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Prisoner X Was From My Shtetl

Melbourne’s Jews confront the mysterious death of one of their own, Ben Zygier, in an Israeli prison

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A woman poses with an Australian newspaper on Feb. 14, 2013, showing the front-page story about Ben Zygier, known as Prisoner X. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday morning East Coast time, an Australian news program ran an explosive story claiming that Israel’s Prisoner X, the Jewish state’s most infamous prisoner, was an Australian citizen named Ben Zygier. The story has all the hallmarks of a classic spy novel: forged passports, espionage, information suppression, and accusations of treason. But the tale of Prisoner X—who died under mysterious circumstances in 2010 in solitary confinement, having allegedly hanged himself in the maximum security cell built for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin—is not only riveting for its John Le Carré flourishes. To me, it’s also shocking because Ben Zygier is a Jew from the small, tight-knit community in Melbourne where I grew up.

The question of how Zygier, raised by a prominent Zionist family, came to be imprisoned by the Israeli government in the harshest, most isolating conditions possible is one that is now dominating conversations in every quarter of the Melbourne Jewish community. Worldwide, there’s been a tsunami of media coverage, speculating on everything from the reason for his imprisonment—the dominant narrative was that he was a Mossad agent who betrayed Israel—to the whereabouts of his Israeli wife and two young children. But among Melbourne’s Jews these questions have a slightly different tenor—one of distress and sympathy for the Zygier family. In quiet conversations, everyone is wondering: How did this happen to one of ours?

People often describe the Melbourne Jewish community as a shtetl or a village, and it’s not hard to see why. Affectionately known as the “Bagel Belt,” it’s a cluster of affluent, upper-middle-class suburbs about 10 kilometers south-east of the city. Malvern—where the Zygier family lives—is a lovely, leafy grid of Victorian homes and private schools. From there it’s a short drive to East Saint Kilda, known for its full-scale replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s headquarters, and Elsternwick, where I grew up, which has three Jewish bakeries and one bagel shop within 100 meters of each other.

The proximity isn’t just geographic. Jewish Melbourne is a place where everyone knows everything about everyone else: What they cooked for Shabbos dinner, what their university entrance exam score was, why they’re embroiled in a broyges (dispute) with the president of their shul. It’s not dissimilar to Teaneck or Skokie, but it’s also very unique, because the community is mostly comprised of the children and grandchildren of Polish Holocaust survivors. The trauma of the war—and the threat, whether real or imagined, of the re-emergence of virulent anti-Semitism—runs deep in the bones of the community, which has trained its own private security group, the CSG, to protect its schools, synagogues, institutions, and events. That history helps explain the depth of Zionist commitment among Jews from Melbourne, and Australia generally. (The Jewish Agency estimates that 9,000 Jews have made aliyah from Australia, a high percentage for a community now numbering 97,000.)

The Zygier name is well-known in the community: Geoffrey Zygier, Ben’s father, was once the head of the JCCV, the most important Jewish organization in the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital. He’s currently the executive director of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, the Australian equivalent of the ADL. The JCCV and the ADC, like almost every Jewish institution in Australia, are politically conservative and ardently pro-Israel. David Langsam, a Jewish journalist in Melbourne acquainted with Zygier, described him as “an exceptionally decent man … generous and polite, even when disagreeing on Middle East policy.”

Ben attended Bialik, a secular Zionist day school with a reputation for academic excellence and privilege, and was a member of Hashomer Hatzair, or Hashy, as it’s known in Australia. After high school he went to Israel with Hashy on Shnat, a gap-year program popular with graduates of Zionist youth movements, who return home to lead meetings and camps for children in their communities. It’s not uncommon for “Shnatties” to return to Australia vowing to make aliyah and serve in the IDF, and many of them—including Ben Zygier and a number of my friends—have done so.

Though many people from my community were to connected to Ben Zygier, most people were reluctant to speak on the record about the Prisoner X story, citing personal connections to Ben’s family or a desire to remain respectfully quiet in light of the their grief. Melbourne Jews are tight-knit and extremely protective of their privacy as a community, so it isn’t surprising to see people are closing ranks in support of the Zygier family. The sympathy for their loss is profound, even urgent: Not only did they suffer the death of their child in 2010, they’re now witnessing a global interrogation of his character.

At the time of Ben’s death, I remember hearing vague reports of a young Australian man who had died in mysterious circumstances in Israel. People in the community have told me that there were rumors circulating that he had committed suicide—but even the word rumor seems too sensationalist, as his death was only discussed in the most discreet language, with utmost respect for the family’s grief and privacy. Given the family’s silence, all we know now is what the papers are reporting: Zygier was arrested and held in detention for several months in 2010, presumably for having grievously compromised Israeli state security. He was found hanged in his cell in December of that year.

