Dimona: Israel’s “Secret” Nuclear Option

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Have you heard about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons in Dimona? Yeah, we haven’t either. In this episode, Noam digs deep into how Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear program came to be, and asks, does the nuclear program make Israel safer?

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Episode Transcript

If you’re an American, you might be familiar with Bert the Turtle, the animated reptile that taught 1950s American schoolchildren “Duck and Cover” – the method they should use to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. Or, if you’re like me, and were busy playing on your TI-83, figuring out how to spell hello upside down with numbers (and maybe some other choice words) instead of listening to Dr. Chase in AP US History, you’re hearing about it for the first time now – sorry, Dr. Chase. If we’re being honest, “Duck and cover” sounds like a laughably ineffective strategy, but the American kids preparing for a nuclear attack likely didn’t realize that their government had a far more reliable — and dangerous — game plan, should the Cold War suddenly turn hot.

America’s insurance policy? Hundreds of nuclear weapons — including bombs,  ICBM, and submarines — that made the Soviets think twice about a potential nuclear war. The fancy term for “Scaring off your enemies with powerful weapons” is deterrence. No one wants to mess with the strongest kid on the block.

But this isn’t a podcast about the United States or the Soviet Union — though both will make significant cameos in this episode. This episode of Unpacking Israeli History describes Israel’s attempt to become the strongest kid in a very unfriendly neighborhood.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 1956. Americans are gallivanting around Levittown in their Studebakers. In Moscow, Kruschev is relaxing some of Stalin’s more repressive policies. And in Israel, civilians and politicians alike are figuring out how to ensure their continued existence.

Remember, just a few short years before, in the War of Independence of 1948, Israel had taken on five invading Arab armies — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan, and Egypt. Against insurmountable odds, Israel won this war, but not without serious damage. 1%, or roughly 6,000 of their population of 600,000, was lost. That’s like losing 3.3 million Americans today. Or if you’re from Australia, 260,000 Australians, or if you’re from the UK, it’s like losing 660,000. Ok, enough math for the day. You get it…it’s a lot of people and it’s a significant sacrifice. And on top of that, remember that this was 1948, only a few short years after the Holocaust; the grief and horror were still so fresh and painful. 

But the war scarred more than the Israeli psyche. It also devastated the young country’s economy. To stave off starvation, the government entered a period of austerity and rationing, called Tzena. However, thanks to several key changes, the economy began showing growth, and by 1952, many of the restrictions were lifted. By the way, another reason the economy grew? Reparations from Germany began to come in. Stay tuned for an episode about those reparations, later this season.

So, Israel was pretty confident that they could avoid economic collapse. But the existential threat was — and is — far more tenacious. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was determined to protect his nation. And what was the best way to protect yourself in 1956? What was the weapon that would make you the biggest, scariest kid on the block — or in this case, on the continent?

You got it: nukes.

Now, in 2021, you probably know quite a bit about nuclear bombs just from watching the news. Words like “enriched uranium” and “centrifuges” and “underground facility at Natanz” have permeated the public consciousness. But in 1956, only three nations had nuclear weapons: the U.S., the U.K, and the U.S.S.R. Nukes may have loomed large in American imagination, bolstered by Bert the Turtle’s cheery PSAs about a “nuclear holocaust,” but in Israel — a poor, tiny country with almost no resources, unable to manufacture even transistor radios — the prospect of becoming a nuclear power was laughable.

But one person wasn’t laughing, and that was Ben Gurion. Since Israel’s inception, he had been convinced that nuclear deterrence was the only strategy that would keep Israel safe and forestall another genocide. In 1956, he wrote: “What Einstein, Oppenheimer and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel for their own people.”

This was not a mainstream position in Ben Gurion’s cabinet. His Minister of Trade and Industry opposed the plan. So did his foreign minister, Golda Meir, and his finance minister, Levi Eshkol, and the top army brass, like Yitzhak Rabin. Not to mention the pushback from intellectuals and physicists!

