Who really was Ben Zygier? Reading Rafael Epstein’s ‘Prisoner X’

prisoner x‘Prisoner X’ by journalist and ABC radio presenter Rafael Epstein investigates the life and death of Melbourne man Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in a top secret cell in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in  December 2010 and whose sensational story made headlines in Australia and around the wold.

In 2013, Zygier, a lawyer and father of two from a well-connected Melbourne Jewish family, was sensationally revealed on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme to be’Prisoner X’ the Mossad agent who betrayed Israel.

My interest in reading Epstein’s excellent book came out of a conversation with a fellow journalist, Patrick Durkin (@patrickdurkin),  a former lawyer, who had done articles with Ben at the law firm Norton Rose in 2001.

Patrick mentioned that when news broke that Ben Zygier was ‘Prisoner X’ in early 2013, he had hastily written a story for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper we both write for, titled “Prisoner X, My Melbourne lawyer friend”

It may have been written in haste, but it was deeply moving and renewed my interest in a story I had, for some reason, not followed in great detail when it made front page headlines.  Patrick wrote that the revelations of who Ben was sent a “shock wave” through his group of lawyer friends.

Ben had joined our group of 20-odd articled clerks halfway through the year. Most of us remember him as a serious young man who was largely aloof from the rest of our tight-knit group… News broken by ABC’s Foreign Correspondent of Ben’s jailing and death is as shocking as it is surreal. (Patrick Durkin)

Rafael Epstein also knew Ben Zygier, at a much earlier time in his life, and like Patrick struggled to digest how he ended up in such a predicament in solitary confinement in a maximum security Israeli jail.

Epstein was Ben’s mentor in a Zionist Youth Movement called Netzer in the late 1980s when he remembered Ben  as a “cheeky, warm, quietly spoken boy”.

I have a photo of Ben from this time…it is the same smile and blue eyes that stare out from the photo of Ben flashed around the world’s media two year’s after his death. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

Epstein’s motivation to write the book was to correct the impression created in the mainstream media that Ben was either a “zealot or a traiter” by shedding some light on who Ben really was and, also, to try and solve the mystery of what really happened.

According to Epstein’s carefully drawn picture – based on numerous interviews with people who knew him  – Ben Zygier was by all accounts  a well-liked, quick-witted, intelligent man who would have made a very good lawyer.

But unfortunately, he also had none of the traits necessary to become a master spy for Mossad, Israel’s revered and feared spy agency: he was emotionally unstable, his behaviour was sometimes unpredictable, he could be grandiose and boastful and crucially, he could not keep a secret.

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Ben Zygier on the front page of The Age newspaper

One of the key revelations in the book is Epstein’s fervent belief that Ben’s downfall was not – as reported in the mainstream media – due to a rogue mission to the Middle East where his attempts to turn a Hezbollah agent into an Israeli double-agent, backfired sensationally.

Instead, Epstein claims, it was things Ben said to a mysterious Iranian man among Ben’s circle of friends at Monash University where he had returned to study in 2009 that led him to a solitary cell in Ayalon Prison.

According to Epstein, Ben’s fragile state of mind caused him to betray his secret life to the wrong person.

Ben’s mistake was a simple one and lacked the determination and intent that has been suggested in the media…put simply, Ben said too much to the wrong person at the wrong time. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

The other key insight from the book is that it provides a convincing case that Ben’s death was suicide, despite the initial suspicions when he was found hanged in a supposed suicide-proof cell. The truth appears to be that Ben died because responsibility for his care was mishandled by the security services and the prison officials, because no one did their jobs properly in ensuring his well being and because, by the end, Ben had lost all hope.

Indeed, a sense of profound and unnecessary tragedy is what rings most loudly in reading Epstein’s book; that Ben Zygier, who came from a well-connected and loving Jewish family, who had a loving wife and two kids, who was well educated, smart and likable, could have lived a successful and happy life.

Tragically, he chose the wrong path and was then encouraged further along it, by people who misjudged his character.

Of course there still remain all those unanswered questions: who exactly did Ben tell his secrets to? What were they and why did he become Israel’s most dangerous prisoner? These questions Epstein cannot answer, though not for lack of trying.

Predictably, after I finished reading Prisoner X, I watched the two riveting Foreign Correspondent documentaries (you can find them here) and read numerous articles published at the time about ‘Prisoner X’ and Ben Zygier searching for clues. But as one former spy put it on Foreign Correspondent, we are likely to ever know the full story.

