Ben Zygier Was No Traitor, He Was Betrayed

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Two people came out of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel: Udi Adiv and Uri Ilan. Adiv crossed the lines and went to work for Syria. Ilan was captured by the Syrians whilst on a mission for Israel. Before he committed suicide, he inscribed the words: "I did not betray. I committed suicide."

Ben Zygier is no Udi Adiv. In terms of his intentions, he was closer to Uri Ilan. He wanted to contribute to Israel and did not want to betray both  his homelands, or his father for that matter. Israel cast him into a situation from which he could only be liberated by death.

A week ago, North Korea carried out a breakthrough nuclear test. Its collaboration with Iran over uranium requires Israel to utilize everything in its power to deal with the threat. The fundamentals of its power have not changed since David Ben Gurion established them: might, the support of friendly powers, the mobilization of world Jewry that can also influence their home countries, and the memory of the Holocaust. But the Zygier affair highlights how in an existential moment, Israel isn't "only" immoral, but tramples over these fundamentals, arrogantly, without boundaries.

Australian Jewry – and its key activist Ben Zygier's father Geoffrey Zygier – epitomizes part of the fundamentals of Israeli power. Most Australian Jews went there after the Holocaust. This memory induces them to be of service to Israel, which in turn affects the way Australia supports Israel.

Anybody who allows himself to cynically damage that relationship imperils Israel's very security. Thus the price of Israel's security has always been paid, from the days of the fiasco of the Israeli covert mission in Egypt that flopped (the "Lavon affair" in 1954) up to American spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard.

Ben Zygier didn't betray his country. Ben Zygier was betrayed. Between his two home countries, he was placed in a situation he couldn't deal with. Those who know the facts can attest to this. From the outset of this affair, Israeli contempt for the feeble Jews of the Diaspora knew no boundaries. According to foreign sources, the desire to make use of Ben Zygier's identity and passport overrode the fact that he was screamingly incompatible for the mission.

The story is a simple one, really. According to foreign sources, Israel allowed itself to cross three boundaries: a Mossad man was asked to not to forgo his Australian citizenship, which led him to the dilemma of dual loyalty; the identity that he was instructed to use as a cover was his real Australian identity; and, worst, he was sent to operate in his land of birth.

According to foreign sources, after he was told to change his name in his home country several times, an entirely foreseeable problem arose. Zygier's activities raised suspicions in Australia and its security services called him in for interrogation.

He didn't cooperate with the enemy. Not on his own initiative, nor voluntarily. He was forced to talk to his country's security services, who threatened to stein his father's honor, and who sent journalists to speak to him.

Israel is the one that placed him in an impossible dilemma. And then, despite the furor over passports, according to foreign sources, Israel used dozens of them not against the main enemy, Iran – but against Hamas targets, which was probably not a worthy reason to risk these passports' use. Only then did Australia retaliate by exposing its citizen.

The crass Israeli habit of concealing its misdeeds lost all proportion. Instead of achieving, after a brief inquiry, silence and good will  (silence from a man who broke after being left to deal with his identity issues alone, silence obtained for instance even by bringing his father and whole family to Israel to care for them here) – Israel abandoned an Israel-Australian patriot to a fate worse than death.

Those who were raised in Kfar Yehoshua as I did were exposed to a practice whereby chickens that were suspected of carrying diseases were killed before they could infect the others. At the age of eight, I couldn't bring myself to kill them with my bare hands like my father did.  So I found a "humane" solution. Next to the coops were pits full of the rotting corpses of dead birds. I threw the birds that were suspected of being ill into these pits while alive. And Ben Zygier was thrown into such a pit.

The cell in which Ben Zygier died had been built for a prime minister's murderer. Ben Zygier is that man's polar opposite. The prime minister's murderer is the worst traitor in Israel. He was not caught between the dilemmas of dual nationalities. For the murderer, the messianic-religious dilemma superseded his Israeli identity. He was not placed under brutal pressure in his cell to reveal the identities of rabbis who influenced him. He remained smiling and victorious. He was not subjected to suffocating pressure.

During the existential days of the War of Independence, one Meir Tobianski was shot. He was suspected of treason, sentenced in a lightning-quick trial, and was eliminated. His widow, who was not sentenced to silence, fought to restore his honor. A year later, Ben Gurion exonerated him and wrote to her: "Your husband was innocent."

Two things must come out of the Zygier affair. One is clear: the establishment of a quasi-secret state commission of inquiry. The commission must examine the links between Zygier's death and his identity. But it must also do more than that. There must be genuine examination of how Israel exploits the goodwill of  its Jewish supporters, and a clear demarcation of its boundaries.

The second needs to happen this week. The prime minister must send a letter to the Zygier family – that have been broken by their son's breakdown – saying, "Your son was not a traitor."

Of course, this a nave expectation to have. Our prime minister chose a man who was ejected for cause from the civil service to help build his coalition. He believes that a man who had to step down as foreign minister and is in the process of criminal trial will get to keep his portfolio, and also chair the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Our prime minister; and that it's fine for the secret sub-committee that supervises the Mossad to have a member who was convicted of bribery. The prime minister himself reached his position following incitement, following which a prime minister was assassinated by a man in whose cell Zygier was thrown into to die.

To be sure, Benjamin Netanyahu is not Ben Gurion. And it's clear that for Netanyahu, the concern that not even a bag of sugar be taken out of the state coffers has been replaced by a desire to grab mountains of ice cream. And still, a letter must be sent to the Zygier family. After the Tobianski affair.

Natan Alterman wrote: "What is the strength of a state? To stand with the strength of ten-thousand spears without withdrawing from the gate – but to tremble and kneel before the helplessness of a widow and a boy."

The obvious moral of the story is also the obvious existential lesson. If Israel does not immediately make a gesture that exonerates Zygier, along with his family and Australian identity, not only will his tortured blue eyes follow us like the eyes of a chicken thrown alive into a pit. With them will wait the widow and the boy, along with the shattered remnants of this county's security, in a manner that will no longer allow them to withstand the ten thousand spears.

An image of Zygier on the front page of an Australian newspaper.Credit: AFP

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