Torn Between Two Passports: Prisoner X and Dual Citizenship

It’s not only Jewish citizens in the Diaspora and Israel's diplomatic relations that have suffered as a result of the Ben Zygier affair; it is Zionism itself.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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It is surely difficult and painful for both native-born Israelis and Jews abroad to watch the tragic and disturbing Ben Zygier, a.k.a. Prisoner X, story unfold in front of them. But for those of us who immigrated to Israel from countries like Australia or Great Britain or the U.S., the story hits us in a particularly deep and personal place.

For those of us who view it as an incredible privilege to be able to hang onto both of our passports, and whose identity and loyalty belong to both of them, it is all truly disturbing. 

It is somewhat fascinating that this is all playing out only so shortly after two Knesset members - Dov Lipman and Naftali Bennett - surrendered their U.S. passports in order to take their places as newly-elected members of Israel's Knesset. They were two of the six new Knesset members who were required to relinquish foreign citizenship in order to take their new roles in government. 

It is harder for a dual citizen like Lipman, born and raised in the U.S., to give up their passport thanfor those who surrendered Polish, Lithuanian or German citizenship they inherited from their parents and grandparents. Lipman was openly emotional about how hard it was to relinquish his American citizenship, and told me that he was doing it with a “heavy heart.”

Although he was born in Israel, Bennett’s very American parents and the years of his adult life he spent living in the U.S., also had a hold on him. His ties were strong enough for him to admit last week, in a speech he made to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that losing his American passport made him feel significantly weaker, comparing the experience to Superman standing next to Kryptonite. 

But the law said that they had to do it - the rules said they had to in order to make it clear where their loyalties lie.

And yet, Ben Zygier not only kept his Australian passport, but that passport appears to have been central to his role in the Mossad, whatever it was. 

My life is about as far from a Mossad agent’s as you can get. But still, when I hear about what happened to Zygier, I imagine myself being caught between the best interests of the United States and Israel - being told by the CIA that I am putting America at risk by doing something to protect Israel’s security and then being told by Israel that I had compromised Israel’s security on American soil.

And as the information selectively dribbles out regarding Zygier’s crimes, it is becoming clearer that while he may have behaved with irresponsibility and stupidity and weakness - he seems, so far, to have had no active ideological or financial interest in harming Israeli security or personal initiative to betray his country. If, in fact, he was ‘turned,’ and became a double agent, it is now pretty clear it was by a country he was still a citizen of - Australia. 

And so, on the eve of this ballyhooed “Unbreakable Alliance” Obama visit, we are getting a peek at how even closely-allied countries with loyal Jewish communities and deep ties can have their interests conflict and how a dual citizen can be caught in the middle. Even in the most unbreakable alliances, cracks can form. And we see that someone in Zygier’s position can fall into those cracks - perhaps so deep that suicide seems like the only answer. 

It’s not that I don’t have perspective. Plenty of Israelis have dual passports, and there have always been the “hush-hush” quiet stories of new immigrants being asked to “lend” their passports to the government’s security services in order to help them accomplish their mission to keep Israel safe - some of which found their way into the foreign media. I know someone who worked with immigrants from a Western country in the 1960’s who informed the security services as to who the newcomers were. I know another person who used to fly on their second passport to foreign countries and to test out the airport security system. In the aftermath of the Zygier fall-out, the prominent Rabbi Shlomo Aviner went public for the first time, describing two missions to the Mossad he undertook in the 1970s to Iran using his French passport.

And yes, there is the argument that “everybody does it.” Who doesn’t believe that every country’s security apparatus doesn’t recruit immigrants from other countries into its service? The U.S. would be crazy if it didn’t take advantage of those who have moved there with their language and their knowledge.

It feels impossible for us to full-heartedly condemn Israeli security services for using immigrant passports in this way, or putting Zygier in the position he ended up in. As my colleague Anshel Pfeffer pointed out, it's impossible for any of us to do this because none of us have any idea how many lives were potentially saved by using them or what alternatives they had to their use, 

But, as Pfeffer wrote: “It would seem that in the rush to acquire new documents too many corners were cut in security procedures. Now someone at the highest levels of Israel’s political and security establishment will need to ask the question whether the damage caused to Jewish citizens in friendly countries and to Israel’s diplomatic relations was worth the trouble.”

We’ll probably never know the answer to that question - I don’t think the “political and security establishment” is going to be talking about it to the anytime soon. 

But I certainly hope, after this, those at the top will now think twice - better three or four times - before they take actions that when compromised - like Zygier’s - makes every Israeli dual citizen suspect and potentially impedes our ability to move freely to and from our native country. 

In this department, the “everybody does it” argument doesn’t apply. Unlike “everybody,” Israel - and the Zionist enterprise behind it - invests time, money and resources in encouraging Diaspora Jews in democratic and free Western countries to develop and deepen their ties with Israel to the extent that they pick up and move their lives to help build and be part of the Jewish state. It’s not only Jewish citizens in friendly countries or Israel's diplomatic relations that have suffered damage as a result of what happened to Ben Zygier. It is Zionism itself. 

Illustration: Stamps in a passport.Credit: Dan Keinan