Navigate to News section

Prisoner X Was From My Shtetl

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

Elissa Goldstein
February 15, 2013
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)
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.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Elissa Goldstein is Tablet’s director of audience development. She also produces Unorthodox. Follow her on Twitter here.

Elissa Goldstein is Tablet’s director of audience development. She also produces Unorthodox. Follow her on Twitter here.