My following review appears in yesterday’s Weekend Australian newspaper:
Understanding the insular and tribal Melbourne Jewish community has fascinated sociologists for decades. With one of the largest concentrations of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, proudly Zionist and with strong Jewish day schools, it’s a world that created Ben Zygier, the Australian Mossad agent who committed suicide in a high-security Israeli prison in 2010.
When ABC television’s Foreign Correspondent broke the explosive revelations of so-called Prisoner X last year, defying the Israeli media’s deferential position towards government secrecy, there was intense scrutiny of the role of Mossad in Australia and globally.
ABC investigative reporter Rafael Epstein attempts to unravel the secrets of Zygier’s life as somebody who shares a similar background: this book includes a photograph of the author as a young man in the Galilee, holding a borrowed AR-15 rifle during a visit to the Jewish state.
Epstein details Zygier’s transformation from a boy “brought up on stories of the exploits of Israel’s soldiers and spies” into an individual who decided to dedicate his life to what he viewed as protecting Israel from harm. What creates this fervour is Zionism — Epstein writes of his own experiences that “Zionist youth movements were part of the beginning of the Jewish brand of nationalism” — and the idolisation of Israel (“each session [at the youth group] began with the singing of the Israeli national anthem”). There were times when Epstein and his Jewish friends were “high on Zionism” and he has “vivid, emotional memories of animated late-night conversations about the precise path to a life lived to its potential, preferably in Israel”.
These are important insights into the milieu in which Zygier thrived. One notable absence in Prisoner X, however, is any real discussion about how these realities have created generations of Jews with a mindset that backs hardline Israeli nationalism and West Bank colonies. It’s surely vital to deconstruct why many Jews across the Diaspora have these perspectives. Epstein’s book could have examined them in more detail because Zygier would not have been as committed to the Jewish state if successive Zionist leaders and their followers hadn’t wanted young Jews to almost ignore Palestinians.
Piecing together Zygier’s life is a tough ask. His parents are not talking publicly, so Epstein tries to explain how the Melbourne man became a committed Likudnik (backer of right-wing Israeli policies), fell in with Mossad (he was approached by a partner at the Israeli law firm where he was employed) and worked his way up the intelligence food chain.
Discovering how Mossad recruits young Jews is challenging and Epstein shows the opaque process by which the agency finds willing recruits who have the requisite political acumen.
In fact, as the author details, “many of the people I knew [in Melbourne] could have enlisted and gone on to join the Mossad”. The normality of such a mission, to fight for a nation on the other side of the world, is the key to understanding Zygier and others like him.
Zygier’s career remains murky and Epstein uncovers much new material, including details about work targeting Iran in Europe and the personal cost of Mossad work such as suicide attempts in 2008 and 2009. Zygier, who was married with two young children, became an emotionally fractured man.
Writing recently in The Guardian, Epstein questioned the willingness of Australian politicians to ask hard questions of Israel because of Canberra’s relationship with Tel Aviv. He damned the lack of curiosity among the political elites over Zygier’s work and death.
Epstein feels a responsibility to show respect for the Zygier family — The Australian Jewish News praised the book and author as showing appropriate understanding of the Zionist community — and acknowledges gaps in his knowledge of the story. Still, he demands answers. Prisoner X is a book about prying open a tight world of secrets and betrayal. The supply of young Jews to Israel could be affected by the Zygier case, leaving an uneasy taste in the mouths of many wondering how Israel treats one of its own.
By Rafael Epstein
MUP, 194pp, $29.99
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. His most recent book is Profits of Doom.