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|April 12, 2004||
Vol. 2, No. 4
A Resurrection Story Told in a Time of War
By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor
Today, Nick and Mary Eoloff set off on a joyous and uncertain journey. The modest Catholic couple from Minnesota locked up their townhouse in St. Paul and boarded a plane for Israel, where they hope to witness the long-awaited release of their adopted son and Israeli nuclear whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu. In the summer of 1986, Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, Israel's nuclear facility, provided photographs to The Sunday Times of London, confirming that Israel, a purportedly non-nuclear state, possessed 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. The revelation made public a secret many governments already knew. An opponent of nuclear weapons, Vanunu hoped the disclosure would lead to international regulation and eventually the disarmament of Israel's nuclear arsenal.
"I wanted to confirm what everybody knows," he once told his mother. "Now (the government) can no longer lie and say that we don't have nuclear weapons. Now everybody knows." It was a costly act of conscience-one that subjected Vanunu to the full fury of the Israeli state. Abducted and kidnapped in September of 1986, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, nearly 12 of which were spent in solitary confinement. Recently, one Israeli security official admitted he had contemplated assassination as a way to silence the teller of Dimona's secrets.
Until very recently, Vanunu remained a persona non grata in Israel, a man whose story could not be told in the hallways of the government or at the table of his own family. The eldest son of a tight-knit, Orthodox family, Vanunu converted to Christianity shortly before he went public with his Dimona secret. After a few difficult visits to Ashkelon prison, Vanunu's parents found their son's political ignominy and his conversion too much to bear and severed all contact with him.
A spy and traitor to some, Vanunu has become a hero among anti-nuclear activists worldwide. To his admirers, and I count myself among them, he represents the power of conscience to confound the designs of states that are hell-bent on stockpiling nuclear catastrophes.
In 1995, the Eoloffs, who are veteran peace activists, began writing to Vanunu. What began as a gesture of political support quickly deepened into a life-giving friendship. They could see the severity of isolation was taking its toll. His rambling letters, full of repetitious paragraphs of paranoia, became too exhausting to read. Alarmed by his deteriorating mental condition, Nick and Mary, who have six biological children and grandchildren aplenty, decided to adopt Vanunu in 1997. They did so, naively believing that he would become a U.S. citizen and perhaps eligible for early release.
The citizenship and early release never came, but as Vanunu's adoptive parents, the Eoloffs were among a handful of people allowed to see him in Ashkelon prison. Several times a year they made the grueling 13-hour trip from St. Paul to Tel Aviv to visit Vanunu, becoming for him a human bridge to the outside world and the bearers of an ordinary hope.
"In your letters," he once said to them. "I want to know when the dog barks, when it is your birthday. That keeps me alive."
Tomorrow and on April 19, the Eoloffs will go to Ashkelon for what they hope will be their last prison visit with their son. On April 21, his 18-year sentence concluded, Vanunu is expecting to be released. More than 150 Israelis and internationals are gathering in Israel to celebrate the exodus of this man, regarded by some as the Phil Berrigan of the Middle East.
For parents and son, the joyous occasion is tempered with uncertainty. The Israeli government has just revoked Vanunu's passport, which puts on hold his plans to go live with the Eoloffs in the U.S. and teach American history. There will be court appeals for Vanunu and more waiting for the Eoloffs. Yet this is still a Resurrection story.
For all he has suffered, Vanunu's mind remains intact, kept together by the support and prayers of ordinary citizens who understood his witness. His faith is strong, and his conviction about the dangers of nuclear weapons unshakable. Although friends have urged him to lie low and the state of Israel continues to threaten, Vanunu says he "will not concede, or fold, regret or apologize, be deaf or shut up." Immediately after he leaves Ashkelon prison, he wants to go with his supporters to St. George's Anglican Church near Old Jerusalem and give thanks to God.
Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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