Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2005
Issue No. 757
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Inside the machine

Banned from talking to foreign journalists, Mordechai Vanunu continues to challenge the State of Israel. He spoke to Ian Douglas* in Jerusalem

Click to view caption
Vanunu; The Dimona nuclear reactor

I come to his door, it is open. He breaks off from typing, rises, eyes averted, guarded though we have previously met. Mordechai Vanunu has a lot on his mind. He seems, as we speak, in some way behind his own thoughts, somewhere in the back of his own mind, locked in combat. Only once in two hours will his granite-like gaze be broken -- laughing that anyone but God can be reached on a cell-phone. A butterfly flutters in the inner courtyard of St George's Cathedral, his haven. For exposing the State of Israel's secret nuclear weapons programme, Vanunu endured 18 years' imprisonment, 11 in solitary confinement. Kidnapped in Italy in 1986, held hostage by Israel in 2005, though out, for Mordechai it's not over.

What is the current status of your case?

They gave me one more year to stay here. I finished one already. And they've kept the restrictions: not to travel freely, not to meet foreigners, not to go to embassies. I'm also charged in court, for the interviews I gave. My lawyer is trying to prove that all these charges and restrictions are contrary to human rights and democracy. What is in court is Israeli democracy and how it relates to freedom of speech. The United States and Europe speak about Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, but in fact it doesn't exist. I suffered 18 years in prison because I demanded freedom of speech.

The last time we met you told me that had you accepted these restrictions, hid in your room, Israeli security would see that you were damaged and would find ways to magnify that.

From the beginning I said I have the right to speak to anyone. I am a free human being. They insisted I would not meet anyone, nor speak, so they kept me for 18 years. After 18 years, I decided if they let me go I should live as a normal human being. Not to fear, not to play obeying orders, like I'm a spy. I should go to the street and meet anyone and talk, because I want to exercise my humanity. For these reasons I'm challenging them and speaking all the time. If I were to follow their orders they would come with more orders, and orders for others. I also want to use my case to let the people in Palestine -- the Palestinians -- see how to challenge Israel and the rules it puts on them. They should exercise their freedom of speech on every subject.

So it's important that you stay to fight the legal case.

Yes. But I know in Israel you cannot find real justice or real rights. So I took the risk that an Israeli court would punish me. I also believe that by speaking and meeting people I'm bringing my case to the world media. If I kept silent the media would ignore my case. By talking my case will be open and the world media will judge Israel according to what they do to me or to others. For that reason I think it will be very difficult to punish me in the name of these restrictions.

Given that you have nothing new to reveal about Israel's nuclear programme, these restrictions must be related to a broader purpose.

It is part of the Israeli system. There is a central power that is guiding and controlling people according to certain rules; what it wants people to know, how to behave. By challenging them I'm challenging this system. From the beginning this case was a challenge to the system. They used to remind the Israeli people constantly, "holocaust, holocaust!" but then I came and let them see that the real problem is Israel's atomic bomb. That is the real holocaust. Or what they did to the Palestinians is the holocaust. We cannot live in the past. I am here saying, "No, we should see what you are, what kind of a society you are building here." We can see what is happening now, what Israel is doing, how they behave. They are treating people like animals. This is what Nazism did. And this is what Israel is doing now to the Palestinians, or to me.

What is bothering them is that I continue to speak loud and clear. The world knows my case, so it is not a solution to silence me or punish me. They should find real answers. And that is a problem for Israel now: how to continue their brainwashing campaign. They know the world is not swallowing their propaganda -- the holocaust, the past, the right to come to this land and expel the Palestinians. If they really want to be a state, respected as a democracy, as a normal society, then they should follow the world standard of equality in human rights, not Jewish special rules.

The blood myth -- race, purity -- underpins Nazism likewise the "Jewish state": both seem out of step with history, anomalies or echoes from the 19th century.

From 2000 years ago! This Israeli state poses problems to the whole world. The world was moving towards freedom, democracy, liberty, equal rights, and then the Jewish state came, in 1948, and brought a kind of negative democracy. In the name of state security you can do whatever you want. You can seize rights, invent rules, punish without trial. This system is destroying what the world built from the Greek state until now, and in 50 years. It will not survive long. It has become more and more an apartheid state. They play like a democracy, yet you see there is a super-race state for the Jews. So I believe this will change or be changed in the future; the world cannot swallow it. If the Jewish people had built a state 1000 years ago, maybe we couldn't have reached the democratic ideals that we have now.