On Facebook there are tornadoes of conjecture whirling around and around on repeat. “Those who know what’s going on aren’t saying anything,” said Langsam, “and those who don’t know what’s going on are discussing it nonstop on social media.” On Thursday, anonymous statements from friends started to trickle into the media, but the veil of secrecy cast over the case by the Israeli government seems to have been extended by default to Melbourne.

Anthony Frosh, an editor of a popular community blog, Galus Australis, told me that “there are two prevailing reactions right now: those who are defensive of Israel, who say it’s a media beat-up that has been sensationalized, and those who think we have a responsibility to demand justice.” How will this scandal affect the faith of Australian Jews in Israel, the country many have given their children to? And on the flip side, how will this affect the relationship between the Jewish community and the Australian government, which was strained in 2010 by the revelation that several Jewish Australians had willingly handed their passports over to the Israeli government for use in security exercises?

It seems that a rupture is unlikely to occur. There’s certainly a diversity of political opinion in the Australian Jewish community, but the majority of the people, and certainly the leadership, tends toward defending Israel at all costs.

I was up late last night trawling the Internet for fresh news on the case of Prisoner X. Mostly I read the same information again and again, recycled by different media outlets and news agencies, and I found myself seriously pondering for the first time the phrase “X marks the spot.” As a symbol it seeks to nullify and eliminate, but it also draws attention to itself; to what lies beneath the surface. It’s an apt metaphor for not just the disappearance of Ben Zygier, but for his community’s response to his disappearance: seeing but not seeing, speaking but not speaking.

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Thank you, Elissa, for this important piece. I’m from Melbourne. I did not know Ben or his family, but I know the type. These kids are the best of the best. It breaks my heart to see the character assassinations in the press. People should keep their opinions to themselves unless they are based on fact. My heart goes out to the family.

Reptilian2012 says:

Character assassination of who exactly? Mossad agent or or no Mossad agent, he compromised Israel’s security and was jailed for it.

Based on what facts do you conclude _anything_?

Larry Stillman says:

In May 2012, I wrote about my concerns in Galus Australis for Australians who volunteered to be in the service of Israel. I put it in the article that not all was to be viewed through the rose-coloured-glasses of Australian Zionism and its loyalty to a particular type of Israel.

The vociferous responses show what a sensitive issue loyalty to Israel in the Melbourne Jewish community is and why the Prisoner X scandal has probably distressed many people deeply because it flies in the face of what is “their” Israel. In the article, I wrote

“When we have young people in Australia being indoctrinated about a ‘greater Israel’ in which Palestinians have no place or are a nuisance, and such people join the Israeli military they are in grave danger of becoming ethical and moral abusers or worse. The excuse cannot be made that we do not know about such matters or they are irrelevant for young people who make aliyah. Eighteen is legal adulthood, and the law for an adult includes the assumption that one is able to make an informed choice. The fact is that the Occupation has been with us for over 40 years now and I find it hard to believe that any young Jewish person is unaware that the Occupation is not benign.

Choices can be made. Many Israelis choose not to serve in the Occupied Territories by either refusing service there, or undertaking alternate forms of conscription. The same choices are available to Australians who commit themselves to a life in Israel.” [http://galusaustralis.com/2012/05/5948/war-and-peace]

For my thoughts, I was called a Quisling by one commentator, and similar attacks are not unusual on critical friends of Israel. I assume you will shortly see similar attacks on my post.

Binyamin says:

If Ben Zygier had a Mordechai Vanunu moment, then he was a very courageous person. No doubt the Mossad has carried out many murders that have gone unreported. Perhaps Zygier was disgusted by a nation that seeks to silence those who would oppose the occupation by shooting them when they are defenseless.

Israel cannot tolerate whistleblowers. It either locks them up for decades (Vanunu spent 18 years in jail, in solitary for 11 years and is still under house arrest), or it kills them.

Do you know this as FACT!!!!!! or are you another misled media fiend!!!

My prayers go out to the Zygier family!!!

Mehmet Inan says:

There is only one reason why Israel could keep a prisoner in such secret: He was used by the Mossad for perpetrating the attacks in 9/11/2001. Ben Zygier arrived in Israel in 2000, about 1 year before the attacks. He had to be idealistic about Israel. By his good English speaking, young age and idealistic opinion about Israel, he was an excellent agent for Mossad in perpetrating 9/11.

