(photo credit: Courtesy)
On March 28, 1988, Mordechai Vanunu was convicted by an Israeli court for treason and espionage, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. A year-and-a-half earlier, Mordechai had been enjoying the London art scene with a young Jewish-American woman he had met only a few days earlier. Traipsing around Europe fueled by the excitement of fresh romance, he had no idea that the exciting prospect of love and companionship would in fact lead him to 11 years of solitary confinement.
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Vanunu, a Moroccan-born son of a rabbi, served as a sapper during his IDF service and in his early twenties took an entry-level job as a nuclear technician in Dimona in the 1970s. The position required no scientific background and only a few months training, but Mordechai worked his way up and became a shift supervisor at the nuclear plant. He spent ten years in Dimona before being laid off, partly due to cost-cutting measures but also because the security services had become wary of the friendships with Palestinians that he was developing through his participation in a student peace group.
Around a year after being fired, during travels in Australia, where he
converted to Christianity, Vanunu told a freelance journalist some of
the juicer secrets he had learned during his decade in Dimona. Motivated
by a desire to see a world free of nuclear weapons and disheartened by
the ongoing Palestinian conflict, a short sequence of events led him to
supply the London-based Sunday Times with pictures he had secretly taken
in the Dimona nuclear plant and with detailed descriptions of what the
paper would later describe as an Israeli nuclear weapons program.
The British paper, skeptical of his claims, put Vanunu up in a London
hotel room while it vetted his story for weeks before running it.
However, five days before the Times article detailing his claims was
published, Vanunu, feeling isolated and lonely, left his London hotel
room to explore London despite strong warnings from the newspaper.
As the story goes, Mordechai met Cindy, an American-born Mossad agent
masquerading as a young American cosmetologist touring Europe. The two
fell head-over-heels for one another. The Israeli security services had
Vanunu within reach but were hesitant to carry out a covert operation on
English soil, so they set in motion a plan to lure him outside of the
UK; Vanunu played right along. Eager to escape the isolation and
pressure of his situation, the nuclear technician quickly agreed to
Cindy’s suggestion that the two escape to Italy for a few days. The
honey trap was set.
According to reports, shortly after arriving on what he though was a
romantic escapade, Vanunu was drugged, snatched up by Mossad agents and
secretly flown back to Israel. Tried for espionage and treason, at the
end of March 1988 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Eventually released in 2004, Vanunu has been sent back to prison several
times - most recently in mid-2010 - for violating the conditions of his
release; he was prohibited from traveling abroad, coming into contact
with foreigners and granting interviews. Worried that he might expose
additional state secrets, both about his nuclear knowledge and the
covert operation that brought him back to Israel a quarter-century ago,
Vanunu must notify the authorities if he wants to spend the night at a
friend’s home to this day.
Israel’s most famous nuclear whistleblower and traitor – depending on
the narrative – has become a cause célèbre for anti-nuclear activists
the world over. He was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty
International, has been regularly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
and been awarded various other prizes and medals for his stubborn
determination to expose what he claims is Israel’s nuclear weapons
Nearly everything about the Vanunu case has captivated Israeli and
international audiences for a quarter-century. For many Israelis, the
stubborn determination to publish his entire repertoire of state
secrets, combined with a sense of national betrayal for converting to
Christianity led to a sense of contempt that hasn't faded for 25 years.
Abroad, he is largely honored as a courageous nuclear whistleblower. But
no matter which narrative he is viewed through, Mordechai Vanunu’s saga
– from the information he released, to the honey trap operation that
landed him back in Israel, and his continuing legal troubles – remains
one of the most thrilling ongoing state security tales of the Jewish