St. Paul couple adopts their way into controversy over Israeli spy

Minneapolis/St Paul Star Tribune (AP)
March 15 2003

MINNEAPOLIS - Jailhouse marriages are common enough. But a St. Paul couple's jailhouse adoption of an Israeli convicted of treason has put them in the middle of an international controversy.

Mary and Nick Eoloff first met their adopted son at Ashkelon Prison near Tel Aviv. A steel grate separated them from Mordechai Vanunu. Now 48, Vanunu is due for release from an Israeli prison next year after serving 18 years on a treason conviction for leaking Israeli nuclear secrets to a London newspaper. Vanunu said he did it to publicize Israel's nuclear weapons program, which had been an official secret.

The Eoloffs adopted Vanunu under the mistaken belief that he would then gain U.S. citizenship, which they figured might help win his freedom. They later found out that the United States confers citizenship only on adoptees under age 16.

But the Eoloffs remain undeterred. Five years and nine prison visits later, the unique adoption will be part of a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary about Vanunu that debuts Sunday at the International Human Rights Film Festival in London.

The Eoloffs' beige town house in St. Paul has become the improbable vortex of a worldwide campaign to free Vanunu. Peace activists in Norway, Italy, Sweden and Australia hold regular vigils on his behalf.

The Eoloffs "have become Mordechai's link to the outside world and a great source of support and love," said Felice Cohen-Joppa of Tucson, Ariz., coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, which helps pay the Eoloffs' travel expenses.

While working as a technician at Israel's top-secret nuclear reactor in Dimona, Vanunu took dozens of pictures and smuggled them out. He then gave the pictures and descriptions of what he said were dozens of nuclear weapons to the London Sunday Times in 1986.

Lured into a trap by a female Mossad secret service agent in Europe and whisked back to Israel, Vanunu was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Israeli officials have said Vanunu's disclosures did more damage to Israel's security than the deeds of any other person. Israel continues to deny it has nuclear weapons.

Vanunu backers and lawyers already are applying for a passport so he can leave Israel after his release, though some fear he'll be killed before he can write a book about his treatment. Meanwhile, Vanunu is among 165 people nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.

Not everyone holds as sympathetic a view of Vanunu. Julie Swiler, spokeswoman for the regional Jewish Community Relations Council, compared Vanunu to convicted U.S. spy Robert Hanssen, who sold sensitive U.S. intelligence to the Russians.

"Here is a man who made a decision to give away his country's secrets and he shouldn't be surprised that he has to pay a price," she said.

Little in the Eoloffs' past would have predicted a future that involved a Middle East controversy.

Nick has been retired for seven years as an editor of law books at West Publishing. Mary, 71, taught briefly, but mostly stayed home to raise six kids. They have 16 grandchildren and a lake place near Paynesville. They are congenial and soft-spoken.

The Eoloffs describe themselves as "radical Catholics," and had been peace activists since 1980. Mary has been arrested at U.S. military bases.

But she had never heard Vanunu's name until she read an article about him in 1995 in The Progressive magazine.

So she began corresponding with Vanunu, whose censored replies took months to arrive. In the meantime, the Eoloffs petitioned President Bill Clinton and Congress to urge Israel to release him.

When the petitions and letters to the Israeli embassy and the White House went nowhere, the Eoloffs grew frustrated. Then the adoption idea popped up. Minnesota law allows for adult adoptions if a judge determines it's in the person's best interest. Ramsey County District Judge John Connolly, who is now retired, granted the adoption decree in October 1997.

Since then, they've returned to the prison twice a year, including a ninth trip in January. Vanunu is scheduled to be released from prison in April 2004, and the Eoloffs said he wants to join them in St. Paul, where he'd love to teach history or philosophy.

"It's going to be really difficult because one of the first questions on the immigration forms is: Have you been convicted of a crime?" Nick said.