It is a politico-historical problem, or one based in Judaism?

It's one of the Jewish people following the Jewish religion of 2000 years ago. The Christian faith in Jesus Christ developed and moved, from the old tradition to modern life. One simple change, they moved from the moon calendar year to the sun, accepting developments in science and technology. The Jews, they have their own system of following the moon. They still believe they are the only super-race, the only God-chosen people, while the Christian faith accepts all kinds of people -- black, white, slaves, non-slaves. There is no super-race. They are all children of God. So that is the Jewish problem, and I think they have no choice but to accept as equal all the peoples of the world.

To question Judaism these days is quickly labelled anti-Semitism. How do you answer that?

Every race, every human being can believe whatever he wants. But if you want to rule a state, there is only one standard: equal rights and respect of human rights, whoever you are. You cannot put religion above that. So we are not anti-Semitic. You want to keep believing your old faith, very primitive faith, we don't care. Everyone can go to his synagogue. But to have a parliament, government, that should be for all the people, not biased by religion. In Europe, and everywhere in the world, the Jews have the right to do whatever they like, in their synagogue, in their private life. They should give equal rights to the Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, and end the occupation. We cannot accept a Jewish state. We demand a secular state.

Given your views about equal rights -- or the lack of them -- in Israel, presumably you're not in favour of a two-state solution?

Right. I think the most acceptable solution -- and permanent solution -- is one state. If you have two states, there'll still be conflict. You'll have a Jewish, racist, apartheid state that will not respect the Palestinians (the so-called "Arab Israelis") and a small state, Palestine, trying to behave like a democracy under effective Israeli power. The Jews may not be ready for a one state solution, but sooner or later they will learn that there is only this solution, if they wish to have a state.

The other thing they have to realise is that you cannot force a people into peace. If you are building the wall and taking land, building settlements, what kind of peace or future exists for the Palestinians? This militaristic attitude should end. It is politicians who need this [military] power. Part of evolution in every state should be to abolish the army. Here, there's no one to fight, so now they fight civilians. Israel is exporting to the world new kind of activities for military powers -- ruling, controlling civilians. Manning checkpoints. Arresting civilians. Checking them. Following them. Questioning them. The model for what America did in Iraq.

On nuclear weapons, given the history of the Jews, isn't there justification for Israel having a nuclear deterrent?

No, because I think the only way towards safety and peace, towards surviving, is by peace. You cannot survive or save anyone by killing others. The only function of the atomic bomb is if they want to commit suicide: to kill others and to kill themselves. So it is a mistake to say that nuclear weapons are about deterrence and survival. It's not true.

What did you think of the collapse of nuclear non-proliferation talks at the UN in May?

They came to ask me, "What is your message to this conference?" and I told them I've been tired of this treaty for many years because it didn't do anything. I said, now we want timetables as to when the world will be free from nuclear weapons. Zero nuclear weapons. It's not enough to say, "We'll do this; we'll do that." We want timetables, years, exact dates. And they should deal with the State of Israel. The time has come to speak out. Israel should abolish its nuclear weapons. The world should no longer accept that a small state cheats. That is what Israel introduced to the world: proliferation and dissimulation -- or, lying -- not the opposite, which is where the world should go. Now the world knows exactly what's here and they cannot ignore it. So I'm happy that the meeting collapsed because it made it clear that there's no real non-proliferation treaty.

In 1986, when you spoke out, the major powers were moving towards weapons reductions. Yet Israel was increasing production.

I came out telling the world that they have the power to produce 10 atomic bombs every year, and that maybe they had 200 already. One of the reasons I sought to publish the Israel nuclear secret was because I felt they were producing too much. Even if you believe in deterrence you can believe they need one, two or four. But I saw they had gone mad, producing 100, 200, and were moving towards producing a hydrogen bomb, which is just for killing millions of people. The United States and Russia abolished their nuclear race. I didn't accept the idea that the United States is ready to use thousands of atomic bombs to survive, to kill 100 million people in Russia in the name of keeping their capitalism. If socialism or communism is no good it will collapse from the inside. That is what happened.

