In Australia, Jewish Community Reacts With Shock and Grief

While the rumor mill in Melbourne’s tight Jewish community went into overdrive following the broadcast on Tuesday night, few went on record and fewer still had hard facts about the case.

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - The mysterious identity of Israel’s “Prisoner X,” who hanged himself in suspicious circumstances in Ayalon Prison in 2010, was that of a Jewish man from Melbourne, according to an explosive Australian investigation.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Foreign Correspondent” program claimed this week it had “compelling evidence” that the inmate incarcerated for several months in the suicide-proof cell built specifically for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin was Ben Zygier.

Zygier was 34 when he died on December 15, 2010 from “asphyxiation by hanging,” according to documents obtained by the investigation.

He was educated at King David and Bialik College, two Jewish schools in Melbourne, was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, a graduate of the Machon leadership program in Jerusalem who also spent several months on Kibbutz Gazit, worked at Deacons law firm in Melbourne before emigrating to Israel and assuming the name Ben Alon, according to acquaintances.

Zygier had another Australian passport under the name Ben Allen, ABC’s report claimed. He lived in Israel with his wife and two children.

Although the report said it “understood” Zygier was connected to Mossad it offered no conclusive proof.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr ordered a review of the mysterious case on Wednesday in light of the ABC investigation. Consular officials had said they were neither informed that an Australian was in jail nor that he had died in prison.

It is understood the first time the government heard of the case was when the family contacted the consulate to seek help repatriating Zygier’s body for burial in Melbourne.

But it emerged on Wednesday that Israel had informed an Australian diplomat of Zygier’s jailing but he had not passed the information through the requisite channels.

While the rumor mill in Melbourne’s tight Jewish community went into overdrive following the broadcast on Tuesday night, few went on record and fewer still had hard facts about the case.

One Hashomer friend who was on Kibbutz Gazit in the Galil with him in 1994 said he “never struck me as someone who was stable.”

“I could never imagine someone like that being good for Mossad,” he said. “Also, Ben talked too much.”

Another acquaintance said: “I remember hanging out in Israel with him in 1996. He was a nice guy, a bit lost. Next I heard was that he died in Israel.

“At the time what the family understood to be the case was that he was overseas on a [Mossad] operation, then they got confirmation he had committed suicide. It crushed the family.”

His father Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation Commission, did not respond to phone calls.

His cousin, Marlon Dubs, simply said: “I have nothing to add, nothing at all.”

The family’s rabbi, Chabad’s Shimshon Yurkowicz, declined to confirm or deny anything to do with the ABC report.

Others who know the family said the parents were devastated by their son’s death.

“They were absolutely shocked, it was just terrible,” recalled Dr. Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who had “no current information” on the case.

“There was a complete shutdown,” remembered another who also knows the family. “No one knew what the story was. The parents crumbled. They cut off from life. They were broken. They completely withdrew from everything for two years.
“I remember seeing her [Zygier’s mother] shortly after. Her face was in such agony."

Louise Zygier worked at Monash University, and helped raise funds for its Jewish center. She left her post just before or soon after Ben’s death. Her husband was executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria at the time of the death and also stood down shortly after.

“The poor parents have suffered enough till now,” a former Jewish leader said. “No one acknowledged there was suicide. There were rumors he was Mossad but no one knew, there was such secrecy.”

“I really feel for his parents who are being put through this all over again,” said a member of Chabad. “I’m not supporting a media circus.”

Another said the report offered no conclusive proof connecting “Prisoner X” with Ben Zygier. “It’s speculative,” he said. “They had no hard evidence to connect the two. I really don’t buy it.

“The only connection is inferential – the timing of his death with that of ‘Prisoner X’.”

Facebook ignited with rumors about Zygier on Wednesday. But as one person noted, “People are really freaked out. Those that know something are not inclined to speak out. The rest are just speculating.”

The Israeli Embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment. Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Council of Australia, said simply: “We know absolutely nothing about the allegations in the story.”

Ben Zygier in his IDF uniform.Credit: SMH Website
Life of Prisoner X

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