The explosive revelations surrounding the apparent suicide of a Melbourne-born man in a maximum-security Israeli jail has gripped Australian Jewry since Ben Zygier was identified last week as the elusive “Prisoner X” by an ABC investigation.
Details of what happened to this 34-year-old graduate of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement who made aliyah and reportedly worked for Mossad before taking his own life in December 2010 have been shrouded in secrecy amid a virtual blackout by family and friends.
Israel imposed a gag order on any reference to “Prisoner X” since his death and kept it in place for almost 24 hours in the immediate aftermath of the “compelling evidence” offered by the ABC broadcast, even though the internet was abuzz with the shocking story.
A partial suppression order remains in place in Israel and the alleged links to espionage have fuelled speculation about whether Mr Zygier was a Mossad agent — which he “strenuously denied” in 2009 — or even a double agent who was “turned” by Australia’s spy agency.
Australian and Israeli officials have ordered an inquiry into Mr Zygier’s death. The probe was welcomed by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which had stayed silent on the case for one week, fearing the controversial issue of “dual loyalty” may become the focus of the media.
A senior Jewish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “The dual loyalty charges have been the stock trade of antisemites for centuries.”
Jewish leaders were irate following an interview on ABC Radio last Saturday in which Antony Loewenstein, an anti-Zionist Jew, accused fellow Jews of dual loyalties and claimed that “the Jewish school system was a breeding ground for brainwashing children to settle in Israel,” as former president of Australian Jewry Isi Leibler put it.
“This affair has undoubtedly created negative ripples against Israel amongst the public,” Mr Leibler wrote.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Philip Chester issued a statement on Wednesday, provoked by several “totally uninformed and mischievous” claims in the media that Zionist programmes in Israel serve as recruitment camps for the Mossad.
Since the broadcast of the investigation, family and friends have all abided by a “code of silence”, as Vivien Altman, one of the ABC’s investigative team, put it.
Their refusal to speak publicly on the matter was apparently agreed out of respect to Mr Zygier’s parents, Geoffrey and Louise, who are prominently involved in Jewish community affairs in Melbourne.
One close friend from another Zionist youth movement said: “I’m very confident he would never be a traitor to Israel. He was a proud Zionist. There’s only one other person in my year who made aliyah out of dozens who said they would.”
On Tuesday, Israel released partial details of a report into Mr Zygier’s death, confirming that he hanged himself with a bed sheet in the shower of his maximum-security cell in Ayalon prison on December 15, 2010.
But it did not exclude the possibility that his death could have been caused by a “criminal act” or that in future “it might be possible to identify suspects”.
However, a gag order suppressed 20 of the 28 pages of the report by Judge Daphne Blatman-Kadrai.
The report was completed only two months ago and the Israel Prison Service is considering whether to hold disciplinary hearings for four prison officers who are suspected of negligence that made it possible for Zygier to commit suicide.
Another investigation is to be carried out by the Knesset intelligence affairs sub-committee which provides oversight for Mossad. Also on Tuesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office issued its first statement on the scandal, which has dominated headlines in Israel and Australia for the past week.
“We emphasise that Mr Zygier had no contact at all with the Australian security services and organisations,” it said, contradicting speculation Mr Zygier had been about to reveal to Australian agents classified information about the fraudulent use of Australian passports by Mossad.
The statement added that there was still “excellent co-operation, full co-ordination and complete transparency” between Australia and Israel.
Meanwhile, it was claimed that Mr Zygier had been working in a Mossad front-company that traded in electronic goods with Iran. According to some reports, the Australian security services became suspicious when the men renewed their passports and visas for Iran and Arab countries were found in their old passports.
Another close friend of Mr Zygier recalled this week that the last time they saw him was in Melbourne in late 2009. “He said he was leaving for a two-week visit to Israel and never came back, leaving his flat with everything in it.”
He returned, tragically, in a coffin, and was buried on December 22, 2010, in a Jewish cemetery.
One close acquaintance said of Mr Zygier’s parents and family: “I don’t think they see the media as helpful. You won’t get anyone to talk publicly — we’ve decided there’s no good purpose. Nobody knows the whole truth and it’s unlikely we ever will.”