The Spy Who Blew The Whistle

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

Here's how stubborn. In the 12th year of his solitary confinement, when relatives began worrying about his mental state, when Mordechai would tell visitors that the colors of a newspaper contained secret codes and the announcements over the prison loudspeaker included subliminal messages aimed at brainwashing him, the Ashkelon prison director summoned Mordechai for a meeting. Meir was there, and so was Asher, another Vanunu brother. "It was the first time we could see him without a screen between us, the first time we could embrace," Meir told me. The director was offering to end Mordechai's solitary confinement in exchange for a pledge that he wouldn't talk to other prisoners about Dimona. Mordechai didn't even consider the proposal. "I don't do deals with the devil," he said. Mordechai's obstinacy paid off. The prison director ended his solitary confinement two weeks later with no strings attached.

But on other occasions he has missed opportunities to ease his plight or even end his ordeal. "He won't compromise on his freedom of speech," says Mary Eoloff, a Minnesota woman who has made at least 10 trips to Israel along with her husband, Nick, to visit Mordechai in prison. The Eoloffs are another peculiar chapter in the Vanunu story. Longtime peace activists who retired about 10 years ago, the Catholic couple read about Mordechai in an issue of The Progressive in 1995 and began corresponding with him. "This is what his letters look like," Nick Eoloff tells me in the living room of his home in St. Paul, holding up a lined sheet of paper with tight handwriting and holes where censored words or sentences were cut out. Mordechai numbers his letters. The latest ones received in Minnesota show he has penned more than 2,400 from prison since 1986. Nick Eoloff says Vanunu copies each one by hand and keeps the spares in boxes in his cell for his own uncensored record.

Within three years, the couple had arranged to legally adopt Mordechai in the U.S., gaining the right to visit him in prison. (Only first-degree relatives, lawyers, and a priest are allowed). But to their dismay, the adoption did not result in U.S. citizenship. "We thought he would get citizenship, and then Israel would quickly be willing to let him leave prison and leave the country," Nick Eoloff tells me. "Then we started looking at the INS forms, and they said only an adopted child under 16 gets automatic citizenship."

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.’

The more they visited Mordechai in prison, the more they came to understand how slim his chances were for an early release. The first time they traveled to Israel in February 1998, Vanunu had already served two-thirds of his sentence and was eligible for parole. But the parole hearings were little more than a formality. "It was a really demoralizing visit, mainly because of how gray everything was," Mary Eoloff tells me. "Mordechai came in, and he was this old man." He was 43 at the time. Again and again, members of the board rejected his petitions until Vanunu stopped attending the sessions.

He remained defiant. About a year ago, the Eoloffs say, two security officials offered a deal for his early release. In return, Mordechai would sign a pledge never to talk about Dimona, the abduction, or details of his trial. For the first time in 17 years, Vanunu was a pen's stroke away from leaving prison. Again, he refused to bargain. "He has his little dissents," says Nick Eoloff. "Whenever we visit, he's allowed to come out of his cell and wait for us behind a red line that's painted on the ground. And every time we approach, he takes one little step over that line and embraces us."

How will this story end? If Vanunu is allowed out of Israel, the Eoloffs have prepared space for him in their home in St. Paul. He has a small bedroom upstairs with eggshell-colored walls and a cross over his bed. Or he could live in the carpeted basement, with a fireplace and an adjoining bathroom. Mary Eoloff says Mordechai has talked about beginning his new life quietly. "He wants to teach history," she says, "and eventually he would want to live on one of the coasts." Mordechai has apparently cultivated a romantic relationship with a woman through letters and might be interested in getting married. Nick Eoloff says Vanunu has dropped 26 pounds in recent months, hoping to leave prison at the same weight he entered. And though he tells the Eoloffs he'd make the same decisions today as he did 18 years ago, some of his recent letters sound softer. "I've suffered too much," he wrote to his adoptive parents last August. "We must end this case and start the next step in freedom."

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