by Annette van de Kamp
The story of Ben Zygier is a puzzling one. In short, Australian Jew (born in Melbourne, 1976) visits Israel as a teenager and participates in the Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist–Zionist secular Jewish youth movement. After completing his law degree, he makes aliyah in 1994, serves in the IDF, marries an Israeli and eventually lands in jail where he commits suicide. For a few years, the story is silenced in the media. Then, for reasons unknown, the story breaks, big time, and nobody really seems to know what happened.
It was in Ayalon maximum security prison in Ramla that Zygier was held. More specifically, in the cell designed for Yigal Amir, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s killer (Amir was moved from there in 2006). Zygier has also been known as Prisoner X or Mr. X. Why he was imprisoned under such secrecy, and what crimes he committed, no one knows.
Between Zygier’s death in 2010 and the Australian Broadcasting Operation’s (ABC) breaking of the story, Israeli media was subject to a blackout.
Trevor Bormann of ABC investigated the story for approximately 10 months before coming out with it. Among his findings: Zygier had dual citizenship and carried an Australian passport in the name of Ben Allen. Bormann also reported Zygier had become a Mossad agent, used the name Ben Alon as well as an additional name: Ben Burrows. Are you still following this? The whole thing sounds like a spy movie. Except, this involves real people, and we cannot treat it like just another juicy news item.
There are two reasons why we shouldn’t. First, suicide always leaves more questions than answers—especially for the family. Speculating about what happened, and what went through Zygier’s mind during those last moments, will only lead to more heartbreak. Even more so when we do it in print.
Second, trying to piece this together without having all the facts means ultimately we’ll be making stuff up. Case in point:
“At what point does loyalty to Israel become loyalty to Australia?” said Joseph Wakim, a founder of the Australian Arabic Council. 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.” (JTA.com)
And a new conspiracy theory is born; many others who were eager to join this latest anti-Semitic chorus repeated Wakim’s words. Birthright trips as indoctrination tool? We send our kids to Israel so they can become disloyal to the country where they were born? We send them there so Mossad can secretly recruit them? Excuse me? Why is it that whenever certain people attempt to explain events in Israel, the stereotype of the “conniving Jew” follows so quickly?
Philip Chester, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, called the allegations “totally uninformed and mischievous.”
“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 organization,” he added.
Of course, Chester is right. We can’t disagree with him. But the fact that he feels compelled to make the statement in the first place is very disturbing. He shouldn’t have to. Let’s hope this brand new conspiracy theory doesn’t have legs; we have enough of that going around as it is.
However, there is a deeper and older problem here. The fact that we are still faced with many people who are anti-Semitic, who don’t want the State of Israel to exist, is nothing new in and of itself. But, we are seeing a political (sometimes disastrously uninformed) argument as well as a purely emotional one against the existence of Israel.
Criticize the Israeli government for gagging the media, or criticize it for creating a situation where a young Jewish man felt he had no way out. Criticize the prison guards for not paying attention while a prisoner killed himself. Criticize the government for not coming forward with an adequate explanation. I’m sure there’s more than enough blame to go around without us making stuff up.
The story of Ben Zygier is tragic; we don’t have to find out what really happened to know that much. But using him as an excuse to make up yet more ridiculous untruths about the State of Israel is a sad commentary on how Israel is viewed in other parts of the world.