only with close relatives, his lawyers, and a priest, if one were available.

Agitator:  Could you go through the details of why he was arrested?

Sam:  Mordechai was one of 11 children of a Moroccan Jewish family that immigrated to Israel when he was about 9 years old. He grew up in Israel, served in the army, and when he got out of the army he went to work in the local factory that was advertised as a nuclear research center.

He went to work there because it paid well, and it was the biggest industry near his hometown, Beersheba, in the desert. It was called Dimona. It was actually a nuclear reactor.

He discovered, soon after he went to work there, what the purpose of the reactor was: to produce plutonium for the Israeli nuclear weapons program. That didn't bother him at all; he was not a political person at the time.

But he was politicized in later years as a result of going to night school at the University of Beersheba, where he met a large number of Palestinian students. He was politicized by his Palestinian friends, became openly pro-Palestinian and against the continuing Israeli occupation. And, particularly after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he became an anti-occupation activist, even though he worked in this very, very sensitive job at Dimona.

By the time he had worked there about nine years, he'd reached a point where he felt he had an obligation to tell the people of Israel what was going on behind their backs.

Agitator:  He was still living in Beersheba?

Sam:  Yes, and still working at Dimona. So, he decided to do a very dangerous thing in order to have the evidence if he were ever to go public with a story of what was happening there. He was able to sneak a camera into the factory at night. He wrapped it up with his swimming trunks in a towel and brought it in. When nobody was around, he took a couple of rolls of film of every part of the factory he could get into. And then he was able to sneak the camera out.

That would have been around the summer of 1985. That fall, he was laid off, along with a lot of other employees. He got a very generous severance pay. He sold his house and took all his money and decided to go on a trip around the world.

Agitator:  How old was he?

Sam:  He would have been about 30 at the time. He was born in 1954.

Agitator:  Was he married?

Sam:  No. He's never been married. So, he took off on a tour and in his backpack, along with his running shoes and his shorts and his books, were these two rolls of undeveloped film.

He went and bummed around the Soviet Union for a while. Then he went to India and spent some time in a Hindu ashram there. Then he dropped down into Southeast Asia.

He finally wound up in Australia in May of 1986. On his second or third evening in Sydney, he was walking through the city feeling very, very lonely. He didn't know anyone anywhere in Australia. And he ran into this Anglican church in a run-down, tawdry part of Sydney called King's Cross. This was an amazing church for an Anglican church: it had lots of social outreach, a drop-in center for people who were on drugs or didn't have homes, and in the evenings it had an open house on the church lawn. Mordechai happened to walk by during an open house.

People were gathers around tables on the lawn. There was a coffee pot and people were eating sandwiches. He was hungery and somebody gave him coffee and somebody gave him food.

A young Anglican student priest, who was about his age and who was in charge of hospitality that night, welcomed Mordechai and they fell into conversation and friendship. It turned out they had a lot in common.

Mordechai decided to hang out at the church. He did odd jobs at the church and before you know it, he was a member of the Bible study group and also an adult discussion group on world problems.

And it so happened that that year the discussion group was talking about nuclear weapons. It was the mid-80's and everyone was worried about the nuclear threat. Well, Mordechai joined that group, and he very innocently mentioned one day that he didn't know much about nuclear weapons, but he had worked in a nuclear weapons factory in Israel.

So, the discussion leaders said, "Well, Mordechai, why don't you give a little talk about nuclear weapons?" And Mordechai said, "I also have some photographs." So the leaders said, "Well, why don't you do a little slide show." So it was at that point thtat Mordechai reached into his knapsack and took the film across the street to one of the 24-hour photo development companies.

In the course of the next few weeks, work got around Sydney that this guy, claiming to be a nuclear worker from Israel, was showing pictures of a nuclear plant. And the press picked that up, though they didn't really show much interest in the story.

But there was a newspaper in London, the London Sunday Times, which had a stringer in Sydney. They heard about this story and they decided to check it out. They sent one of their best reporters, a guy named Peter Hounam. So, Peter Hounam checked into a hotel in Sydney, called up the church, and made contact with Mordechai.

And he came to the conclusion that Mordechai Vanunu was very, very sincere, and that he had no interest at all in money, but he wanted to get the story out that Israel was producing nuclear weapons. His pictures seemed credible. So, Peter called the London offices, and the Times said, "Bring him back and we'll check him out some more."

Agitator:  Now, what's the problem with Israel having nuclear weapons?

Sam:  The problem is that Israel is concerned about the likelihood or possibility that if they publicly acknowledged nuclear weapons it would fall within the purview of an American law which says that, in effect, we will not supply economic or military aid to any country that has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

So it would jeopardize the huge sums of money that Israel gets for its nuclear weapons from the US.

Also, it didn't want to encourage Arab populaces outside of Israel to put pressure on their governments to build nuclear weapons. Those are the two reasons why they've never acknowledged their nuclear weapons.

Agitator:  What did the London Times do?

Sam:  Well, there's another parallel thing that was happening. In the bible class, Mordechai was rebelling against Judaism and he was also falling under the influence of fellow members of the church. And the long and short of it is that he finally became baptized as an Anglican, about a week or two before Peter Hounam arrived. So, when he and Peter Hounam arrived in London, he arrived as a newly-converted Christian.

