Snowden’s America, Vanunu’s Israel

Both of them had junior positions in defense organizations, in which they were exposed to sensitive national secrets. Both became convinced their employers were responsible for immoral acts and decided to violate their oaths of secrecy and tell the world about them. They both gathered information secretly, one with a camera and the other with computer files, and then left their countries, told what they knew to a British newspaper and generated an international storm. And both have been persecuted since then by their governments, which did not forgive them for their leaks.

Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, who revealed the depth of penetration into the details of Internet use by the entire world and telephone calls by residents of the United States, marched along the path set by Mordechai Vanunu, the former technician who tore away the secrecy from the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona. Snowden knew that if he was caught, he would be punished with a long term in prison under harsh conditions like his Israeli predecessor, and planned his escape better. But even if Snowden wins political asylum in Russia or Venezuela, and the American administration does not kidnap him from there as Israel did with Vanunu, he will spend the rest of his life hunted and will never know peace. Just like Vanunu, who, since his release from prison, has lived under harsh limitations on his freedom.

But even with all the similarities between their actions, the public reaction to Vanunu’s leaks and those of Snowden has been completely different. There is no better illustration than this of the differences between Israeli and American democracy. Here the defense establishment enjoys an almost religious level of admiration, and the damage to the secrecy surrounding the nuclear reactor was seen as defiling the temple. Only a handful of fervent left-wingers publicly backed Vanunu. Most of the public loved the leak and hated the leaker: They enthusiastically read his revelations, were happy to hear that Israel had some 200 nuclear weapons, as Vanunu claimed, but also accepted the government’s position that presented him as a dangerous traitor − or just a weirdo. His supporters also tired; their website has not been updated for years.

The American public responded differently. There they do not relate to the defense establishment as the holy of holies, and the government’s actions always are met with a healthy suspicion. Liberal commentators called Snowden a “hero” and debated with those who accepted the administration’s position − that he revealed secrets and must be punished. Everyone accepted as understood the right of the press to publish his revelations, and did not claim − as did the right-wing press in Israel − that “the public doesn’t want to know” and “we need to censor such information.” The polls showed that American public opinion is split over the question of whether Snowden is a scoundrel or a saint − and whether he should be put on trial. In Israel there was no such public debate over Vanunu’s trial.

Israelis who support Snowden, and who see him as a freedom fighter who exposed the American empire in its hypocrisy and evil, need to relate to his Israeli predecessor in the same way. There is no moral or practical difference between them. One wonders whether the view of Vanunu in Israel has changed over time, and whether he will be seen as a whistle-blower who sacrificed his freedom for the good of all − and not as a spy and traitor. Whether he, too, will one day be viewed as a hero, at least in the eyes of liberal Israelis.

The lesson of the Vanunu affair, which Snowden will soon learn, is that the lone whistle-blower can only stir debate and not change policy or “undermine the security of the state.” Israel’s nuclear ambiguity is still the same as it was before Vanunu’s revelations in 1986.

The defense establishment’s fears of international pressure to close the Dimona reactor never were realized, nor were the hopes of Vanunu’s supporters for such pressure. This is what will also happen with Snowden’s revelations: American intelligence will never end its listening, eavesdropping and tracking on the Internet. The state is much stronger than the citizens, even those who are willing to endanger themselves. The clerk, mechanic or driver who was told to do such and such, as Vanunu wrote in his poem “I’m Your Spy,” remains, at the end of the day, alone with his fateful choice and the price he paid for it. 

Nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.Credit: Moti Kimche

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