"I Felt like a Stranger; I Was Alone"
How did a religious youth, an outstanding commander in the army, become a nuclear spy? - Mordechai Vanunu tells the story of his life

Yediot Ahronot
November 24, 1999
By Guy Leshem

Hidden among the thousands of pages of protocols that were documented in the course of Mordechai Vanunu's trial and the dozens of witnesses that were summoned by the prosecution and by the defense, is the personal testimony of Mordechai the man; the testimony reveals the amazing story of a person who was born to a religious-Zionist family, and thirty years later handed over to foreigners the most classified secrets of the State of Israel.

Vanunu's testimony, which is publicized here for the first time, was given in December 1987 and in it he describes the twisted course of his life: his relations with his parents and school mate and the way he became a subversive. The protocol of the testimony that was released for publication was cut off in 1983 - for unclear reasons. Even the description of the years up to that point is not complete:  for example, it is still prohibited to publicize the parts in which the "nuclear spy" spoke about the course that he took in the Nuclear Research Compound.

From Marakesh to the Shanty Town in Beersheba

Mordechai Vanunu was born on October 13, 1954, in Marakesh, Marocco. "My father owned a small grocery store and my mother was a housewife," Vanunu stated in his testimony. "We were a normal family, living in the Jewish Quarter of the city. I attended the Alliance Francais school. I was a good student. In the evenings we would also study the bible in a 'heder' [Jewish religious school]. When we emigrated, we were already six children, and I was eight years old. Our financial situation was good. What I can say about myself during that period is, that I excelled in school and my father, who knew that I was a good boy and a good student, loved me more than any of his children."

When the Vanunu family emigrated to Israel, the mother wanted to live in Haifa, near her mother, but the Jewish Agency sent them to the shanty town [supposedly temporary residence for immigrants, consisting of huts or tents] in Beersheba. "My father was very disappointed," Vanunu said, "because he was a person who had studies the Bible and he thought that he was coming to a land of milk and honey. Suddenly he saw a desert. They placed us in huts, but he got a job and started to get settled. He sent me to a religious school in Beersheba, Beit Yakov. Then we moved into a larger apartment." "

My father worked in a textile factory in Beersheba, although it was a temporary job. He tried all kinds of other jobs to support the family. It was hard for the parents; they were separated from the rest of the family, who lived in the north. I got along well at school: I was a good student, because I knew Hebrew and the bible. When I completed the 8th grade, they sent me to a yeshiva, but after three months they told me: 'You're a good student, but nothing will come of you at the yeshiva' - and they sent me to the religious high school in Beersheba. Again, after three months my father came and said: 'It's wrong for boys and girls to be studying together' - so they sent me to the Ohel Shlomo yeshiva high school. I was an honor student there, but I had problems with English. From that time to this day I've had difficulty in English."

From Pilot Tests to the Engineering Corps

When Vanunu was in the tenth grade, he said, he had a personal crisis, that also led to a spiritual crisis. "Already at that stage," he said, "I decided to cut myself off from the Jewish religion, but I didn't want to have a confrontation with my parents because I wanted to complete my studies. Therefore, I tried to fulfil my duties and be like everyone else. I finished [school] with a partial matriculation exam, and then they wanted me to go to a higher yeshiva. This time I didn't want to go, but because of my parents' pressures, I pretended to go, for a trial period. I left after one week and then I worked until I was drafted into the army."

In his temporary job, Vanunu worked in the court archives. "Already there," he said, "I started to study the files." In October 1971 he was drafted. After he failed tests for pilot course, he was sent to the Engineering Corps. "I wasn't happy, but I completed basic training, commanders' course and a course for non-commissioned officers in the engineering corps - then they sent me to train draftees. I was good and the soldiers liked me because although I didn't give in to them, I wouldn't harass them."

"I achieved the rank of sergeant-major in my company and then they proposed that I sign up for further army service, but I didn't want to. I was thinking bout registering for academic studies, in engineering, although I was on my own and there was no one to help me. I was the second brother in the family, and my big brother had left school early. Everything I did, all of my advancement, everything was my personal issue, I knew that I wouldn't even have financial aid, so I registered for pre-university studies at Tel-Aviv University in Ramat Aviv."

Vanunu completed his matriculation through the pre-academic course at Tel-Aviv University. "I arrived in Ramat Aviv, I was given a place in the dormitories and I started studying. I was surprised at my success, because I came from Beersheba, from a religious household, from a large family in which the father had stopped working at that time and received social security payments. I passed the tests with good grades, but on the other hand, I had problems. I felt like a stranger. The kids there came with cars, all sorts of things like that. It was also the first time that I was living in an environment of boys and girls, because before that I was in an all-boy yeshiva."

