The Spy Who Blew The Whistle

Mordechai Vanunu spilled Israel's nuclear secrets and was jailed for 18 years. Get ready for the fallout.

 ASHKELON, ISRAEL—We're making our way to Ashkelon in a taxi and Meir Vanunu is feeling playful. In two weeks, his brother Mordechai, the man who spilled Israel's nuclear secrets 18 years ago across the pages of a British newspaper, will walk out of prison a free man. Not quite free. He'll be confined to the 8,000 square miles that make up the Jewish state. He'll be watched 24 hours a day and barred from ever talking publicly about his ordeal. But he'll be out of the tiny metal cell in Ashkelon prison where Meir says he can smell the Mediterranean and has longed more than anything to swim in it. In a few hours, the Vanunu family, torn from the inside by the idealistic deeds of an errant son, will get together for a Passover seder and retell the story of the Jews' journey from captivity to freedom. Meir will talk about his visit with Mordechai in prison that day, but their parents, old and sick from nearly two decades of this affair, will close their ears. Mordechai was his mother's favorite. He grew up in an Orthodox home and was a promising yeshiva student. She could forgive him for betraying Israel's secrets. But the catalog of Mordechai's sins includes a conversion to Christianity. And for that, his parents cut off ties long ago. They won't be reuniting with him now.

We're making our way to Ashkelon in a taxi because prison authorities have approved a visit for Meir on short notice, and it might be the last time he sees his brother behind bars. They'll talk about what to expect on the date of his scheduled April 21 release: their plans to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv and fight in court the post-release restrictions imposed on Mordechai, how to deal with the legions of reporters who will travel to Ashkelon to cover the event. Mordechai, who suffers from the paranoia that must inevitably accompany ordeals like his—the Mossad abduction in Europe, the secret trial, the utter solitude he endured for his first 12 years at Ashkelon—will ask his brother to help him distinguish between the real journalists and the spies and provocateurs he believes Israel will plant in the crowd.

And this cab ride we're taking transports us from one of Meir's worlds to another—from the religious world he and Mordechai grew up in to the gray prison his brother now inhabits. It begins just outside Tel Aviv, in Orthodox Bnei Brak, where he lives with his parents while in Israel, where men wear long black robes and black hats and women cover their hair for modesty. Though it neighbors Israel's raciest metropolis, Bnei Brak is as insular as Jerusalem's most religious neighborhoods. Old men crowd bus stops to solicit money for the poor. On a sidewalk vending machine that offers coffee and hot chocolate, someone has hung a sign saying "Sold to a goy—beware."

Vanunu in an Israeli police van in 1986, flashing a message written on his palm: ‘Vanunu was hijacked in Rome 30.9.86.’
Vanunu in an Israeli police van in 1986, flashing a message written on his palm: ‘Vanunu was hijacked in Rome 30.9.86.’

Meir left this world at 18 to live a secular lifestyle. He's now 48, wiry and good-looking, with dark eyes and dark skin, two years younger than Mordechai. But he keeps getting pulled back into this world because every aspect of his adult life—where he lives, what he does, even who he forms relationships with—is dictated by the deeds of his older brother. Meir is Mordechai's man-on-the-outside. Of Mordechai's nine siblings, just three have kept in touch with him in prison. Some changed their names to avoid the stigma. Only Meir has immersed himself in the campaign for his brother's release. He lived for years in a London apartment made available by a rich Israeli peace activist, coordinating Mordechai's defense, speaking at rallies and conferences, accepting awards on his brother's behalf. In a way, he has lived the life Mordechai intended when he went public with his information about Israel's secret nuclear plant in Dimona.

Pen pals: A letter from Vanunu to his adoptive parents in Minnesota
photo: Jeff Horwich/Minnesota Public Radio
Later, Meir relocated to Sydney because Australia was the one country willing to grant him citizenship. Sydney was where Mordechai converted to Christianity days before he unloaded his secrets to the London Times. Even the birth of Meir's 11-year-old son is linked to Mordechai's plight. The boy was born as a result of a relationship between Meir and an American activist in the Free Vanunu campaign. She is raising the young Vanunu in Kentucky, and Meir longs for the day he can drop the crusade and live alongside his son. In this perverse reality, then, Meir's own freedom is bound up with Mordechai's.

And here's what happens in the taxi. Meir, giddy about his brother's imminent release, talks to me in English while playing a trick on the driver in Hebrew. He tells him I'm a journalist writing about Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear technician who worked for eight years at the Dimona facility, whose conscience told him the furtive bomb-building there was wrong, who left Israel for a trip around the world and ended up in the London offices of the Times, where he astonished journalists with descriptions and photographs of Dimona. Meir identifies himself to the driver as my translator and begins besieging him with questions, ostensibly for my report. "What do you think of this Vanunu character?" "But wasn't he just trying to raise public awareness?" "But didn't the world know anyway that Israel had the bomb?" "But wasn't his abduction from Rome illegal?"

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