Now today, in 2021, many might consider pushback against nuclear weapons the more ethical or moral route by many. “They’re dangerous.” “Using them is evil.” “No good can come of a nuclearized world.”

I hear, but in 1950s Israel, no one was arguing that nukes were morally wrong. The Holocaust, the 1948 War, the Farhud, European pogroms, the Inquisition, heck, the past 2,000 years of exile and displacement made it very clear that Jews needed a way to protect themselves.

So why the pushback, if not a moral judgment? The pushback was completely practical. A. The country had no money. B. It was only somewhat industrialized. C. Developing a nuclear weapon would surely alienate the US and the USSR. And D. Perhaps most terrifyingly, an Israeli nuclear weapon could start an arms race in the Middle East. Five Arab nations attacked in 1948. What would happen if they attacked again – but this time, with nuclear bombs?

These are reasonably valid concerns, and perhaps Ben Gurion fretted about them privately. Publicly, however, he was staunchly committed, and in 1956, he sent the director general of the Ministry of Defense — the 33-year-old Shimon Peres — to Paris. 

Now, in 1956, Israel and France had a pretty cozy relationship — aided in part by the Suez Crisis.  Here’s a little Nerd corner on the Suez crisis, which I’m 98% sure most of us forgot about, even if we did learn about it at one point. To recap, the Suez Canal — built in 1869 — is one of the world’s most-used shipping lanes, connecting Europe with, well, the rest of the world. Though the canal is located in Egypt, the company that owned it — cleverly named the Suez Canal Company — was owned by the British and the French. Or it was, until 1956.

Remember, it’s the Cold War. Western powers are watching the USSR very closely, and they don’t like the cozy relationship between Egypt and the Soviets. To show their disapproval, the US and the UK reneged on an agreement they had with Egypt, to help finance a very big, very expensive, and very important dam across the Nile River.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was furious, and in response, he nationalized the canal, transferring its ownership away from England and France, and giving it to Egypt. Control of the canal meant enormous power. Suddenly, Egypt controlled the flow of goods — including petroleum — across the world.

So the French and the British turned to Israel, which was only too happy to help in the fight against its southern neighbor. Egypt had attacked Israel in 1948 and continued to harry the young country throughout the 50s.

This wasn’t the only crisis taking place in North Africa at the time.

Between 1952 and 1956, France was embroiled in a long and bloody war in Algeria, which had been a French colony since 1834. France’s main antagonist, the Algerian National Liberation Front, was a pan-Arab party funded by many of Israel’s enemies. So Israel — like most of Algeria’s Jews — sided with France, providing them with intelligence gathered from Algerian Jews. 

But the French had a third reason to aid the Israelis.

The threat of another genocide loomed large for the new Israeli state. But it also haunted the Europeans, on whose soil the Holocaust had been allowed to happen. In My Promised Land, the controversial journalist Ari Shavit suggests that France still burned with guilt over its role in the Holocaust. 

See, the Nazis invaded France in the summer of 1940, soon occupying the north of the country. But they didn’t take over all of France. The south of the country, with its headquarters in the resort town of Vichy, actually collaborated with the Nazis. Under Prime Minister Philippe Petain, Vichy France promoted an official policy of anti-Semitism, rounding up and deporting thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. By the end of the war, nearly a quarter of France’s 350,000 Jews were killed. 

As every Jewish and Catholic mother has said…a little guilt never hurts. So when Peres visited France in 1956, the French were eager to help. They agreed to supply Israel with everything it would need to build a nuclear weapon: engineers, technicians, training, and even a reactor.

Israel was ready. Ben Gurion had been planning for a nuclear Israel since ’49. The IDF had a secret military unit known as “Hemed Gimmel,” which had been scouting the Negev for a secret base, funding physicists to study abroad, and even selling patents to France. The French and the Israelis worked together very closely, sharing information and techniques. It was the French who decided where to build Israel’s nuclear facility — deep in the Negev Desert, bet you didn’t know that! 14 kilometers outside the city of Dimona, which was made up largely of French-speaking Jews from North Africa. And, it was the French who trained the Israeli engineers, giving the Israelis full access to their atomic facility. 

