“I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19
Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.
He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”
Out of prison, Vanunu is still imprisoned, forbidden to leave the state he so loathes, and not allowed to meet or even email foreigners. When I and several other foreigners met him in an east Jerusalem restaurant, I asked him, “Can I say we’ve met you? Will you get in trouble?” He thrust his arm skyward in a very Moroccan way: “Yes! Yes, I will have trouble. I don’t care about trouble. Let them make trouble!”
This was the end of an incredibly emotional week. I was physically and mentally exhausted from late nights, early mornings, and the slow absorption of what I was experiencing. I’d been weeping in the streets on a couple of occasions, and I’m not a particularly weepy kind of guy. Tonight our final Palfest event, at the Palestine National Theatre, had been closed down by Israeli troops, we’d relocated to read at the British Council garden, and then we’d eaten and danced. And another early start tomorrow – but Vanunu was across the table. Like everything else during my visit to occupied Palestine, meeting Vanunu was an experience worth being awake for.
I ordered another Taybeh beer and we started talking. Before long I was sitting next to him, putting my arm around his shoulders and telling him I wished I could have held his hand during those years when he was alone.
Vanunu is a proud Christian. His discourse is unrelentingly harsh on ‘the Jewish’, for their opposition to democracy, their brutality, their lack of humanity. Gently, indirectly, I hinted he might be wrong to generalise so. I mentioned Ilan Pappe and the Neturei Karta – fine examples, secular and religious, of Jewish opposition to Zionism. Next to us was a French Jew, a very intelligent academic, who had earlier said the obvious very clearly: Zionism has to be defeated, by force if necessary.
Vanunu liked the people I mentioned, but still didn’t like ‘the Jewish’. In awe of the man’s suffering, knowing that he has been tortured by the self-proclaimed Jewish state, I didn’t argue further.
It made me consider the tragedy of this people, the Israeli Jews, who have driven themselves into such a dark corner. The notable exceptions – people like Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Jeff Halper – really are exceptions; and then there are the rest, over 90%, who support Israel’s right to be an ethno-state on the ruins of the pluralistic, ancient society that was here before, and who believe regular massacres of Arabs to be necessary.
I didn’t visit the theatre in Tel Aviv or have dinner in Ashkelon, so I don’t claim to be an Israel expert; but what I saw of the Israeli Jews in east Jerusalem, and manning the checkpoints in the West Bank, was quite unlike what I’ve seen of Jews elsewhere. These people were ugly, physically speaking. The Jews are not renowned for ugliness. But these people looked like oppressors, and they looked like oppressors who know what they are.
Vanunu refuses to speak Hebrew. He lives alone, in east Jerusalem. Israeli Jewish society considers him a traitor. Only one member of his large family will speak to him. The Palestinians are friendly to him and often invite him into their homes, but he politely refuses, explaining that he can’t tell who is a collaborator and who isn’t. He knows the state is following him, and he knows there are many Palestinians who – for money or drugs or to keep the silence of a blackmailer – help the state. What he does all day, every day, is walk – “from the checkpoint to the wall, from the wall to the checkpoint.”
Suheir Hammad told me it took her several visits to Palestine before she summoned enough courage to visit her family’s town, Lydda, one of the towns ethnically cleansed in 1948. But once in Israel proper she relaxed a little. When she saw how badly Israeli Jews treat each other, it became less personal. For they too are suffering: you can’t be happy when you torture others, not really happy. Wifebeaters may look happy in the pub, but they aren’t. According to a British Pakistani friend, someone who worked at a West Bank university and spent plenty of time in Tel Aviv, the only glue holding Israeli Jews together is their hatred of the natives. His argument is repeated by Eva Figes, whose ‘Journey to Nowhere’ I’ve just read. This compulsive memoir of a German Jewish family’s forced migration to London is eloquent in its denunciation of Zionism, and also of American pro-Zionist but anti-Jewish immigration policy following World War Two. The family’s housemaid Edith, a survivor of Nazi Berlin, spends a decade in Palestine-Israel before coming to London. Why had she left? Because in Israel, “everyone hates everyone else.”
Eva Figes writes: “The New Jew looked like someone out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, handsome in a Hellenic sort of way. The New Jew struck out first, was secretly ashamed of those who had allowed themselves to be killed without a struggle, and so rejected them, even though using them for his own political ends. The ideals of the New Jew who set out to create Israel after the war were remarkably similar to his mirror image, the old Nazi. Not a good omen for the future.”
Deborah Moggach and Sousan Hammad write about Palfest here.
Jeremy Harding writes about the workshop he and I ran at Bir Zeit here.
Jeremy's LRB diary piece on the wall and the web is here, and another one on cultural liberation is here.
At the end of this post there are links to four of my photo albums from Palestine.