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A Tribute to Mordechai Vanunu

by Daniel Ellsberg
at the Berkeley (California) Unitarian Church, September 28, 2002

Dear friends of Mordechai Vanunu:

I have never, ever, written out a speech beforehand: or afterwards. And I haven't done so today. But I have lost my voice. I could probably speak some minutes now, but at the cost of losing it for weeks; and in two weeks I begin a speaking tour, which I hope to use to speak out against this coming war. Someone suggested I cancel this appearance, but that's impossible: I can't give up the opportunity to pay tribute from my heart in my own words to Mordechai Vanunu, at this precise time, when his is exactly the inspiration the world needs. This dark time: Weeks before an election turning in a unique degree on whether our country should be for the first time in this century an open aggressor nation; days before our representatives in Congress will vote on that question-the majority, almost surely, shamefully, in support of it--weeks or months before our country or Vanunu's may launch the first nuclear massacre since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I've written hastily a few notes to be read for me by my friend Joanna Macy.

Mordechai Vanunu is the preeminent hero of the nuclear era. He is the one who consciously risked all he had in life to warn his own country and the world of an existing, ongoing addition to the nuclear dangers of the era. And he is the one who has actually paid that price, a burden in many ways worse than death, for his heroic and prophetic act, for doing exactly what he should have done and what others should be doing. He is a prophet who deserves honor in all the world.

The secret he revealed was that his country-like our own, and Russia, and several other nuclear weapons states-had a nuclear program and stockpile that went far beyond any supposed needs of nuclear deterrence. Its scale and nature was clearly designed for threatening and if necessary launching first-use of nuclear weapons against conventional forces, Israeli attacks comprising hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons. In this Israel was imitating and endorsing the legitimacy of the US and NATO first-use threats, which in turn required and rationalized a nuclear-arms buildup that mocked the pretensions and supposed commitments the US and the Soviet Union signed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It endorsed the US concept of an indefinitely structured two-tier division of the world into Nuclear States and Non-Nuclear-Weapons States, in which Israel, with US acquiescence, would be in the first category, the first in the Middle East.

First but not last. The US-Israeli policy, joined by the Soviet Union, Britain, and France (China has at least announced a no-first-use policy), made virtually certain that India, and shortly Pakistan, would choose to join that first tier, and that other states in the region-not only Iraq-would seek and eventually acquire these weapons. That prospect-dooming any prospect of non-proliferation, let alone abolition-- made the Israeli policy of the utmost danger to Israel itself in the longer run. No other national policy so deserved searching and sober national debate and concern; which could not occur under the Israeli government's policy of censorship, secrecy, and misleading and false denial. Nor has that debate yet occurred; in this way, Vanunu's hopes were not fulfilled. In the short run, his efforts have failed. But that doesn't make his effort less heroic or appropriate. And I know from my own experience, that initial indications of ineffectiveness and failure, even over a period of years, can be misleading and premature. There is simply no way to know what the hidden, indirect--in his case global--ongoing consequences of such an act of truth-telling may be, nor to put a limit on the possible eventual benefits of it.

We are at this moment where the worst possible consequences of the US and Israeli policies may shortly be realized. Either or both Israeli and US tactical nuclear weapons could very plausibly be launched against Iraq within months, if the US invasion being prepared leads Saddam Hussein to launch short-range missiles armed with chemical warheads against Israel or against US troops. Both countries have warned that such an act-which is highly likely to follow, or even shortly precede, an American ground assault-will lead to the "annihilation" of Iraq, the "destruction" of its society. These are clearly nuclear threats of the use of nuclear weapons: which President Bush has very accurately described to the UN as "weapons of mass murder." I do not believe, under this Administration or that of Israel, that these threats of mass murders are bluffs, or that they are meant solely for purposes of deterrence.

Saddam Hussein probably also possesses weapons of mass murder: nerve gas warheads and biological weapons. I believe that the chance he would use these, or turn them over to others, when he is not under direct ground attack, is close to zero. (His ability to be deterred and to refrain from using them even when under heavy air attack, not accompanied by invasion of Iraq, has already been uniquely tested, eleven years ago). Thus, I believe that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, not under heavy attack, constitutes no threat at all to the national security of the US, or even-while US forces are in the region-to its neighbors. Americans who believe otherwise have been totally misled by the deceptive assertions of the Administration. But under the attack we are preparing, I believe the danger is very real that he does possess and will use enough such weapons to trigger a US or Israeli nuclear response: the first precedent for nuclear first-use since Nagasaki

Thus, we are at this moment in the most dangerous nuclear crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The very existence of the hundreds of Israeli weapons of which Mordechai Vanunu warned is not to this day not officially admitted by Israel to the world. Still less is the Israeli stockpile opened for inspection and monitoring, any more than those of any of the other declared or undeclared nuclear weapons states, including, very dangerously, those of Pakistan and India. Yet in dangerous mockery of this shadowy status, I am sure that Israeli plans for the possible targeting of their weapons are underway as we speak, in preparation for a highly likely "contingency" just weeks or months away.

To try to avert that terrible slaughter and even more terrible precedent was surely worth Mordechai Vanunu's living entombment the last sixteen years. It would be worth the life of anyone who shared his view - as I do - both of the physical and the moral stakes. We have recently been reminded, on September 11, of the tribute by President Lincoln to those who "gave the last full measure of devotion." Mordechai Vanunu, now out of the decade-long torture of solitary confinement but still in prison, is our shining example of that sacrifice. May he still, with our help, emerge from that to be our nuclear-age Nelson Mandela.

But as Lincoln went on to say: "It is for us the living" - us the free, us who still have, for some period, the privileges and powers and opportunities of a democracy, to draw strength from his example. Mordechai's action and life speaks to us in the words of Henry David Thoreau, after his night in jail protesting an earlier American war of aggression against Mexico. As if he were addressing this very night those who will be casting votes, or perhaps doing more than that, in the House and Senate next week and at the polls next month, Thoreau wrote, in his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience in 1848:

"Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."

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