But when it came to acquiring the raw materials needed to build a bomb, the Israelis had to look elsewhere.

Producing nuclear weapons is an expensive endeavor, requiring a lot of specialized material. For my fellow Beth Tfiloh alums, I am going to do my best impression of Dr. Briefel and Ms. Kladky here…Nuclear bombs are named after the center, or nucleus, of an atom. If you break a nucleus apart (also known as fission), or, smash it into another nucleus (also known as fusion), you create energy, which you can harness to create an explosion. (The sun, by the way, runs on fusion.) But you can’t just split any old nucleus and expect to get a powerful reaction. Only some elements — like plutonium and uranium — can undergo fission. Okay, I’ll be honest, I have no idea what I just said, but it’s science!

Anyway, for obvious reasons, these elements can be very hard to get. In 1959, the Israelis bought 20 tons of heavy water from Norway and built an apparatus to distill it. This was instantly successful, turning Israel into a leader in this field.

But finding uranium? But finding uranium? That proved almost as challenging as Dr Briefel’s class. At first they extracted the uranium from the phosphate rocks in the Negev. But it took years to get even a few grams — and by the time they realized they needed an alternate source, France was no longer interested in selling. We’ll get to why in a minute, but the important thing here is that the Israelis ended up buying uranium not from France, but from South Africa and the United States. 

Ah, you may have just noticed that we just mentioned the United States. But if you have been listening carefully, we haven’t really talked about the US up until now. Which is weird, right? Because today, we think of the United States as Israel’s closest ally. So where were they? Why did Israel have to go to France for know-how to build a bomb?

Here’s why. See, from the moment Ben Gurion had decided to build a bomb in ‘56, he knew it would have to be constructed in secret. They could not risk Israel’s enemies knowing such valuable information. But it wasn’t just about Israel’s enemies. American leadership was not eager for Israel to get its hands on a bomb.

Remember, we’re in the middle of the Cold War. If Israel has a bomb — produced with help from a Western power — then Arab states are likely to try and get a bomb, too. And who would they go to for help?

You guessed it: America’s enemy, the USSR. Allying with, and therefore, controlling, the 22 Arab nations across the Middle East and North Africa would be a major coup for the Soviets, and a major blow to American interests in the region.

But American intelligence is a powerful entity. And by 1961, the Americans kinda had the sense that Israel was up to something. The newly inaugurated President Kennedy — who was staunchly opposed to nuclear proliferation — asked for a “post-mortem” detailing how the US could have so drastically misread Israel’s intentions. The 17-page document, titled confirmed that “information was available to some elements of the intelligence community as early as April 1958 that could have alerted … Israeli intentions… information concerning the site in the Negev came to intelligence channels from special intelligence sources in mid 1959, but was discounted because the other information in the item was demonstrably untrue.”

In other words: Oops.

It was around this time that Israel’s relationship with France cooled considerably. President Charles de Gaulle was much more sympathetic to the Arab cause than to the Israeli one, and he demanded an end to “the improper military collaboration established between Tel Aviv and Paris.” France would only support the Israeli nuclear project — and sell Israel uranium — if the Israelis promised that they were building nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes and agreed to an inspection by outside forces. For obvious reasons, the Israelis were reluctant to agree to these terms, and by the mid-sixties, France had pulled out of the project completely. That’s why the Israelis had to look elsewhere for uranium. 

But the Israelis had bigger fish to fry. JFK’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation spurred a genuine crisis for the future of Dimona. According to an article published in Haaretz in 2019, “The former Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Tolkowsky… seriously entertained the fear that Kennedy might send U.S. airborne troops to Dimona.”