Some people at St. John's Church in Sydney felt that the baptism was really what tipped the scale and made Mordechai make the final decision to go public with his story.

So, here they were in London, Peter and Mordechai Vanunu. Unbeknownst to them, the Israeli secret service, the Massad, not only knew what they were up to, but were actually following them and setting up a plan to trap Mordechai and get him out of England and return him to Israel.

Agitator:  The Massad knew about it before the story ever broke?

Sam:   Yes. They had been tipped off by the Australian secret service. They sent agents to Sydney and picked up the trail and were following Peter and Mordechai before they left.

In London, Mordechai was subjected to intense questioning by other reporters of the London Sunday Times, and then by nuclear weapons experts, who were hire by the Times to check out his science. They were very concerned about competition from other newspapers and also about possible interception by the Massad, so they kept moving him from hotel to hotel. The frantic moving and continual questioning contributed to the irritation and frustration that Mordechai felt.

Week after week passed in London. He expected the story to come out and then he hoped to be able to leave and get on with his life. So he was ripe for seduction.

What happened was that the Israelis had hired a woman, a free-lance Massad agent who lives in Florida. She has dual American and Israeli citizenship. She does hit jobs for the Massad.

Agitator:  Really? Hit jobs?

Sam:  Well, her job is to entrap men so they can be kidnapped or assassinated or whatever. She's sort of the Mata Hari, the bait. She was part of a team that was established in London that followed Mordechai. Her code name is "Cindy," but her real name is Cheryl Bentoff and she lives in Orlando, Florida.

She picked him up in a park and they began dating. Probably some real heavy romance evolved.

At that point "Cindy" was able to persuade Mordechai to leave London for a weekend together in Rome. When they got to Rome, "Cindy" hailed a cab and they went to an apartment in downtown Rome. Once inside the apartment, three or four thugs from the Massad knocked him unconscious, drugged him, and put him on a freighter and shipped him back to Israel.

The London Times published the story on October 5, five days after Mordechai had disappeared. The story was a real blockbuster. It went across the front page and it covered two or three inside pages. The gist of the story was not only that this was a confirmation that Israel was making nuclear weapons, which everyone suspected, but that Israel had ammassed a stockpile of sufficient number and quality that made their weapons program the equal of the British, Chinese or French.

Agitator:  What is the current status and focus of the campaign?

Sam:  It has two focuses. One is legislative - working through the House, Senate and White House to try to get expressions of support from the American powers-that-be, for them to lean on Israel to release Mordechai. That's been sort of slow, slogging, but important work as it makes a big splash in Israel whenever the US even frowns at what's going on.

The other part has been direct action, and that's the thing in which the LA Catholic Worker and others have played a part. Jeff, you've been to the Israeli Consulate here, and we go every year to the Israeli Embassy in Washington. We do rallies there, and we try to get onto the grounds and we get arrested, and that's part of trying to use nonviolent direct action as a way of raising the issue.

And in that line we go to Israel periodically, working with the British, Norwegian and Israeli campaigns. We do demonstrations of one kind or another to raise the issue in Israel itself.

The most radical thing we've done there was in 1998 when, on the anniversary of his kidnapping, we did a citizen's inspection of the Dimona factory. Dimona is out in the desert, sort of like the nuclear test site here. And you can't get anywhere near it - there's a fence going around it. But if you get permission from the police, you can hold a rally at the fence.

On this particular occasion there were about a dozen of us who, after the rally, took signs saying to the UN, "If you really want to find nuclear weapons in the Middle East, stop digging around in Iraq, come here to Dimona."

That caused a big splash in the Israeli and Arab media and that helped focus attention on the issue. We are trying to push that envelope in Israel, trying to help the Israelis get more active and more visible.

Agitator:  Will he actually be released in four years?

Sam:  Not necessarily. His brother Asher has been told by the prison authorities that he will be released on April 22, 2004. That is about six months before the actual 18 years. Those six months are good time.

Agitator:  You mean to tell me he only got six months of good time in 18 years?

Sam:  That's right. Six months!

Agitator:  Is there no mandatory good time accrued by prisoners in Israel?

Sam:  Not in Israel. No. Every six months the authorities can go to court and say they need to hold this man for security reasons and it's automatically granted. Our concern is that this will happen in 2004 as well.

They are trying to break him. He is an enormously stubborn guy and his resistance is what keeps him going in prison. But he's getting crazier and crazier and I think they hope that he'll wind up a babbling idiot, so that he can be safely released and everybody will disregard him.

Agitator:  What could Agitator readers do to support the campaign?

Sam:  A number of things... most importantly, they could write Mordechai Vanunu a letter at the Ashkelon prison. Letters are the oxygen he needs. His address is an easy one:
Mordechai Vanunu
Ashkelon Prison
Ashkelon, Israel

They should also contact their US senators and representatives, asking them to support efforts to get the new president to intercede in Israel on Mordechai's behalf.

They should also write letters to the powers-that-be in Israel. The names and addresses of the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice are printed regularly in the newsletters of the US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu.

We also need opportunities for me and others who are leaders in the campaign, to talk to groups, any kind of group that will enable us to get the word out, particularly Jewish groups. Although many of our individual supporters are Jewish, Jewish orgranizations have a very difficult time inviting us to speak. We are seen as enemies of Israel, which we certainly are not. We want peace and we want freedom for this good man who has given so much.