I had emotional problems during that period and I also held all sorts of jobs: in a bakery, in an old age home, I cleaned tables. I completed the first year with a sense of failure, and although they told me that I had been accepted for engineering school, I decided to stop my studies. I wanted to go away, far away, to get a job and to concentrate on myself. I decided that I didn't want to develop a career or anything like that. I didn't have a concrete plan, so at first I went back to my parents' home."

From a Bakery to the Nuclear Reactor

The first two years that Vanunu spent at home were not easy: "I reached a crisis with my parents against a religious background," he testified. "I was disappointed with them not only due to their religious background, but I also criticized their attitude towards their children, especially my mother."

In June 1976 he saw in a newspaper an advertisement placed by the nuclear research facility. "It looked interesting to me. I didn't know exactly what it was. I only knew that it was a nuclear reactor, but nothing more. Based on the advertisement, I went to their office in the Rasco neighborhood in Beersheba, and said that I was interested in a job. They asked about my background, it worked out and they said: 'Okay' and gave me some forms. After some time I was invited to an interview, they asked me questions and also conducted a security check. After a short period I was summoned to their course."

The course, according to Vanunu, took place in Dimona and lasted two months. "We were told that we would study until our security checks were completed and whoever passed the check would be in. We were paid a salary for the duration of the course and we started to study. There was nothing new for me, because I had already studied the same thing at the university. It was an uninteresting period for me. I was given a room with two other people. At the end of the course, they gave us tests. Everyone passed the tests, but several people were rejected: one because of drugs, one because of leftist relatives, another whose father worked at Habima theater, stuff like that."

"On January 1, 1977 we entered the Nuclear Research Facility (NRF) and signed a secrecy form. Another course started, in which we studied things that were related to atomic energy and industrial safety. At the end of the course, I don't know on what basis, they decided that half of us would be supervisors and half would be operators. I was sent to the operators course. We were a group of six people, separated from the others, without knowing what they were doing."

Vanunu said that already at that stage his superiors noticed that he was talented, and they allowed him, unusually, to study operations in other units of the NRF - although that was against the regulations.

In 1980, simultaneously with his work, Vanunu started studying at Beersheba University - economics at first and later he changed to philosophy and geography. "In late 1980," he said, "I went abroad with two friends from work. I took three months leave and we backpacked through Europe. We traveled together for several weeks, then I continued alone, by rail."

"When I returned from my vacation I decided to live in Beersheba. My older brother suggested that I buy an apartment and gave me half of the money. I bought a small apartment near the university for $20,000. I lived alone. My whole life was work-studies-home. I had friends at the university and at work, but I lived my private life alone. They were satisfied with me at work. Sometimes they would tell me to work in one unit, sometimes in another, and I would transfer from one place to another. There were units in which I knew things that even the manager didn't know, so if there was a problem, I had to solve it on my own, without calling the engineer at home."

From the Campus to Political Activity

In 1983 - Vanunu was already a longtime student - he started to develop his social relations on campus. "I permitted myself to spend more time in the cafeteria and met with philosophy students and professors. I also saw Arabs, I spoke with them, but I wasn't yet active. At the end of the year I again took a three month vacation and I took a trip with a man from a kibbutz who I knew, after I was again made to sign a secrecy agreement. We rented a car and traveled all over the USA. When I returned to Israel I started forming my decision: when I completed my studies I would leave the university and my job; I would start a new life."

He did not believe that he would be promoted to a higher position at the reactor. "I knew that there was no chance that they would make me a shift manager, because that was a job that was saved for veteran employees, people who had worked there since the reactor was built. Besides, I knew that it was basically the same job, just with less hours. Even the people there didn't consider it to be an important job, just a source of livelihood. They would come to have fun, to talk, to tell stories and play cards."

In late 1983, lacking any professional ambitions, Vanunu decided to join in campus politics. Simultaneously, he delved into his philosophy studies. "At that time I was very individualist; I invented my own private way of life. That was several years after I became a vegetarian and a naturalist," he recounted.

As part of his individual path, Vanunu started to develop closer relations with Arab students, and at a certain stage he was a partner in the establishment of a Jewish-Arab group for equal rights. "I knew that at work they would start thinking that I was a security risk. Nevertheless, I decided not to act underground. I was interviewed by a student paper and I spoke my views. Later I also participated in demonstrations. It was obvious to me that the Shin-Bet would get me, ask questions and warn me."