So although they had resisted France’s meddling, the Israelis reluctantly agreed to Kennedy’s demand for an inspection – after all, you don’t want to make the biggest superpower of the world angry, especially when the other major superpower is funding your enemies. And, the official Israeli position was that the facility at Dimona had been established for peaceful reasons. And during the Atomic Energy Commission’s tour of the facility in May of 1961, nothing suggested that Israel was lying. Ben Gurion emphasized this in a meeting with Kennedy later that month: “for the time being, the only purposes are for peace. … But we will see what will happen in the Middle East. It does not depend on us.” Perhaps it was those four little words — “for the time being” — that aroused American suspicion, because throughout 1962, the Americans kept clamoring for another visit. The second visit was unceremoniously short — a 40-minute tour of some of the facility’s buildings following a tour of the Dead Sea. 

In 1963, the Americans became even more suspicious. A CIA document titled “The Arab-Israeli Problem” laid out the terms plainly: “if operated at its maximum capacity for the production of weapon-grade plutonium, the reactor [at Dimona] could produce sufficient plutonium for one or two weapons a year.” Of course, the Americans didn’t know that Israel had built a secret, subterranean plutonium-processing plant at Dimona. But the prospect of a nuclear Israel was scary enough to the Americans that they demanded “semi-annual visits to Dimona… perhaps in May and November, with full access to all parts and instruments in the facility, by qualified U.S. scientists.”

Ben Gurion responded to these demands with a series of highly emotional letters that sought to impress upon the Americans the absolute importance of the nuclear program. He went so far as to request “a supply of U.S. arms equivalent to what the Arabs were receiving from the Soviet Union, the transformation of Jordan’s West Bank into a demilitarized zone, and ‘a plan of general disarmament between Israel and the Arab states under a system of mutual and international inspection and control.’” He’s not around to reflect on these letters, but we can perhaps surmise that such demands were calculated to remind Kennedy in no uncertain terms that Israel faced the prospect of annihilation. Would the world allow another slaughter of Jews on its watch, so soon after the Holocaust?

Remember, think about the geo-political realities of the region, which Ben Gurion could never forget. Israel was surrounded by hostile Arab countries much larger in size, population and natural resources. To him, there was no alternative other than nuclear development. At the same time, for several years, Israel had been attempting to wring a security guarantee from the United States, albeit without success. As Ben Gurion wrote to President Kennedy, “My people have a right to exist…and its existence is in danger…” However, no security guarantees from the US were forthcoming. Consequently, Israeli policy makers felt that in the absence of a US security umbrella, Israel had no alternative but to “go its own way” in terms of nuclear strategy. Therefore, self-defence and self-reliance—at any cost—became the twin pillars of their national security policy.

But before Kennedy could respond, Ben Gurion left office. So PM Levi Eshkol — Ben Gurion’s successor, and, who, as you may remember from the start of this episode, was quite opposed to a nuclear program — was left to deal with Kennedy’s ultimatum that Israel quit its nuclear program unless it wanted to “seriously jeopardize” its relationship with the United States.

Eshkol agreed to American inspections of the nuclear plant, the first of which happened in early 1964, just two months after Kennedy’s assassination. To prep for the inspections, the Israelis created an elaborate ruse. They built fake control rooms. They bricked up the entrances to secret underground plants where plutonium was being processed, even going so far as to scatter bird droppings around the facilities to make them look abandoned. But the subterfuge worked, and the American inspections went off without a hitch, all the way through 1966 and 1967.

If your ears just perked up at the mention of 1967 — good. Because as many of you might know, 1967 was a turning point in Israeli and Arab history. Shortly before the fateful summer that would transform the Middle East, two Egyptian jets flew over Dimona. A month later, of course, there were no Egyptian jets left at all. Yet again, Israel fended off five hostile nations — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon — and came out the victor, tripling its territory in six days. Hey neighbors, stop coming at Israel…It doesn’t work…

Shavit writes that “because of this decisive victory, post-1967 Israel also had a new sense of omnipotence. The outcome of this mixture of fear and omnipotence was technological chutzpah…. The facility tripled its production capability.” And still, the American visits in 1968 and 1969 were uneventful. Grueling, but uneventful.

