Inside Looking Out:
Hebron, West Bank
(East Jerusalem, December 21, 2004) When you talk with him, he looks straight at you as he gives you his close attention. But his eyes and a significant active but unseen part of his being seem to be focused on something in the distance: something that only he can see. This is Mordecai Vanunu on the verge of celebrating his first Christmas among friends after eighteen years in an Israeli maximum- security prison. Eleven of them were spent in the lonely and cruel isolation of solitary confinement. So he is looking forward to taking part in his first carol sing and midnight mass on Christmas Eve, then a service Christmas morning to be followed by Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.
"My very first Christmas, as a Christian, was in prison all alone," he says. "I ask the governor of the prison to find a walkman radio for me so I can hear the mass from Bethlehem. So he gave it to me." But where prison cooperation in matters of faith was concerned it was more or less downhill for Mordecai after that.
"I was baptized an Anglican in Sydney Australia in August 1986 two months before I was kidnapped by Israel. So my first Christmas as a Christian, was in that prison. I wanted a priest; and he wanted to come. But they did not give him permission until January. In all the eighteen years in the prison there never was a priest who could come and be with me at Christmas time."
However, the priest was allowed to come on other Sundays; "but for the first five years when the priest came, we were not allowed to talk to each other or to pray out loud with each other. We could only exchange notes. So after that I demanded to have a normal meeting, to be able to hear him speak." But permission was not granted, and Mordecai called off the meetings. The silence was too much for him to bear.
"And," Mordecai Vanunu adds, "the prison was happy that I was not seeing the priest anymore."
By Christmastime 1987 sympathizers and supporters on the outside were reaching out to him. "I received books, materials, tapes; and people sent me many cards and tapes of Christmas music. I used to hear the mass on the BBC every year from a college in London.
But there were still many other episodes of sophomoric nastiness by Israeli prison authorities at Christmas time. "Sometimes they delayed the Christmas cards. They keep them until January," he says without a hint of rancor or bitterness in his voice. "Or," he adds, "sometimes people send me gifts for Christmas; but the prison holds some until January."
But the lowest point for Mordecai Vanunu of his entire prison experience was "when they said I am going to be in there eighteen years. It was very unacceptable and very unbelievable that I was going to be in that room in isolation for eighteen years. But I was; so I fight to keep my spirit free, to keep my mind free. I said from the beginning, they could hold my body; but my spirit and my brain, I will keep free…very free. And that is what I succeeded to do every day."
Mordecai Vanunu was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in a solidly Orthodox section of Jerusalem, "but at the age of sixteen in religious school I started questioning the rules," he says. "There are more than six hundred of them; and I didn't think that in Israel they cared too much about the rules and not enough about human beings. That's what I thought, because I heard too much that we can cheat for the land. We can fight for the land. And we can kill for it."
So years later, after he left Israel to verify and expose its nuclear weapons program to a startled world, he decided to embrace the teachings of Jesus. "Before I went to Sydney, Australia my direction was toward becoming a Christian. Not because I read and knew a lot about it, but because I knew that what Jesus Christ taught was not acceptable for Israel. So in prison I started to find out more about what I have become by reading the New Testament in a very loud voice, to learn it by heart, just like I did for the Old Testament. And I did it for five years, every day for half an hour.
What impressed him most about what he read?
"I had already thought that we needed a new way, a new faith, a new understanding of God," he says. "So in prison I used to think about `Love your enemy.' This is something Israel is not able to accept. They believe in revenge, in fighting, and asking God to kill the enemy. But, no, the better way is to love the enemy. That is how we can live together."
Mordecai feels a strong affinity for Apostle Paul: more of an identification actually. "St Paul was spreading the message about new ways to worship God and new ways to fight and defend the people. We don't need weapons. We don't need war. We don't need to fight each other. So the work of St. Paul was very significant for me, because it has been like this in my case also."
But, Mordecai is asked, "Paul was talking about spreading `good news,' and when you talk about the significance and dangers of Israel's secret nuclear weapons program, aren't you spreading bad news?"
"Bad news for those who don't want to make peace," he answers patiently. "Only bad news for those who believe in war or in weapons. The cold war is over. Almost the whole world believes in peace. Only in the Middle East do they believe in war.
So how do you equate the Gospel message with what you are trying to do?
"I want to take the nuclear subject, which Israel is still keeping secret inside a very small group, and give it to all people who want to know. I want to take its secrecy out of the dark and bring it into the light. It was in the dark but then I tried to help the light to come. I did it, and I do it, because, if the people have the right to know God and the right to worship, they have the right to know this. It should not be a secret for a super race or God's chosen people, which is what they call themselves."
"But," he continues, "in this modern age, we are accepting all kinds of human beings: Black, White, Chinese, any race. That is what Jesus Christ succeeded to do. He took the Jewish God from being a super race, and gave it to all of humankind in the whole world. And for that reason I am critical of the use of the Bible for politics. In the name of the Bible they came here and took the land from the Palestinians and expelled them. And now they keep them in occupation. But even if they come in the name of the Bible, they should respect the people here and give them their rights."
Despite his release from prison last April, Mordecai Vanunu is not free. He is still more or less restrained by official restrictions and personal apprehensions to the only section of Jerusalem in which he feels safe: the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem, where he is living in the guesthouse of Anglican St. George's Cathedral. Although he has little inclination to go into Jewish West Jerusalem, he is afraid to do it anyway because of the hostility he is sure he would encounter there. Walking, however, about East Jerusalem is a pleasure. There he is a respected resident to the many Palestinians who come up to enthusiastically shake his hand or offer a friendly greeting as he proceeds along its streets.
A worrisome moment for him recently was the day of Yassir Arafat's death, when, while world media attention was riveted on that story to the exclusion of almost everything else, several car loads of heavily armed Israeli police wearing masks suddenly swooped down on St. George's and swarmed into the compound.
Mordecai says, "I was in the dining room eating breakfast. And I thought they are after some Palestinian or running after some criminals. But in fact they are after me. But I am not a criminal. I am not running away. All they have to do is just call me and I will go to them and they can ask me any questions they want. They had a warrant to search my room. I told them, `Okay. Go search.'"
They took all his materials: tapes, DVDs, notebooks, his computers. And they took him away for ten hours of interrogation before letting him go. Since then all his materials have been returned except the computers. He says, "They are still holding the computers and hope to find something; but there is nothing. I have no more secrets. All I know was published before they kidnap me in 1986."
As far as Mordecai is concerned there is no bad ending to that particular episode. "They can take my computers; but they cannot take my- email address," he says with a grin. "I can go to any computer in any internet-coffee and do my e-mails. I can answer my friends all over the world. I am still connected.
If that's the case, does he mind sharing his e-mail address so more people can be in touch? "Yes," he replies emphatically. "I am happy to receive e-mails and to send e-mails. I want to keep connected to all the world, to keep this story alive, and to let Israel know that they cannot silence me or silence my story. This is a good thing for me to do, because it is an example to other governments that the people in this modern age have much more power now that they are connected. Because of that we can overcome any secrecy."
-Merry Christmas and a happier New Year, Mordecai.
--Jerry Levin, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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