As more details have seeped out about the mysterious life and death of Israel’s Prisoner X – identified last week by an Australian TV program as Ben Zygier – the wall of silence surrounding those who knew him has begun to show some cracks.
On Tuesday, Israel released parts of a report into Zygier’s death, confirming that he hanged himself with a bed sheet in the shower of his cell in Ayalon prison on Dec. 15, 2010. The report by Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai did not say whether there was any truth to the reports that Zygier, an Australian Israeli, worked for the Mossad; 20 of her report’s 28 pages were suppressed by a gag order.
Zygier’s enigmatic story has transfixed media outlets around the world and dominated headlines in Israel and Australia since the expose last week on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s “Foreign Correspondent” program.
For Australia’s 110,000 Jews, it also has sparked charges of dual loyalty.
“Everyone here is talking about it – everyone,” said a friend of Zygier, who like many of his associates interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The feeling is no one wants to talk. The family is very private, the parents are devastated. When he died it was shock, shock, shock. We were all told he worked for Mossad and was killed in an operation.”
It remains unclear what prompted Zygier’s imprisonment, why he was held in a maximum-security cell reportedly built for the incarceration of Yitzhak Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, and why the 34-year-old father of two, who immigrated to Israel from Australia and married an Israeli woman, killed himself.
According to one friend, Zygier had a Facebook account under the name Ben Alon, the nom de plume he used in Israel; the account has been removed. He reportedly also held passports bearing the names Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows.
In early 2010, Zygier strenuously denied that he was a Mossad agent in multiple conversations with an Australian journalist.
On Tuesday, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement dismissing rumors that Zygier was some sort of double agent working with the Australian security services.
“We emphasize that Mr. Zygier had no contact at all with the Australian security services and organizations,” the statement said.
In Australia, the case has prompted some to ask whether the country’s Jews are loyal to Israel at the expense of their home country.
“At what point does loyalty to Israel become disloyalty to Australia?” Joseph Wakim, a founder of the Australian Arabic Council, wrote Wednesday on the Online Opinion political website. Wakim pointed to the Birthright Israel program, which provides free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews, as one example of the “indoctrination of Australian dual citizens into Israeli identity.”
Zygier was himself a graduate of the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and later served in the Israeli army.
Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, wrote online on Wednesday, “There comes a point where a Jewish person cannot faithfully be both Australian and Israeli. One has to choose.”
Antony Loewenstein, a Jew who is staunchly critical of Israel, accused Jews in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio interview of dual loyalties and suggested that Jewish schools encourage kids to fight in the Israel Defense Forces, which may result in them “sometimes joining” Mossad.
The president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Philip Chester, blasted as “totally uninformed and mischievous” claims that Zionist programs in Israel serve as recruitment camps for the Mossad.
“Contrary to the assertions of these commentators, these programs are aimed at educating Jewish youth about their heritage and about contemporary Israel, and have nothing to do with recruiting people for intelligence organizations,” Chester said in a statement.
Writing in Galus Australis, an online Jewish magazine, dual Israeli-Australian citizen Yaron Gottlieb said he has “complete loyalty” to both countries but that “Australian Jews cannot have it both ways.”
“If we as a community feel uncomfortable with, for example, a Jordanian-Australian fighting on behalf of the Jordanian government to the extent that we would want such service banned, we cannot expect service to Israel to avoid criticism,” he wrote.
Ordinary Australians “will now be wondering about every Australian Jew and where our loyalties really lie: What proportion of Australian Jews sacrifice their passports to the Israeli government if asked?”
For its part, Zygier’s family has tried to tamp down any discussion of Zygier’s personal and professional lives.
Henry Greener, a family friend who spoke on Australian TV two nights after the “Foreign Correspondent” investigation aired last week, said he was berated for going public.
He said of Zygier’s family, “They were horrified that I would go on air and say anything and disturbed I didn’t ask permission because it came across that I was representing the family.”
Greener, who hosts a weekly Jewish TV show, had warm recollections of Zygier.
“I’ve known Ben all his life, he was a gorgeous kid, a top guy. He was locked up but nobody knows why,” Greener said. “I want to see justice. He got justice behind closed doors; that’s not real justice.”
At the time of Zygier’s death, his father, Geoffrey, was the executive director of the Jewish community in Melbourne. The current president of the community, John Searle, said he could not speak about the case.
“I don’t want to comment because the family is going through turmoil, anguish and grief,” Searle said. “I think they should just be left alone.”
Friends in Melbourne said the last time they saw Zygier alive was in late 2009.
“He said he was leaving for a two-week visit to Israel and never came back, leaving his flat with everything in it,” a close friend said this week.
Zygier was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Melbourne on Dec. 22, 2010.
A friend of Zygier from another Zionist youth movement told JTA, “I’m very confident he would never be a traitor to Israel. He was a proud Zionist. There’s only one other person in my year who made aliyah out of dozens who said they would. He would never betray Israel.”
He said Zygier’s close friends are “very frustrated because if they would have had an inkling he was in jail, they all would have fought from him from here.”
Zygier’s mother, Louise, who worked to raise funds for the Jewish center at Monash University in Melbourne, is still devastated, according to this friend.
“Poor Louise, she hasn’t really recovered from Ben’s death two years ago. This has just revived it,” the friend said. “You won’t get anyone to talk publicly – we’ve all decided there’s no good purpose. Nobody knows the whole truth and it’s unlikely we ever will.”