This week, archives telling the story of a benefit concert supporting the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.
The concert, on 3 October 1993 at the Hackney Empire, was billed as “an evening of readings, music and comedy”. It was organised by the British Campaign to Free Vanunu. Mordechai Vanunu had been abducted in 1986 by Israeli government agents after speaking to the Sunday Times about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme and had later been sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for treason and espionage. The British Campaign was founded by his brother Meir with a small group of activists soon after, establishing the Mordechai Vanunu Trust in 1991.
With limited resources, the group sought to raise awareness of Vanunu’s plight and of nuclear issues in the Middle East via lobbying, picketing and vigils, using political and media networks. The Campaign understood the power of the news media and tried to find stunts and angles which would ensure press coverage, such as mock kidnappings and “cage-ins”.
The benefit was timed to coincide with and highlight the eighth anniversary of Vanunu’s solitary confinement in Ashkelon Prison. It was a new venture for the Campaign, which hoped to gain publicity and new supporters as a result. The concert was publicised around London with “1000 bold and imaginative posters”. We have not found a colour version of these posters in the archive, but here’s one from 1996 in a similar graphic style.
Tickets for the 1993 event cost £8 and £12 with 100 specials at £30, which offered the chance to meet the artists at a buffet afterwards.
The evening was compered by the comedian Arthur Smith. Susannah York read a poem by Vanunu reflecting on the experiences of a whistleblower, “I am your spy”. Harold Pinter spoke Vanunu’s words in a specially-commissioned dramatic reconstruction written by Michael Rosen, also featuring Julie Christie, Roger Lloyd Pack, and Jenny Stoller, and accompanied by Rivka Gottlieb on the harp.
The evening also featured comedians Mark Steel and Arthur Brown, readings by Sarah Dunant, Paul Eddington and Patricia Scott, poets Christopher Logue and Benjamin Zephaniah, and journalist Paul Foot, music from Dave Gilmour, and many more.
Hilary Westlake, the director, reflected on the programme in a fax she sent to the Campaign afterwards. Generally she felt it had gone well and ran smoothly, though it was too long, over three hours, and most acts could have been a song or poem shorter. She singled out Susannah York, Benjamin Zephaniah and Paul Foot in particular as “excellent”.
The event seems to have been seen as a success. A piece in the Campaign’s bulletin the following spring pointed to considerable press coverage, the impact of the posters, and the way that the event had “brought home the passionate support for Mordechai. It was a great show of strength and a morale-booster for all his supporters”. The Campaign would go on to held a similar event every year until they wound down their activities following Vanunu’s release from prison on 21 April 2004.
Sources and credits: all images and quotations from the Archive of the Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear-free Middle East. This archive, which we have only recently received and not yet fully catalogued, spans the 90s and 00s, from campaigning via print media and fax into the age of the internet.