According to a 2014 article in The Guardian, the director of the CIA told President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 that Israel had operational nuclear weapons. This was inconvenient, given that the UN had just drawn up the Non-Proliferation Treaty. How would it look if it got out that Israel had managed to build a nuclear bomb under the UN’s nose?

But Johnson had other headaches. So despite the CIA’s knowledge of Dimona’s capacity, the White House said nothing. And this silence became a matter of unofficial policy in 1969, when PM Golda Meir met with President Richard Nixon. Both parties struck a bargain: Nixon would not force Israel to sign the NPT, while Meir promised that Israel would not introduce nukes to the Middle East or publicly acknowledge their existence.

Thus began the official Israeli policy of “ambiguity,” or in Hebrew, “amimut.” 

But why? I mean, if the whole point of being a nuclear power is deterrence, wouldn’t you want to tell everyone? Wouldn’t you want to wave it in your enemies’ faces, daring them to come at you, bro?

For the Israelis, the answer was a hell, no. Diplomatic promises aside, it would be pretty stupid to goad an enemy whose raison d’etre, at least at the time, was picking fights. 1948, the 1950s, 1967, 1973 — the Arab world kept attacking, hoping that this would be the war that finally made up for their humiliating losses to a tiny state made up largely of refugees.

On top of that, no one sane was keen to facilitate the nuclearization of the Middle East. Israel had been doing all it could to prevent the Middle East from going nuclear. In 1981, Israel took out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq — a move for which it suffered intense criticism. The Iraqis insisted the reactor had been built for peaceful purposes… a story that probably sounded pretty familiar to the Israelis.

Pre-emptive strikes are enshrined in Israeli military policy as “the Begin Doctrine,” which Begin himself describes as “anticipatory self-defense at its best.” After the attack on Osirak in 1981, Begin ended a press conference with the following quote: “Never again, never again! Tell your friends, tell anyone you meet, we shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal. We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction turned against us.” A few days later, he emphasized this point in a TV interview, saying: “This attack will be a precedent for every future government in Israel. … Every future Israeli prime minister will act, in similar circumstances, in the same way.”

Begin took a beating in the foreign press and the UN. Not that this has stopped Israel from carrying out additional pre-emptive strikes. As recently as 2007, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria — a move it did not officially acknowledge until 2018. And as of 2021, Israel neither confirms nor denies its involvement in attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities.

No, Israel’s official policy was to remain tight-lipped on the existence — or lack thereof — of its nuclear program. PM Golda Meir even had a nickname for the reactor that perfectly encapsulated the party line on nukes. She called the reactor varenye, a Slavic word for fruit preserves. The Wikipedia page for varenye is full of helpful techniques for making it, notes about its appearance in popular novels, references to similar products.

Absent from this crowd-sourced encyclopedia entry is this nuance: Eastern European Jews kept a jar of varenye on hand in case of a pogrom. It was a humble crock of “just in case,” a last resort for lean times. This is how the Israelis saw their nuclear program. Just in case. We’ll hide it, and try to forget it, and won’t tell anyone it’s there. But when we hear the telltale rampage, we’ll know — even if our enemies don’t — that we have something that can keep us alive.

By now, the whole world knows Israel’s open secret… even though Israeli state policy does not allow Israelis to discuss Dimona publicly. Avner Cohen — Israel’s pre-eminent nuclear historian — acknowledges that he actually got in trouble for asking questions about Israel’s nuclear capabilities. He recounts “I think that my trouble with the Israel authorities started when some people who refused to talk to me felt the need to report to somebody else, to security, that somebody’s asking dangerous questions. I think shortly after I started—I think it was the summer of 1992—when I started to ask the first questions, I got also a call or a visit of somebody from the defense establishment, or the security establishment, “What are you doing?” Questions like that, and the story goes from there.”

