I had often dreamed of visiting Israel. A number of friends returned from this holy place with descriptions that left me awe-struck. Some returned bearing gifts, mementos, of the place I often wished I could see for myself. A small stone from the garden of Gethsemane, a larger one from the Sea of Galilee. Treasures like gems and the closest I would come to being in the very place that Our Lord had lived and moved and had his being.
It was a dream that was realised in a most unexpected way.
For the last three years Dan has been a regular vigiler and supporter of the Free Mordechai Vanunu campaign outside the Israeli Embassy in London. Our involvement in the peace movement over the last twenty-five years has a connectedness with many of the international supporters of the campaign, especially with Felice and Jack, authors of the Nuclear Resister and Art Laffin, Washington Catholic worker and peace campaigner.
Our peace activities and years of civil disobedience outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, the resistance to our government’s nuclear war preparations, our fasts, vigils and civil disobedience has a resonance and logical empathetic interconnectedness with the courageous witness of Mordechai Vanunu.
Undoubtedly, I would never attempt to make a comparison, which must be articulated for fear of misunderstanding. However, the interconnectedness of purpose and desire for a world free of Nuclear weapons and the price that such a path demands, weaves us together into a cloth, which is still in the making.
As the date for Mordechai’s release came closer, people, as many who were willing and able were invited to go to Israel to be present outside the prison on the day of his expected release. I considered the possibility. It was a daunting prospect and one, which I admit left me uneasy. I attended the planning meetings before making a firm decision. The donation of a friend towards my fare prompted or rather pushed me to make the decision to join the delegation. I tried to persuade Dan that really he should be the one to go. We were unsure if the release would go ahead. Dan had spearheaded an international response should there be any problems on the day of release. Plans had been made to participate in acts of resistance at Israeli Embassies around the world should things not go as planned. Dan needed to be in London to be part of that protest. He could not go to Israel.
Sean, my second son articulated his displeasure at my decision. ’Come on Mum—it’s not on, if anything happens I won’t have another mum’. Daniel, the eldest who was acutely aware of the international climate as he was about to depart on a trip taking him around the world for four months, warned me that the advice to people from the Foreign Office was not to travel to Israel unless absolutely essential. It is dangerous! After twenty-three years the roles of mother warning sons to be careful had reversed. I know that the harder path is taken by the one who remains at home and worries!
During the next few weeks I was overwhelmed by the generosity and deeply appreciated the prayerful support of many friends who responded so generously to my appeal for donations.
I set off for the airport still unsure of what I would say in Tel-Aviv when questioned about the reasons for my visit. Ernest, who was well known had already arrived in Israel, had been held and questioned for five hours. I anticipated similar treatment and the possibility of being turned back. At Heathrow I met four others who were part of the delegation and who I had seen at the planning meetings. With one exception,Jasmin a muslim woman I had spoken to on the telephone a few days before and had discussed the possibilities of how we might be treated.
We boarded the plane and sat separately. We queued at Tel-Aviv to have our passports stamped. Jasmin had a clear idea of what she would say. She was here to look at the University with the intention of returning to study. She would not mention the real reason. Her concern was that she would be treated differently because of her name and appearance. By this time, although still not completely sure, I thought the best policy was to be open but to not give all the information straight away. I told Jasmin I would tell them I was here to meet a friend who was being released from prison!
I was concerned for Jasmin and lined up behind her. The queue we were in was exceptionally slow and the people ahead of us were questioned by a young Israeli woman for a long time. This did not look good to me so I suggested to Jasmin that we join another line. I had the responsibility of keeping an eye on what happened to her. I moved into another line and watched as Jasmin was being questioned.
‘Carmel, what is the reason for your visit?’ The familiarity of being called by my first name was un-nerving. I smiled anyway, ‘I am a teacher and I am here to visit some important religious sites, ‘and people’ ‘ I had intended to say but this was interrupted by another question.’ Where are you staying?’ That gave it away, we were all staying at the Old Jaffa Hostel including Ernest! ‘How long do you plan to stay? Which group, invited you? Who are these people who invited you?’ ‘None, I came alone, no one invited me.‘ A wry smile, a stamp and that was it. I was allowed entry. I looked at the line where Jasmin had been and she was not there. Perhaps she was already through. I walked slowly to collect the luggage. I held back, conscious that I could not appear to be waiting. After about twenty minutes of aimless wandering I wondered if Jasmin had gone through already, so I made my way out.
Rammi called my name from the sea of faces waiting to greet relatives in the airport arrivals section. It was great to see a familiar face and we soon realised Jasmin had been taken for questioning. I was not outside the airport yet and I had failed. I was supposed to look after her!
Felice and I greeted each other warmly and it was decided that Felice, Art, Raynia and I would go on to Jaffa and the others would wait for Jasmin. It was wonderful to see Rayna again. My heart lifted when I saw Art, a newly (relatively) married man, still widely smiling. Although it had been about five years since we had seen each other we greeted as if it were yesterday!
