Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Reviewing the Case of Prisoner X

February 19, 2013 1:39 am 0 comments

The controversial "Prisoner X," Ben Zygier. Photo: YouTube.

As former head of the Australian Jewish community and now resident in Israel, I was bombarded over the past week with endless calls from the Israeli and global media soliciting comment on Ben Zygier, the Australian who committed suicide whilst in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison.

I declined to respond because I am not privy to secret information from the Mossad nor ASIO (the Australian Intelligence Agency) and I had nothing constructive to contribute.

Now, having had time to mull over the events and with the ebbing of the sensationalist media coverage of conspiratorial theories based on imaginary scenarios concocted by creative journalists, I feel more inclined to express a few observations.

At the outset, I feel impelled to state that although I consider that there was every justification to initially retain media silence on such a sensitive security issue, once the misleading exposé of the affair was released to the world by the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC), the continuing Israeli gag order was regrettable and counterproductive.

It would have been preferable for Israel to have responded immediately with a brief statement to the effect that there had been a security breach and that the accused had committed suicide whilst in prison. In all likelihood, this would have substantially staunched the flood of damaging speculation and hysteria which ensued, such as comparing Israel to Argentina in the 1970s, wild allegations of torture and even questioning whether Ben Zygier had been murdered.

By the time the authorities officially released details of the incident, it was too late because the distorted initial reports and the John le Carré like speculation in the global media had already caused enormous damage to Israel’s reputation.

In the light of media speculation relating to the suicide, there is now an obligation on the part of the Israeli government to release the findings of the judicial inquiry which had already taken place to ascertain whether the accused was under adequate supervision in the prison in which he was being held. We live in a democracy and are entitled to be reassured that if there was a breakdown or negligence on the part of the prison authorities, those responsible will be held to task and that every effort will be made to ensure that such a tragedy is averted in the future. On the other hand, it is a harsh reality that prisoners determined to end their lives usually succeed.

Whilst reiterating that I have absolutely no insight into the details of the charges against Zygier, there are grounds for concern that the Mossad should employ stricter criteria in their enlistment process, ensuring their recruits possess the necessary sophistication and psychological makeup required to engage in sensitive national security issues.

However, notwithstanding these reservations – and without relating to the guilt or otherwise of Ben Zygier – it must be stressed that on the basis of the limited information available, there is no evidence to suggest that either the State authorities or Mossad acted irresponsibly or breached the law. The rule of law applied throughout the entire proceedings. The hearings were carried out via camera due to security requirements, senior judges were involved, three lawyers were engaged in Zygier’s defense and he was allowed access to his family. That Zygier was being tried and held in custody under an assumed name was with his approval and that of his family. It was his tragic suicide that provoked the media frenzy and proliferation of wild conspiracy theories.

Problems relating to national security apply to all countries but invariably to a greater extent to Israel which is subject to more acute security threats than any other nation in the world. To Israel’s great credit, despite the Jewish state being under constant siege and threat from terrorism since its creation, this has in no way compromised our resilient democratic process.

It would appear that on the surface, the Australian government’s response to the media releases to date was restrained, despite an angry outburst by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The Foreign Minister Bob Carr had initially expressed surprise over the affair, but it emerged that Israel had in fact informed the Australian Embassy immediately after Zygier’s arrest and again the day after his death. It is noteworthy that the Zygier family did not request the intervention of the Australian authorities.

In response to questions, the Australian Foreign Minister did indicate that Australia would conduct further investigations but it was unclear whether this related to an apparent breakdown in communications between the Australian authorities and ASIO or on a broader level.

Anti-Israeli elements in Australia, supported by sections of the media, tried to exploit the situation in order to besmirch Israel’s image. One prominent anti-Zionist Jewish extremist, on Australia’s national radio, accused his fellow Jews of harboring dual loyalties and claimed that the Jewish school system was a breeding ground for brainwashing children to settle in Israel.

This affair has undoubtedly created negative ripples against Israel amongst the public. There is still fallout from the passport imbroglio when Australia, considered amongst Israel’s best friends, became one of the primary countries whose passports were illegally employed by Mossad for intelligence operations.

Australian Jewry, one of the most passionately Zionist Diaspora communities, regards this episode as a great tragedy. Ben Zygier’s father, Geoffrey, had served in professional positions in a number of leading Jewish organizations and is well regarded by those who know him. Ben himself was considered an effervescent personality but a committed Zionist who made aliya and it is heartbreaking that a young idealistic Zionist’s journey could end so catastrophically. Other than expressing sympathy for Zygier’s parents who were obliged to endure a repetition of the grief and mourning they underwent two years ago when they buried their son, Jewish communal leaders declined to comment.

Beyond investigating whether negligence contributed towards the suicide, this tragic episode reminds us that we live in a very tough region and that even as a democracy, security related issues will arise which must remain outside the public purview.

We must also recognize that even if there are the inevitable occasional wretched mistakes, the Mossad is vital for our security and wellbeing. It remains far superior and more responsible than most intelligence agencies throughout the world and is not a law unto itself.

Despite the setback arising from the distorted manner in which this case was initially presented, falsely implying a lack of judicial oversight on the part of Israel, the basic relationship between Australia and the Jewish state is not in jeopardy.

Above all, whilst far from being perfect, we must remind ourselves that Israel remains one of the most committed democracies in the world.

This column was originally published by the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Food Jewish Identity Home of Freud and…Pita? Israelis Make Culinary Mark in Vienna

    Home of Freud and…Pita? Israelis Make Culinary Mark in Vienna

    JNS.org – Several Viennese Jews have made a lasting impact on the world. Sigmund Freud’s investigations changed the face of modern psychology. Composer Arnold Schoenberg’s innovations in atonal music changed the face of music. These days, even more Jews — in particular, Israeli Jews — are changing the face of Vienna’s culinary scene with innovations in…the art of the pita. Freudians may find a psychoanalytic motive for the local appeal of the Israeli eateries popping up in the Austrian capital. Walk […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide Before Our Very Eyes

    In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide Before Our Very Eyes

    The two bullet casings are already beginning to rust. Sheikh Nasser Pasha plucks them from the ground. “Look, one is from an AK-47, one from an American M-4.” The casings are strewn on the ground atop a long mound of dirt with a few bits of white sticks on it. It would appear unremarkable if one were walking by it. A closer look, however, reveals the white objects are pieces of human bone: arms, legs, and a single human skull. […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    JNS.org – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall. Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events. But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this […]

    Read more →
  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →