For Australian Jews, the Zygier Affair Is the Nightmare That Occurs When Two Worlds Collide

They love Israel and they adore Australia, and usually there is no contradiction between the two. Suddenly, their dual loyalties have turned into dueling loyalties.

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Australian Jews love Israel. Many of them commit significant amounts of time, energy and wealth to promoting, assisting and defending Israel. They visit Israel frequently and they send their children for extended stays, usually temporarily, often permanently. On a per capita basis, they are the most generous Jewish community in the world, and they may very well be the most Israel-devoted Jewish community in the world.

Most Australian Jews love Israel without any conditions, qualifications or reservations. They don’t think it is their business to censure Israel from such a great distance in public, even when they disagree with its policies in private. They tend to criticize and often ostracize anyone who thinks or behaves otherwise. In many ways, they are what many Israelis think a model Diaspora community should look like.

At the same time, Australian Jews are the proudest of Australians. Whatever prejudices it may have shown in the past, for many of them Australia is a haven that has evolved into paradise, especially for the thousands of impoverished Holocaust survivors who came to its shores after World War II.  On a per capita basis, Jews have thrived in Australia like nowhere else on earth. They are a rich, content, happy and super-patriotic community.

Thus, the only love that competes with Australian Jews’ devotion for Israel is their deep attachment to their own Oz, and vice versa.  Fortunately, in a country with such close historical and contemporary ties to Israel, Australian Jews’ “dual loyalties” are rarely dueling loyalties. One can be a loyal Australian and a devout Zionist and still live at peace with yourself and your surroundings.

Which is why the complex case of Mossad operative Ben Zygier, tragic for him and his family, is so sad and jarring for Australian Jews as well. It touches the core of their beings, the essence of their selves, the definition of their identity. It pits their love against their devotion, their beliefs against their convictions, their wishes against their dreams.

The short biography of Ben Zygier, after all, reads like a CV of an Australian Jewish poster boy: Son of a well-known Melbourne activist, graduate of top-flight Jewish day school, member of Zionist youth movement, proud oleh, IDF soldier, husband of Israeli wife, father of Israeli children and Mossad operative to boot. By defending Israel, most Australian Jews would tell themselves, Zygier was also protecting Australia, because the enemies of one are the foes of the other.

Whatever the true nature of Zygier’s crimes or misdemeanors, it is clear now that he did not seek to betray Israeli secrets to to a foreign enemy country or a terrorist organization. He did not hook up with Iranian agents, Syrian spies or Hezbollah terrorists, but broke down, rather, in front of fellow Australians, his compatriots from back home. Torn between his two citizenships, his two countries and his two allegiances, Zygier was ultimately torn apart.   

For Australian Jews, this is the nightmare that occurs when two worlds collide, the place where they least want to be: where their motives are questioned, their loyalties examined, their allegiances no longer taken for granted. They suddenly find themselves wondering what people are saying behind their backs and whom it is that they are seeing when they look straight ahead, into their own mirrors.

All’s fair in love and war, Israelis will reply. With all the sorrow at Zygier’s death – and there is such sorrow – the misuse of Australian passports is not some serious war crime that Israelis need to agonize over or apologize for. By the standards of misdeeds routinely committed by spy agencies around the world, it is a minor transgression indeed.

But for Australian Jews, the Zygier affair is a collective trauma, an emotional implosion, and thus it comes as no surprise that for close to a week the preponderant response of Australian Jewish leaders has been a stunned “no comment.” Between their undying love for the country they call home and their unbridled adoration for their second homeland, so far away from their shores, they must all be have one nagging question on their minds: what did we ever do to deserve this.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Australian newspapers lead their front pages in Australia on February 14, 2013, with the story of Ben Zygier.Credit: AFP

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