Because there are consequences to spilling state secrets. In 1986, a nuclear technician named Mordechai Vanunu gave a detailed interview to the Sunday Times of London in which he detailed everything he had learned in his nine years at the complex. He even provided photos — including some of restricted areas he was not allowed to enter. 

After being fired, he took the film abroad with him. He wandered the Far East, eventually converting to Christianity.  He met a journalist who convinced him to develop the film and speak to the Times. And Vanunu, convinced he was doing a good thing for the world, agreed, revealing that Israel had developed over 200 nuclear weapons.

To the Israelis, this whistleblowing was treason. Vanunu had taken the varenye out of the cupboard and offered it around to the Cossacks. Two decades of amimut — gone. Though the Israelis neither confirmed nor denied Vanunu’s story, they made every effort to bring him to trial in Israel. In the end, this is how they got him. A female Mossad agent named Cheryl Ben Tov, but who went by the alias Cindy, claimed to be an American tourist who feigned sexual interest in Vanunu. She lured Vanunu off British soil, to Rome, and once he got there, other agents drugged him and flew him back to Israel, where his secret trial ended in a sentence of 18 years, 11 of which were spent in solitary confinement.

Freed from prison in 2004, Vanunu is not allowed to leave Israel for reasons of national security. Upon his release from prison, his message was the same as it was in 1986: Israel does not “need the nuclear arms, especially now when all the Middle East is free from nuclear weapons…. My message today, to all the world, is – open [the] Dimona reactor for inspection.” 

But even after Vanunu, after Seymour Hersh’s 1991 book The Samson Option, after Avner Cohen’s scholarship, it’s unlikely that Israel will give up on keeping this open secret, a secret. Cohen said in 2014:

“At the political level, no one wants to deal with it for fear of opening a Pandora’s box. It has in many ways become a burden for the US, but people in Washington, all the way up to Obama will not touch it, because of the fear it could compromise the very basis of the Israeli-US understanding.”

So what are we to make of this?

Does having a nuclear bomb make Israel safer? Especially now that Iran has made its nuclear ambition clear, is a policy of “mutually assured destruction” enough to deter the ayatollahs? By the way, gotta enter one more Nerd Corner for this one: remember that book I just mentioned, The Samson Option? Well, Israel’s theory, that their nukes could be used as a last resort, to assure mutual destruction, is often also called the Samson option, after the Biblical Israelite judge. As Samson was tied in chains in a Philistine temple, he pushed apart the pillars, bringing down the roof, and killing himself, as well as thousands of his Philistine enemies. As he died, he declared, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And there you have it, a mutually assured destruction.

So is a mutually assured destruction enough? Or should we heed the frightening words of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who said in 2001: “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages.”

Israeli leaders across the board and across the political spectrum  — who take the Iranian threat very seriously — raise another concern. Former general and deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh said in a 2010 interview with the Atlantic that the threat of a nuclear Iran accelerates Israel’s brain drain. After all, why would a smart, promising, savvy young person want to live under a constant nuclear threat? Worse, “if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a “natural safe haven,” then its raison d’être will have been subverted.”

Yet according to Shimon Peres, Dimona staved off that terrifying prospect, by giving Israel and the Middle East almost 50 years of relative stability. Yes, there have been wars, and conflict, and pain, and loss. But without Dimona, the wars would have been so much worse. Israel’s nuclear power actually brought about peace agreements. Shimon Peres even said, poignantly, and somewhat ironically, that the purpose of Dimona was Oslo. Not to fight a war, but to prevent one.

During the Independence Day Parade of 1955, Ben Gurion said: “Our future depends not on what the gentiles will say, but on what the Jews will do!” Or in Hebrew, “lo chashuv ma hagoyim yagidu, chashuv ma hayehudim yaasu.” Kinda like the way it sounds in Hebrew.

