SYDNEY – Here is what we know about the mysterious death of the Jewish man from Australia who was last week identified as the elusive Prisoner X by an Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigation: There is a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery in suburban Melbourne inscribed with the words "In loving memory of Ben Zygier."
- Ben Zygier affair a matter for the Knesset, Israel's state comptroller says
- The 'Prisoner X' affair was a catastrophe for Israel, and must be investigated
- Israel arrested Ben Zygier fearing he exposed Mossad plans in Italy, ABC reports
- Netanyahu, Steinitz at odds over keeping Knesset panel in dark over Prisoner X
- Torn between two passports: Prisoner X and dual citizenship
- Leading Australian Jewish group breaks silence on Prisoner X affair
- Anti-Israel tirade in Sydney parliament shows strained ties between Australia and Israel
Under the information rubble created by the media's excavation of the case last week, there are few hard facts. It is not even clear whether Zygier, 34 at his death, was actually Prisoner X, a Mossad agent or a double agent for Australia – let alone if Australia's spy agency played a part in his death or if he committed suicide.
The silence of those who know since the story was broadcast in Australia on the night of Tuesday February 12 has been filled with speculation and unattributed snippets of information from friends, acquaintances and others.
Adding to what has been said, two well-connected sources who know the Zygier family – an Australian and an Israeli – this week cast further doubt on whether Zygier was a Mossad agent.
"I am assured he was not Mossad, but he knew stuff, he mixed with the wrong people," said the Australian source. "It was a fuck up. He was not posing any threat to the state of Israel."
The Israeli source concurred, saying Zygier was "a little cog in the system, if at all."
"The guy is a victim of his own fault," he said. "[Zygier] convinced everyone he was working for Mossad. It’s all a creation; he didn’t stop speaking."
He added, "Israel does not recruit someone who says he’s in Mossad. If someone says he’s Mossad he’d be fired."
Although the ABC claimed it had "compelling" proof that Ben Zygier was Prisoner X, an Australian Jewish leader said the investigation didn’t include "one piece of hard evidence connecting the two."
The broadcast only proved that Zygier and Prisoner X died on the same date and that a dual citizen had died in an Israeli prison, he said.
But Trevor Bormann, the reporter who broke the story on the ABC's "Foreign Correspondent" show, said last week that he had "no doubt" and the story had "absolute verification."
Zygier's friends, none of whom wanted to be identified, offered disjointed hints about his life.
One friend recalled that in 2009, Zygier lived in an apartment in North Caulfield, a heavily Jewish suburb of Melbourne, with his wife and first child.
"In December 2009 or January 2010, he said they were going back to Israel for two weeks and then they’d be back," he said.
When Zygier – who strenuously denied allegations that he worked for the Mossad to a Fairfax Media correspondent in early 2010 – did return, it was in a coffin. He was buried in the Springvale cemetery on December 22, 2010.
What happened in the interim is a closely guarded secret and the subject of several official investigations. His family, having just begun to reemerge following two years of trauma, retreated to mourn once again.
A friend who had known Zygier since childhood said he had a Facebook page under the name Ben Alon, which has now been taken down. His other aliases were reportedly Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows.
She said his close friends have gotten together for a memorial every year on the anniversary of his death. A closer friend from a prominent Jewish family may have been willing to provide more information, she said, but "didn't want to talk on the phone," suggesting the friend was afraid of being monitored.
Another friend recalled that Zygier used to bring his daughter to an afterschool program in Melbourne in 2009.
"He came here with his daughter. He was gorgeous, friendly, talkative, everyone knew him," he said. "He told us he was studying here. She [his wife] fell pregnant and then they just left to go to Israel."
"Everyone here is talking about it – everyone. The feeling is no one wants to talk [publicly]. The family is very private, the parents are devastated," the friend continued. "When he died it was shock, shock, shock. Then the story disappeared. We were all told he worked for Mossad and was killed in an operation. We speculated that because we didn’t know anything else."
In the wake of the ABC’s explosive broadcast, Jewish leaders decided last week to avoid commenting on the mystery, fearing the contentious issue of dual loyalty might become an issue.
But ABC Radio broadcast an interview on Saturday with Antony Loewentsein – a harsh critic of Australian Jewry’s "uncritical allegiance to Israeli government policy" – who suggested Jewish schools often encourage their students to "fight with the IDF," which means "sometimes joining Mossad."
Tony Walker, in Saturday’s Australian Financial Review, also raised the issue of "dual – or conflicted – loyalty."
"Australian passport holders who enjoy the privileges of citizenship might reflect on the sacrifices made on their behalf over the years by those who fought and died for the country in various conflicts," he wrote.
Ben Saul, the director of the Sydney Center for International Law at Sydney Law School, accused Israelis of being "masters of all the dark arts: assassination, abduction, torture, violent interception of civilians at sea and colonizing foreign territory."
Saul, who has been involved in human rights litigation in Israel, wrote on the ABC's website last Thursday, "Israel has repeatedly shown itself to be a poor friend of Australia, yet many fawning Australian politicians continue to soft-pedal on Israel’s human rights abuses, no doubt beguiled by the free propaganda trips to Israel that quite a few have accepted."
His article sparked more than 300 responses, with one saying, "Cut off diplomatic relations ... we don’t need Israel as friends."
Another argued, "The anti-Semitism here astounds me. Israel has the most fair and open justice system of any country that experiences terrorism."
In the Hobart Mercury, Greg Barns wrote that Zygier may have been "sucked into a political vortex where human rights come a distant second to maintaining a cozy relationship with an ally."
A Jewish leader who was fuming over the backlash said, "We must counterattack here, because the damage is huge."