On Prisoner X/Ben Zygier

19 Feb

by Felicity Bloch

Image courtesy of he.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Image courtesy of he.wikipedia.org/wiki/

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An Israeli relative [ed.: not myself] commented in relation to the story of Ben Zygier that Yisrael eretz ochelet yoshveiyah (Israel is a land that devours its own inhabitants). From the perspective of the story that is emerging, it is a land that chews up its finest and spits them out.

I did not know Ben Zygier but one of my children did, though not well, because she was three years younger than him. She attended the same Zionist youth movement — Hashy [ed.: Hashomer Hatzair] and, like every report I have read, she was incredulous that he could be capable of any crime. Almost every report about him is positive. He was a high achiever, dux of Bialik College, a law graduate, sensitive, smart, capable, idealistic, adventurous, well-liked, and married with a young family. As more details emerge about his lonely end, the suffering of his family can only be imagined. They are highly respected community members, who have held senior positions in various Jewish and Zionist institutions. He would have lived up to their ideals and aspirations by his achievements academically, professionally, and by making Aliyah.

Yet he died horribly in suspicious circumstances after nine months of solitary confinement in a secret maximum-security Israel jail. Allegedly he committed suicide a few days after the birth of his second child, whom he never saw, and a day after a conference with a lawyer in which he was opposed to a plea bargain for an unspecified crime he denied committing. It took a judge two years to sign off on the suicide verdict — in itself perhaps a signal that  in a cell which was supposedly monitored 24/7, suicide was not a plausible scenario.

Nobody who knew him believed he was capable of treachery. At worst, I read comments like ‘he wasn’t the most stable person,’ or that he was a raconteur who might have been capable of indiscretion — perhaps not the ideal recruit for the Mossad. But he had something very desirable — Australian citizenship and a “clean” Aussie passport. After the Dubai operation began to unravel, it emerged that Israel was using genuine passports of OECD countries, including Australia, for its agents to access countries to which Israelis cannot travel. Apparently several young dual Israeli-Australian nationals had changed their names to more Anglo sounding ones, obtaining new passports in different names more than once. If young Israeli olim (immigrants), including Australians, were encouraged to assist the Mossad in this way they were being placed in harm’s way in relation to the security agencies of their home countries. Apparently, the alleged Mossad passport scam put Australian olim on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO‘s) radar, months before the Dubai affair.  One of those under suspicion was supposedly Zygier — if that was the case, the Mossad put him in a very tight spot, as he would have been in violation of Australian law, and open to criminal charges which might have precluded his returning to Australia, let alone practicing law. This would have created a very strong incentive for his family to keep shtum (mum), and refrain from complaints to the Australian government about the appalling regime of solitary confinement to which he was subjected for nine months prior to any charges being laid against him. This is true even though now the Israeli government is trying to spin that habeas corpus issue, by claiming charges had been laid and that regrettably he committed suicide during the course of proceedings against him.

But why was the Australian government (DFAT) not asking questions and demanding to provide consular access after his arrest? When these questions were raised last week, Foreign Minister Bob Carr seemed to be in the dark. First they just didn’t know, because no-one told them; then, actually they did, but the source was intelligence, so they sat on their hands. This is highly irregular — either a serious bungle, a breakdown in communication, or a remarkable breach of “customary law.”

More plausibly, this weekend’s The Australian newspaper speculates that the reason the Australian government did not ask any questions was because they knew already exactly what was going on. If this is so, it would confirm the gist of last week’s ABC current affairs program Lateline, when former Fairfax Middle East reporter Jason Koutsoukis was interviewed by Tony Jones.

Koutsoukis always seemed to me rather biased against Israel in his reporting, taking a standard – though not extreme – pro-Palestinian line. But during the interview he seemed shocked, as well he might, since he may have been instrumental in Zygier’s terrible fate, without even knowing what he was doing.

He revealed that on the basis of an ASIO tip-off, he had sought interviews in Israel with three young Australians under suspicion. Two hung up on him. Zygier also denied the allegations but did not hang up. Koutsoukis was able to have several conversations with him. He also had the impression the phone line might have been tapped, and on Ynet it was written that Koutsoukis’s office was also searched. Now, connecting the dots, it must have occurred to Koutsoukis, as to anyone who heard what he revealed, that he had been used in an ASIO sting, setting up the Mossad reaction which told ASIO all they needed to know. Zygier was trapped in a pincer, between ASIO and the Mossad. ASIO had investigated the suspects, then set them up by leaking information to the press and, once the Mossad reacted by jailing Zygier under maximum high security conditions, they knew they were right.