By the time his idealistic opinion about Israel may became weaker, by getting two children he may became more adult. He probably became more “human” willing to stop that huge lie about 9/11. If he participated in 9/11 and he begin to give precise actions about what he made, that can seriously endanger the state of Israel.

All other actions of Mossad against any Arabic or Muslim personalities will create no problem for Israel, the answer is easy: We have the right to defend ourselves against terror. But in case of 9/11, there is no argument, the victims were totally innocent people who were not related to any fighting against Israel!

If that’s right, what should be Israeli position? Should they kill any whistleblower indefinitely, or should they begin to consider their ideology: Instead of willing to remain “out” and “above” humanity, would they begin to put themselves on the same level as humanity and really make part of it?

Reptilian2012 says:

Based on the fact he was in the same maximum security prison that housed John Demjanjuk until his death.

john_s@netvision.net.il says:

I would like those who write harsh comments to read my comments – what I think happened – after reading article in The Times of Israel yesterday:

http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-two-glaring-questions-at-the-heart-of-the-zygier-affair/?utm_source=The+Times+of+Israel+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=698f142eec-2013_02_16&utm_medium=email

Yisrael Medad says:

that demand for justice could be a multi-sided sword.

arktikwolf says:

It’s quite a stretch to call Jewish Melbourne a “shtetl.” The shtetls of Eastern Europe and Russia were mired in poverty and well, mire. The streets, if you could call them that, were
muddy ruts for 10 month of the year. Young men languished idly waiting for their fathers to die so the could inherit his wagon. If one was so unfortunate as to have any sort of physical flaw, the affliction would be appended to the person’s name: Rivka the Lame,
Moyshe Hunchback. If the average person ate a chicken, either the person was sick or, the chicken was sick. Just like in Elsternwick. The sepia-toned nostalgic images of gentle scholars, sage rabbis and pious bubbes is, for the most part, fiction.

arktikwolf says:

It’s quite a stretch to call Jewish Melbourne a “shtetl.” The shtetls of Eastern Europe and Russia were mired in poverty and well, mire. The streets, if you could call them that, were
muddy ruts for 10 month of the year. Young men languished idly waiting for their fathers to die so the could inherit his wagon. If one was so unfortunate as to have any sort of physical flaw, the affliction would be appended to the person’s name: Rivka the Lame,
Moyshe Hunchback. If the average person ate a chicken, either the person was sick or, the chicken was sick. Just like in Elsternwick. The sepia-toned nostalgic images of gentle scholars, sage rabbis and pious bubbes is, for the most part, fiction.

Those who have been quick to accuse Ben Zygier of compromising Israels security should be more discerning. The fact is, he served in the IDF and was an apparently an ardent Zionist. He did not “compromise” anyone but was “compromised” after the sloppy Dubai operation that exposed his involvement, along with several others in this operation and presumably a score of other ME missions too. The scandalous nature and circumstance of his alleged suicide including the possibility that the security apparatus in Israel may have had a hand in his death (factors such as it being impossible to hang oneself in a “suicide prevention” cell / that he died the day before his lawyer was to receive the full list of charges against him) are oddly being avoided. I am amazed that there is not much outrage in the Melbourne Jewish community with the Israeli governments bungling of the affair…with poor explanation and apparent disregard for the family and loved ones. If the allegations from some Israeli commentators regarding Ben’s loyalty and “suitability” for Mossad employ are true, and considering the character slandering being flung, then I believe it’s imperative that Australian Jews think carefully about getting themselves caught in a “dual loyalty trap” situation in the future, i.e. – serving in the IDF/Mossad while still under an oath of allegiance to Australia, while retaining dual citizenship and passports. Personally, I don’t believe that Ben Zygier is guilty of treason and that while the Israeli security agency have handled things badly, they would not harm their own. I suspect that Ben was a loyal and diligent operative who would definitely not have taken his own life, but that considering his precarious situation regarding the Aussie passport row, is probably alive and well and living with new identity…

Are you a nutjob or just stupid?

stardhead says:

To the Melbourne Jewish Community

As a American Jew who grew up knowing Anti Semitism in the South Some Jews that are hyper sensitive to Anti Semitism resort to these type if feelings. They should ask them selves what is the best way to fight this hide like in Nazi Germany or fight and be defiant. Being a coward attracts anti Semitism. By the way ask yourselves does Australia Great Britain and the US use foreign passports in thier intelligence services YES. So why the
Hippocrates simple Antisemitism and to the desire to weaken Israel as the
homeland of the Jewish People and the desire to disarm her little by little.
And if you think being a coward is going to protect our people then you are
naive.

Bill S.