The hostel was situated in the Old Arab section of Jaffa, the location of the Old Testament story of Jonah being spewed out of the mouth of the whale. It was a once grand building owned by the richest family in the area and then during war time was seized and occupied by the army. The day was unusually quiet because we arrived on the Sabbath and everything was shut. Adjacent to the Hostel was a normally bustling market which sold furniture, clothes and bric-a-brac. We were greeted at the door of the hostel by Ernest.
In the next few days this large hostel would fill with delegates, politicians and even a film star, people from all over the world. There were a few permanent residents who lived here together with a variety of their animals. The cost of living in the hostel was less expensive for them than renting and paying bills in other accommodation. They watched us curiously and with caution. They could not have imagined the disruption that would soon descend upon them.
The rooms were mostly dormitories with some double rooms. There was a large kitchen area and a roof space big enough for meetings and from where there was a glimpse of the Mediterranean above the roof tops. Felice and I wanted to share a double room to use as an office. After a lot of door opening and being led into rooms and told, here you can have this room, only to discover once inside that the rooms were already occupied, we are finally given a large room with a very high ceiling and a little viranda overlooking the street market. It felt as if the occupants had fled fifty years ago, leaving all their photographs on the walls and even their records in the old radiogram standing in the corner. The records probably had not been disturbed since then, until Ernest’s curiosity investigated them!
Concerned about the lap-top I had brought, I ask if the rooms are secure- safe enough, but anything really valuable should be locked in the safe, which is really safe! We are each given keys, so I begin to feel secure. It turns out that each key opens every door in the place! The Old Jaffa Hostel has the feel of a French farce or Fawlty Towers!
That evening Art and I walked by the sea for a short while when the others were meeting. It was a beautiful evening and families and children were out walking, it was fairly quiet. A man out with his family spoke to us and commented on how we looked like we had no concerns. His comment chilled me, and seemed odd. Later in the evening we heard the news that Rantissi, Head of Hamaas had been killed. There is a high state of alert and we heard that it is now impossible to move about in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. I may not get to see the important religious sites that I told the immigration official I came to see.
We ate a meal at a local restaurant, come radical bookshop. The small group gathered and shared a meal of houmous, bread and various salads, we shared some beer, wine and stories together, an enriching evening.
At midnight I began to settle and felt compelled to make the first journal entry into the computer to report the days events to those who had given financial and spiritual support from home. I feared I would not remember the detail if I did not record some of what had transpired already that day. Felice left to speak to others who were still up. Jasmine had not returned and we feared that it was possible that she had been refused entry. It was now past midnight and we did not know her whereabouts.
Sunday: It was a relief to hear the news that Jasmine had arrived after midnight and was not too traumatised by her experience of being detained at the airport.
The day was spent at Rayna’s with Felice, Art and Ernest writing the press pack and the delegates orientation pack, copying statements from people from around the world, like Julie Christie, Emma Thompson, Daniel Elsberg, Ken Livingston and many others and trying not to miss anyone out! My typing skills are so limited I laughed with Ernest at the prospect of me trying to efficiently do the typing. I wondered why Rayna was the only Israeli there prepared to put in the work necessary at this crucial moment. It still mystifies me. I find it difficult to comprehend that there was not one other local person available to do the work. Rayna, her husband and son had their home taken over by us for the week and their hospitality and patience were more than gracious. The days work was long and intense and our gathering late that evening for a meal together was welcome. A few more delegates had arrived at the hostel when we went back late into the night.
Monday was filled with the prospect of the large delegates meeting that evening for orientation. We spent the day working as we had on Sunday, and heard that the lawyer Mordachai had sacked earlier this year had been reinstated by him. Ransinni’s assassination has meant that there has been a three-day strike, shops are closed and everything is very quiet. Mary and Nick, Mordechai’s adoptive parents are not to talk to the Israeli press.
We returned briefly to the hostel at about seven that evening to find that the group of delegates including Susanah York, Bruce Ken and David Polden had arrived. They had been detained at the airport since three-thirty.
We walked to the upper room where the evening meal had been arranged. It was most moving to be in the presence of probably one hundred people focused and united in purpose, including Mordechai’s brother Meir. After we ate people began to speak. Meir announced to a stunned, silence that a journalist had said that all we need in this situation was a ‘Jack Ruby.’ Meir said he was thinking of asking the Mossad agents to provide his brother with a bullet-proof vest. I felt the same chill that I had felt on the first evening.
Nick and Mary had a very upsetting visit with Mordechai and they were both in tears as they described how he had been earlier that day. Stringent restrictions have been imposed, not talking to foreigners or foreign press included. So Nick and Mary may be in the situation where they will only be able to speak to their adopted son once more before he is released, and afterwards are prevented from doing so.
After listening to the moving testimonies, we discussed the practicalities of the evening and following days including the possibility that a few people were considering spending the night outside the prison in case the release were to happen earlier than scheduled. It was decided this may cause more problems and the idea was abandoned. We also talked about the idea of releasing eighteen white doves at the moment of Mordechai’s release, symbolically one for every year of imprisonment. The idea was warmly endorsed by the delegation.