It’s debatable whether “what the Gentiles will say” matters more now, in the age of social media. But we can still make the argument that — while more relevant than it was in 1955 — the scathing op-eds and Twitter hot takes, the TikToks, the Instagram stories, the Youtube videos, they matter a lot less than Israel’s real life, boots on the ground, ability to defend itself. 

We can echo Ben Gurion’s words in January 1949 — well before Israel became a nuclear power — which beautifully explain the Israeli policy of ambiguity: “Let us not be intoxicated with victory…. None of us knows whether the trial by bloodshed has yet ended. …As long as we cannot be confident that we have won the last battle, let us not glory.” 

We all hope that we will never have to break out the varenye and use Dimona. But if — God forbid — Israel ever needs the varenye, we’ll be incredibly thankful to the first prime minister of Israel for insisting, over all objections, that we have it. Just in case.

So, that’s the story of Dimona, and Israel’s nuclear power.

Here are your five fast facts:

  1. After the Holocaust, the 1948 War of Independence, and thousands of years of exile and displacement, David Ben Gurion felt very strongly that Jews needed a way to protect themselves above all else.
  2. In the 1950s, France and Israel were pretty cozy – so France helped Israel with the logistics of nuclear power, including building a base and training their engineers.
  3. The US became more and more suspicious about Israel’s growing nuclear plans, but Israel was cagey and avoided confirming anything. The official Israeli policy was called “ambiguity,” or “amimut.” Prime Minister Golda Meir called the nuclear reactor varenye, a Slavic word for fruit preserves, because it always sat on the back shelf, just in case of an emergency.
  4. When a nuclear technician named Mordechai Vanunu shared classified information with the Sunday Times of London, he was drugged, brought back to Israel, and, after a secret trial, imprisoned for 18 years. Over 15 years after his release from prison, Vanunu is still not allowed to leave Israel for national security reasons.
  5. With God’s help, we will never have to touch the nukes buried in Dimona. But knowing they’re there…or maybe they’re not (see what I did there) gives many Israelis peace of mind. Just like varenye.

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. There is a line in the Haggadah that we read every year on Passover. It goes like this: 

הִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ

שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ

אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ

וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

Or In English: 

And it is this (the Torah) that has stood by our ancestors and for us.For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us,but in every generation they rise up to destroy us.But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.

For a few thousand years, the prevailing belief amongst the Jewish people is that while other nations may try and end us, God is the ultimate insurance policy. God is always there to save the Jewish people. For many, that theology works, and for many, there is profound comfort in that. I know, for me, there certainly is. 

You also may be familiar with a Jewish tradition that says “we do not rely on miracles.” Ein somchin al hanes. This is equally true as well. The way I see it, the creation of the State of Israel, the pioneering work of early Zionist leaders, was to ensure that the Jewish people had an eternal insurance policy. 

For some, that is the Israeli government, and ensuring Israel has what it needs to protect the Jewish people. For others, the eternal insurance policy is God, simple as that. 

As for me, well, it’s both. 

Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight a great letter we got from a listener named Daniel:

This might be the first “fan letter” that I’ve written in 35 years, but I want to let you know how much I enjoyed the Unpacking Israeli history podcast.

You do an excellent job of striking a balance between educating those who are hearing about the described events for the first time and providing new nuggets to those of us who consider ourselves well-versed in this area.

This really is one of the best Jewish podcasts that I’ve ever heard. 

Daniel, stop it! I’m blushing. For real, this particular letter felt like it was speaking to my soul. My entire team and I work hard on these episodes, and one of the most challenging things is speaking both to people who have a strong background in Israeli history, and those who really aren’t well-versed in it at all. After all, I think I know a fair amount of Israeli history, but my favorite episodes are the ones in which, during the research phases, I get to learn a lot too. It’s one of the best parts of my job. So Daniel, I’m glad it means something to you too. And if you, listeners, if you also have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be like Daniel! Send us a message at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

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