MikhaelMeir says:

I’m pretty sure the author of the article was not using “Shtetl” in its literal sense, but just colloquially in the sense of a close-knit community where most of your social circle is Jewish. But FYI, not everyone in the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe was impoverished.

CrankyCanuck says:

nothing personal, but what color is the sky in your world?

Reptilian2012 says:

Marcus Klingberg was also an ardent Zionist who served in the IDF, and he wasn’t your average grunt. Quietly liquidating Zygier would have saved Israel a lot of trouble, but unfortunately that is not how our government operates.

Sadly, we now can’t hear his side of the story and you base your facts on official statements released from Israels security establishment, which for obvious reasons relating to self-interest and admitted subterfuge, should be analysed with an objective mind. Interestingly, his lawyer stated that he refused to accept a plea bargain and reduced sentence, adamant that he did not betray Israel and that he would prove his innocence. This is not the reaction of a guilty person. Zygier was imprisoned to prevent access to him by ASIO and the Australian authorities. His “betrayal” is being used as a smokescreen to try and bury the real truth…which will eventually be exposed.

Reptilian2012 says:

If Israel’s security establishment would not be completely trustworthy then we’d all be dead, a fact of life that is not apparent to the less observant outsider.

Zygier, who was accepted to the Mossad by merit of his looks and accent rather than intellect and loyalty, could not have committed a greater crime than Klingberg or the few other genuine assets who turned rogue. If Klingberg was given a fair trial, then why on earth would our public servants conspire to take the life of a low-level Mossad muscle?

I do not proclaim to be a physiologist, I merely base my on observations on history and facts.

Are you insinuating a Hashomer Hazair graduate participated in 9/11 – Thats insanity as Hashy people are radically Zionistic.

Interesting wonder if his family agree and he would be reincarnated as a cat,always jumping back on his feet.

Admittedly, my theory of his “new identity” is an hypothesis based on the few alternatives and choices that both the security establishment and Ben Zyier had, at that point, considering the threat of exposure and a catastrophic leak. His personal background and actions would seem to suggest those of a patriot and not a traitor, and therefore without full disclosure, it’s what I would like and choose to believe…

Sorry, but after more than 10 years of investigation, my conclusions are that 9/11 is made by Mossad (+/-80% of the perpetrators, especially “Israeli Spy Ring” members) and connected people. You must know that during the first 4 years, I focused only technical aspects and completely unaware about any Israeli involvement. During the fifth year, I discovered some people lied in these attacks and they were Jewish. After the first people, it appeared that too many Jewish people lied in these attacks.

I was supporting Jewish people before these events, I still consider Jews as any other human being and only some small number of Jews participated to these attacks, mainly Zionists. But I can not lie to defend Jewish people. I can not lie to defend any kind of criminals, even Muslims ones. I am only investigating to find the truth, that’s all.

It’s clear that 9/11 was made by Mossad. Sharon has ordered the schedule and perpetration of these horrible crimes; he was prime minister of Israel, and did not want peace with Palestinians.

My call is simple: If you, Israelis, want whole world respect you, you should make the truth about the actions of Mossad. You can not continue to perpetrate such crimes in background and ask to be respected. Sooner or later, the truth will arise, and at that time the load could be too big to bore for the Jewish people. At that time, only honest people amongst you can save you. According to what you told, Ben Zygier was probably one of them: After participating to 9/11, he probably decided to apologize.

You seem not aware of the situation of the Middle East: In that area of the world, no one aggressive people can live respected. Sooner or later, all aggressive people remain alone and they disappear. Any body who wants to live there has the obligation to respect others. See Koran, 2:58-59 and compare it to the conquest of Canaan in the Torah.

Israel is a terrorist state that have stolen the land of innocent palestinians and made 5 million homeless. what goes around comes around. he who digs a hole shall fall in it. I wish all serial killers of israel ie soldiers, Mossad agents and all Mass murders to learn that if you harm innocents then one day your turn shall arrive and the hell fire will also be your end. Also The Jews suffered for over 300 years under evil Pharo but God almighty still sent them a great Prophet to save them and destroyed the evil doers similary all those who harm others will be destroyed by God.

Protest you from what??? the truth? the truth is cristal clear. Israel kills innocents even in international waters and uses our European passports to do the deed like a headless chicken. the question is for how long? Even France tried to force Algeria to be French for 132 years but when God’s order came in ,they run back home like little rats even though they kill 15% of innocent population. they too used to say protect our cause

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Prisoner X Was From My Shtetl

Melbourne’s Jews confront the mysterious death of one of their own, Ben Zygier, in an Israeli prison

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