Once the formality of the evening was over I felt that I needed to tell Meir to thank his brother for the eighteen years of sacrifice he had made to make the world a safer place. I introduced myself, shook his hand and told him that I was part of a peace group that had been campaigning the British Government for the last twenty years to eliminate its reliance in Nuclear weapons, and some of us had served short prison sentences as a result and felt very much connected to Mordechai’s witness. I told him too that Dan had remained at home to do resistance at the London Israeli Embassy should things not turn out as expected on Wednesday. The idea of seeing Mordechai in person now seemed very remote, let alone the possibility of speaking to him.
I am a teacher and earlier in the year I taught a class of eleven-year old boys about Mordechai Vanunu. They were very moved by his courage and wrote lovely letters sending him stories and jokes and their perceptions of world events and football! They were full of questions about prison conditions and how he could have survived such cruel, harsh treatment.
During the Christmas holidays I compiled a file of their letters and wrote a message to the guards explaining their origins, which I had translated into Hebrew. The boys doubted Mordechai would receive them but I assured them he would.
We vigiled outside the prison on Tuesday, the day before the expected release and on the morning of his release, from about 8 a.m. As the time of release came closer, the media, the crowds and the intensity multiplied. Hostility was electric, placards were burnt, arguments provoked, abuse shouted. I felt threatened but in my ignorance of the language should have felt terrified. I did not know what was being chanted.
One vociferous protagonist looked at me and said in a threatening way, ‘You are very fragile’. ‘Yes, we are all fragile,’ I quipped. He passed along the barrier, which separated us to continue the confrontation. The police stood by, being little more than spectators.
Ben’s trumpet sounded above the throng ‘Joshua at the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumbling down’. The music was a balm of healing peace, which abated the swelling potential for violence.
The situation resembled being at sea, as the swell of abuse rose, we sang peace, shalom, and the angry wave subsided.
I am convinced that our non-violent presence at the gate of Ashkelon Prison on April 21st not only enabled Mordechai Vanunu to be released, it actively prevented a riot from erupting.
18 white doves, to symbolise each one of the eighteen years of imprisonment, were released amid a throng of reporters taking photographs, filming and confusion. One flew free and entered the prison.
I moved away from the enclosed pen to form a protective ring around Mordechai should he decide to walk out to greet supporters, as he so badly wanted to do.
The dove flew out of the prison moments before Mordechai emerged through the blue prison gates in his brother’s car with his hand pressed against the car window, in a gesture of unbending defiance, reminiscent of his capture. Hostile crowds gave chase, shouted, banged on the roof of the car, threw their chilling blackened roses, symbols of death to Mordechai.
I did not expect to see him again.
The crowd became increasingly hostile. We gathered together and made our way back to the coaches. Eggs were thrown, stones too- we were very fragile.
We journeyed back to Jaffa and on the way heard the voice of Mordechai Vanunu for the first time on the coach radio. ‘I am Mordechai Vanunu, I am proud to do what I did’.
The press and media were both a blessing and a curse. We put out so much material and interviews and were often disappointed with the result. But I managed to say what must have struck a chord with the Independent reporter who quoted me accurately for the paper the next day: ‘Mordechai Vanunu is the most significant man to walk out of prison since Nelson Mandela.’
‘Mordechai Vanunu is the most significant man to walk out of prison since Nelson Mandela.’
When we returned to the Old Jaffa Hostel we regrouped. Decisions had to be made about the planned evening supper celebration, telephones ringing, interviews, cameras, requests to speak with supporters for reactions to his release.
Felice was called away to do a radio interview. Ernest, Art and I were working when the telephone rang. ‘Hello Mordechai,’ Ernest spoke for a few moments and passed the phone to Art, then to me. ‘Thank you so much Mordechai for your eighteen years of suffering for the safety of the children of the world,’ I blurted out, scarcely able to fully comprehend what I was saying.
‘Carmel’, the voice said, ‘thank you so much for the beautiful letters you sent to me from the children you teach. I am so sorry that I could not write back to you.’
It is still incomprehensible to me, that this man who has suffered so much, was released from prison three hours previously, after enduring such cruelty, could emerge into freedom and know immediately who I was.
The evening celebration we had planned would have been magnificent. However the danger was too great. A restaurant with lots of glass would not be a safe venue in the circumstances.
We made our way to Jerusalem to the Bishop’s Palace, a destination known only to a few of us.
Again the scene was extraordinary, I saw Mordechai emerge at the back of a line which had formed to greet him. Befittingly, the first person he greeted was Ernest. Tears, hugs, embraces. From isolation, humiliation, punitive torture for so long. Now surrounded, enfolded in an embrace of love, human contact, conversations, tears, laughter.
His arms were strong and, like his will, made of iron. He wanted champagne and joked about what happened the last time he had champagne!
‘I wanted to fly free from the prison and leave Israel. We won- you can’t kill the human spirit. You are the heroes, those who have supported me these long years are the heroes.’ Then there was a toast to freedom for the Palestinian people, proposed by Mordechai with his first taste of champagne for eighteen years.
The hero remains enclosed in the confines of the Archbishop’s House, Jerusalem. We eagerly anticipate his complete flight fully into freedom. How long must we wait?
Catholic Peace Action