You don't need an atomic bomb; you don't need anything. In fact, nuclear deterrence kept communism alive. It would have collapsed years ago, when Stalin died. It didn't work. The people were hungry. The same here -- Israel became worse, and it's because of the weapons they have, the atomic bomb. They know no one can tell them what to do. If they didn't have the atomic bomb they would realise that they have to follow the rules of democracy and human rights, accepting the Palestinians and peace. The message from the Jewish holocaust is that they should respect all human beings, not build atomic weapons. So atomic weapons, in fact, do not ensure survival but the opposite: one day Israel will collapse like communism collapsed.

They should have thanked you for the warning, if not the remedy. How would you describe life in Israel's prisons?

I understood the game early. I knew that there was a kind of secret warfare engaged by hidden agents. Normally, I am in prison with the guards; there are no state security agents, and no one is fighting me. But underground I concluded there is secret, psychological warfare being conducted by deep-level agents using very sophisticated systems -- brainwashing, fighting me. I was very alert. I started to suspect everything, watch everything, accepting nothing as normal. I saw that it was about mind war: their mind against my mind. Their target was to conquer my mind, change it or break it or destroy it. I said to myself that I would use my mind.

My target each day was to find out what exactly they want; what is their mission, what is their purpose. I refused to show I was suffering. Even if I'm in prison, in their hands, I'm still firm and continue to believe in my way. My faith and my mind are very strong. So no matter what they do, how they disappoint me, cause me pain, I refused them the satisfaction of seeing me upset. Even I try to cause them damage -- psychological damage. If they try to push me to this side I will go to the other side, the opposite direction. If they try to remind me of the holocaust, I answer them by enjoying German opera. If they try to bring me to the Jewish faith, I answer them by enjoying Christianity or celebrating what is opposite to the Jewish faith.

So it was psychological warfare between us, everyday, for many years, but always underground. My brothers used to come to tell me, "No one is after you, all of them have abandoned you; you are alone." But it was not true. And that is why they gave me 18 years, because they know if they can change you a little in the beginning -- very small, even one millimetre -- after 18 years it will become one kilometre change. So from the beginning you fight this one millimetre change, even to go to the other direction, so that after 18 years you will be the same. That is what the world witnessed. When I got out from prison I demonstrated that I want to be the same as I was and to speak and do exactly as I used to 18 years ago, like nothing happened.

Couldn't your release be not an end but an extension of the game?

Yes, but I think now they realise that after 18 years, if a man still survives such treatment, they're never going to win. My message is that the human mind, the human spirit, is very free and no one can destroy or change it, not by any system. As long as I am in Israel, they are trying to continue the game. When I get out from here, I'll feel much more free and continue.

Do you feel a psychological burden from being forced to endure, for 18 years, every moment in a heightened state of alert?

No, it's not burdening. It's the opposite. It's helping me to see much better: to see the reality and understand everything in my own way. And now because I'm free and I can see in the free world -- in the street, in shops, on TV -- this game, this system, how it is working, how it is controlling.

You had strategies for surviving prison, including music.

I did many things. I started by reading in a loud voice. I cannot speak to anyone so I exercised my speech by reading the New Testament in a loud voice each day, singing, praying in a loud voice. I was fighting those fighting me and strengthening myself. By just hearing myself speaking, reading, singing, it inspired me to know I am strong and alive. If you are quiet, you feel like you not exist. Later I started enjoying music -- opera. I enjoyed opera before, but now I asked people to send many more operas. I used to hear them and feel totally free, and happy, like an opera singer. And if something happened to me, disappointed me, if they were punishing me, I could enjoy opera. Every two or three hours, running away from the prison to the opera.

Why opera?

The structure of the music is good. In classical music, the structure is strong. It gets you also to think, to build your thinking in the same pattern.

At 50, towards what aspirations do you intend to direct your energies?

I need to give a course about secret government, or the death of democracy. I would like to find means of teaching a new way of seeing what is happening here; in what kind of society we are now living, what type of life, what type of government we are we having. It is not only here. In every democracy there is a secret power that is governing the government and the state: they use any part of the state, from the media to industry to health, to accomplish their target. So if you have Tony Blair in England or George W Bush in America, it is because these hidden powers decide that these men will serve them. The question is not now. The question is what United States wants to be, 20, 30, 50 years. Take the wall. No other prime minister would have done it. But it was not coming from Sharon. They decided to build the wall in 1990. To succeed, you needed Sharon. And so they brought him and he built it.

What is your view on the Western-Israeli alliance?

