Uncovered Meat Moments and Prisoner X

Once, a newspaper editor for whom I’d worked for years asked me to explain why Jewish people – usually so intelligent, politically astute and reasoned – were so irrational when it came to Israel.

I knew how much he trusted me to even ask this question – trusted that I wouldn’t misconstrue it, or him, as anti-Semitic. I was raised in a vaguely-practising Jewish family, was part of the US Zionist Youth movement in my teens, have travelled to Israel three times and now identify as a secular Jew. I am also a dual citizen of the US and Australia. Swallowing hard, I told him what I knew.

“Wow!” he kept saying. “I didn’t know.” And when I finished, “You should write about it.” With little hesitation, I declined. I already write and advocate in some of the most contentious areas of public policy. The last thing I needed was to step into the minefield of Diaspora Jewish relations with Israel.

But the Prisoner X case has changed my mind.

Prisoner X was the anonymous occupant of an isolated cell at Israel’s highest security prison. In 2010, he was found dead. A recent and explosive episode of the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent revealed X to be 34-year-old Ben Zygier from Melbourne. Zygier is alleged to have committed offenses related to his Australian passport while working with Israel’s spy agency Mossad. In particular, he has been linked with the 2011 assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai.

The case is enormously sensitive for a Jewish community in which Zygier is well known and his grieving parents highly respected. Perhaps this is why in the days following the program, the Melbourne Jewish community went to ground. According to one blogger:

Though many people from my community were connected to Ben Zygier, most people were reluctant to speak on the record, citing personal connections to Ben’s family or a desire to remain respectfully quiet in light of their grief. Melbourne Jews are tight-knit and extremely protective of their privacy as a community, so it isn’t surprising to see people are closing ranks…

But while understandable from the average person, silence from Jewish leadership is regrettable. The Prisoner X story may be to Australian Jewry what the “uncovered meat” comments and the Sydney “Innocence of Muslim” riots were to Australian Muslims: teachable moments that can either be leveraged to deepen understanding and faith in Australian multiculturalism, or squandered.

The case has prompted curiosity and doubt in the broader Australian community. Was it one out of the box? How many Australian Jews would give over their passports or obtain fraudulent ones for a foreign spy agency? When push came to shove, where do Australian Jewish loyalties lie – with Australia or Israel?

Sadly, in an interview on ABC Radio National three days after the story broke, Philip Chester, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, did not engage productively with such questions or provide adequate assurances. This despite the fact that he leads an organisation that has helped more than 10,000 Australian Jews emigrate to Israel.

This performance stood in stark contrast to that of an earlier interview with Nachman Shai, an Israeli Knesset member who expressed sorrow that he had not followed up inquiries he’d made years earlier about Prisoner X: “Maybe we did not do our job at the time. Now we no doubt have some regrets about it.”

The Prisoner X story has weeks, if not years, left to run. Whatever good reasons Australian Jews have for being circumspect about the particulars of the case, there are just as compelling ones for Jewish leaders to forthrightly confront the general philosophical issues raised by the case.

If I were constructing that open and forthcoming response, it would look something like this:

While we can’t comment specifically about the Prisoner X case, we certainly understand that it can be seen to raise questions about Jewish Australian loyalty and the potential for dual citizens to misuse their passports in ways that violate the legal and ethical duties attaching to all Australian citizens.

What we want Australians to know is that Jewish Australians understand our legal and moral obligations to Australia and are committed to upholding them. Those who are dual citizens can and do accept the rights and duties associated with being a citizen of both countries which demands one never be betrayed for the other, and avoiding all activities that bring the need to demonstrate loyalty to both into conflict.

In light of what’s happened, we will certainly ensure such messages about the rights and wrongs of dual citizenship continue to be part of the broader conversation in the community with Jewish youth in the hope that the already small number of regrettable events falls to zero.

Perhaps Galus Australis’s Yaron Gottlieb – himself a dual citizen – says it best:

National loyalty is often presented as a zero-sum phenomenon. But this does not need to be the case. I live with two passports and this creates no challenges to the essence of my being. I am Israeli and I am Australian, and like so many others in this country who are dual citizens, I am absolutely loyal to both.

Publication history

Prisoner X and the Question of Dual Loyalties   ABC Online The Drum Opinion