So why was Zygier imprisoned in solitary confinement, in conditions calcuated to break anyone’s spirit, before any official proceedings? Because he had already revealed, or was about to reveal, what he knew about the passport scam to ASIO? Surely by then this information was already in the public domain. We know from his lawyer that he was under enormous pressure to plea bargain to avoid going to trial. Why, having gone to all the trouble of this secret imprisonment, was the Mossad trying to avoid even a secret trial? Because they had no evidence that would satisfy a court? Because a trial would have brought their own practices under scrutiny, and they might have ended up on trial themselves? Because they wanted to scapegoat him, and to deflect attention from the reckless Dubai operation which did not meet any cost-benefit analysis? To prevent even more scandal about the way the Mossad leveraged enthusiastic Zionist youth for its own dubious purposes? These are just some of the many ideas that spring to mind.

Zygier’s lawyer reported that he was reluctant to confess to a crime he had not committed. This is understandable, especially since the consequences of a guilty plea were likely to include prolonged imprisonment and other life-long consequences. The fact that this young lawyer was leaning the other way, inclined to exercise his right to a trial the Mossad did not want, makes his death, just a day later, suspicious. The fact that a reputable judge took almost two years to sign off on a suicide verdict may be a signal that she was not comfortable with the affair, and it is important to note that the verdict included a recommendation for further investigation, albeit of the prison staff for negligence. Yesterday Haaretz also reported that  the Prison Service believes it may be scapegoated in turn; there are hints that it may have  been ordered to switch off the cameras that monitored Zygier’s cell, ostensibly to prevent any communication between him and his guards.

Whether he was driven to suicide by the torture of this extreme isolation in which even prison guards were forbidden to address him or, worse still, murdered to shut him up, his horrible death may also have wider consequences — a ripple effect that may well scar the Israel-Diaspora relationship for years.

Diaspora Jews have always struggled to shake off the taint of dual loyalties. In the past, Australians could not acquire dual citizenship by choice — it was restricted to a tiny group of people who were born abroad to Australian parents. The abuse of this relatively recent privilege of elective dual citizenship for dubious purposes such as providing the Mossad with “clean” passports for its agents may compromise public attitudes to dual citizens, particularly Israeli Australians, and to Australian Jews in general. The old tightrope act of supporting, and lobbying on behalf of, Israel without compromising the trust and respect of  the general community just got that much harder. Apparently the comfort, respect and safety of Diaspora communities which loyally support Israel do not enter into the calculations of Israeli policy-makers.

The leadership of the Zionist establishment in Australia also needs to do a lot of soul-searching. It has given unwavering support to increasingly right-wing and extremist Israeli governments. It has never criticized the Israeli government’s tolerance, and even encouragement, of illegal settlement building and abuses of human rights. When the Israeli “hard men” strike, the Zionist establishment looks the other way. How painful and ironical that one of our finest youth, who represented everything the Zionist establishment aimed to nurture, was devoured, chewed up and spat out by the Israeli “hard men.” And how painful and ironical that when Zygier was imprisoned, the only one who raised questions in the Knesset and who condemned the secrecy of the imprisonment and the gag order hiding it from the public was Nitzan Horowitz, a left-wing parliamentarian, representing the Meretz party, whom the Zionist establishment would not have given the time of day.

As a consequence, everything the Zionist establishment has worked for since the post-war era is compromised. I never thought I would find myself in agreement with Antony Loewenstein [ed.: a far left Melbourne Jew] but I now believe that this terrible incident has fractured our trust in Israel.  The practice of sending young people to Israel for a gap-year after their schooling may become very problematic for our community. Parents showed solidarity by sending their children to Israel even when they risked terrorist attacks. Many made significant financial sacrifices to this end. Ben Zygier’s story revealed a danger we never anticipated — the dark side of a security state, where the protections of the rule of law and human rights which we take for granted, may be arbitrarily stripped away. This affair has revealed that Israel may well be more like a typical Middle Eastern state than a beacon of democracy. I do not think many parents will be encouraging their kids to go on Shnat (gap-year Israel programs) next year in the same carefree spirit as before.

Felicity Bloch is a Melbourne-based writer, whose three children participated in Shnat.

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One Response to “On Prisoner X/Ben Zygier”

  1. OZINISREAL February 20, 2013 at 2:57 am #

    As Aussies say the Shit has hit the Fan and now its best to be Down Under…..

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