Europe and the United States are not ready to accept the Arab world as equal, and the Muslims as equal. And for that reason they ignore what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and Arabs because they treat Israel as a Western state. They believe that Western people are much more advanced; that Arab society is not enough developed to equal them. That's what the Israelis used to believe about Jews coming from North Africa and the Middle East. But the Arabs can adopt the Western democracy lifestyle and build a modern society, exactly like Europe. For that reason I wrote about the Muslims who modernised their faith. They should let women come to the mosque, pray together, or sit together; not sit on the ground but in chairs; not to wash their feet or face before praying, because they are clean. By doing such things they are keeping themselves behind all the changes in the world.

So sitting here on plastic patio chairs is civilised not assimilated?

I'm not telling them to adopt everything Western, but they should change certain things that are primitive. Why should they kneel on the ground five times daily? You don't think the church with seats is more civilised than sitting on the ground?

No, I think it's more human, more humble, to kneel on the ground.

Well, we are working with machines, new games -- computers. And we see all these movies of science fiction: that is the direction of the human race.

But we don't have to establish that direction as truth.

It's not truth, but we become dependent on watches and mobile phones. Speaking of mobile phones, you can speak to anyone in all this earth, except you cannot speak to God! Why we don't have his number! At any rate, change is happening. Is it a conspiracy against Islam, or is it development, evolution, new thinking?

You've said that you'd be happy to go to the US -- that you favour American-style democracy. Has that view changed?

No. I want to be in a very open, free place. I think the United States is a very good place for exercising freedom. Maybe the policy of the government there is not good, but as an individual you can enjoy liberty and freedom. Freedom is having the right to choose what you want, especially to exercise freedom in your political life or beliefs. Freedom of speech is one of the most important freedoms and I fight for it, continue to fight for it, and suffer for it until now. I can accept those who do not accept me, but I don't want someone to impose on me his direction.

But in America power operates through freedom. You can do what you want, say what you want, no one blinks. Where people are policed in what they say, there is the possibility of real freedom. If the state is absolute there is no need for censorship. Democracy is empty in the West because nothing that is said counts. And an open system is much more stable and difficult to challenge than a closed one, like many we have in the Middle East.

Well, I'm seeing freedom in such a way that no one intervenes in your private life. You can do what you want, as long as you are respecting the laws of the state. No one can dictate to you. This is what you have in Europe and United States. I need to be in a state that offers possibilities. Elsewhere, even if more freedom exists hidden, below the surface, the state is not developed enough for people to exercise that freedom. For that reason I prefer the United States or Europe because they give you more possibility to exercise your freedom. You can travel to anywhere you want, buy anything you want, chose whatever you want to read, because everything is available. Perhaps elsewhere there is freedom, but you don't have the choice to exercise it, so your freedom is limited.

Sure, the West has choice but the options are predictable. There's no poetry to life, just "consumer opportunities".

Yes, the West is boring. Everything is built, standard. You're not expecting any change, any big event. Everything is in your mind. But I'd still like to experience this other side. That is my aspiration: to be far away from Israel -- to be totally free from this Jewish state. I don't want to be part of this. I'm waiting to get out from here: that is the most important thing -- to feel free, totally free. For no one anymore to be interested in what I said or what I do: to enjoy, as a private human being, what I want; to have a normal life, a family; to travel, to see a lot of places around the world, many people, and to find time to read and write. I'm here waiting to end the story. When I leave Israel, it will be the end, a new life. I'm waiting for this new life.

* The interviewer is visiting professor of political science at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.

Key quotes:

What is in court is Israeli democracy and how it relates to freedom of speech. The United States and Europe speak about Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, but in fact it doesn't exist.

I saw that it was about mind war: their mind against my mind. Their target was to conquer my mind, change it or break it or destroy it. I said to myself that I would use my mind.

They used to remind the Israeli people constantly, "holocaust, holocaust!" but then I came and let them see that the real problem is Israel's atomic bomb. That is the real holocaust. Or what they did to the Palestinians is the holocaust.

It will not survive long. It has become more and more an apartheid state. They play like a democracy, yet you see there is a super-race state for the Jews. So I believe this will change or be changed in the future; the world cannot swallow it.

Israel is exporting to the world new kind of activities for military powers -- ruling, controlling civilians. Manning checkpoints. Arresting civilians. Checking them. Following them. Questioning them. The model for what American did in Iraq.

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