I also had another chat with my colleague Patrick.

He told me that his old law friends had recently met for reunion drinks.Ben, he said, had inevitably come up in conversation as they reminisced about their days at Norton Rose.

According to Patrick,  the group remembered how Ben would be quiet and not really participating in the conversation, and then suddenly say something that grabbed everyone’s attention: like the time he told the group he had killed someone while serving in the Israeli army.

“That was Ben.”

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Deep inside Jo’burg: a review of ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg’ by Mark Gevisser

lost and found in johannesburgLost and Found in Johannesburg: a Memoir‘ by South African journalist and political writer Mark Gevisser is one of the most engrossing and exciting books I have read about my home town, Johannesburg.

It is a vivid memoir of growing up in Johannesburg as a white, Jewish, gay man during the very darkest days of apartheid.

The memoir begins with Gevisser’s remembrance of his childhood in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s elite northern suburbs and his obsession with maps.

Sitting in his father’s Mercedes Benz, he would play a game called ‘dispatcher’ where he would randomly look up someone in the Johannesburg phone directory and then using the Holmden’s Street Map of Greater Johannesburg, the map book of the time,  navigate an imaginary courier to their address.

On one occasion, he tries to navigate to Alexandra, the impoverished, densely populated black township neighbouring Sandton and finds that using the Holmden “there was simply no way through”:

Even now, I can recall my frustration at trying to get my courier to his destination in Alexandra: there was no way of steering him from page 77 across into page 75. Sandton simply ended at its eastern boundary, the Sandspruit stream, with no indication of how one might cross it, or even that page 75 was just on the other side.

This illogical and deliberate attempt by the map makers to separate white Johannesburg from its enslaved black population becomes the starting point for Gevisser to explore the artificial boundaries, restrictions and cruelties created by apartheid – and also how they were broken down.

One of the great pleasures of reading Lost and Found in Johannesburg is Gevisser’s inclusion of dozens of fascinating photographs, some from family albums, but also images of a lesser known side of Johannesburg (for people like me anyway, who had such sheltered childhoods).

A photo that stands out strongly is that taken in the 1960s of the suburban backyard swimming pool of Bram Fisher, the Afrikaner lawyer who would represent Nelson Mandela at his Treason Trial.

In it, we see a group of kids, both black and white “splashing about the pool, as one does in the suburbs on a summer’s afternoon”. This was of course during a time when the races were strictly segregated and yet Fischer and other liberal types flagrantly flouted these rules. Gevisser writes:

Through this poignant idealism, [Bram Fischer] seemed to be trying to reconcile being a white pool-owning South African with the egalitarian ideology to which he had given his life.

Other images depict that familiar, yet never-quite-understood relationship between white people and their black domestic workers. Gevisser includes a photo of himself as a boy in the arms of a black lady who stares back serenely as white children play around her. In another, taken on his parent’s wedding day, he describes the black man in the photograph, the chauffeur who stands to attention, only his cap and uniform visible among the celebrations.

These pictures depict the everyday divisions between master and servant we accepted as children, but hardly thought to question.

Who were these black people who took care of us as children, drove us around town and cooked our meals? What were their lives like? In his memoir, Gevisser seeks answers.

Reading the book and studying the photographs, I remember well, the  pungent smells of meat and mieliepap and the exotic aromas of balms and lotions that came from the rooms of our own domestic workers across the yard when I would visit occasionaly.

It’s one of many vivid memories Gevisser’s memoir stirred up.

Indeed, I spent much of the book, enveloped in a warm, but painful feeling of deep nostalgia, a credit to the quality of Gevisser’s prose, which flows mostly effortlessly throughout the book mixing memoir with history and geography and storytelling with journalism.

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The Old Cemetery at Braamfontein

But, Gevisser also describes places I never knew existed like the eerie underground archives at the Johannesburg Library, where Gevisser writes about the old underground mining maps that crumble in his hands, or the Old Cemetery at Braamfontein, where he is “seduced by the voluptuous beauty” of its paved pathways, low stone walls and mossy tombstones reminiscent of famous cemeteries like Highgate in London or Pere Lachaise in Paris.

It came as shock to me when I realised the Old Cemetery was across the road from where I parked my car almost every day, whilst attending Wits University in the 1990s.

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The Wilds, in the heart of Jo’burg

The other important place Gevisser explores (which I have never set foot in) is ‘The Wilds’ a 40 acre indigenous botanical gardens  wonderland plonked in the middle of the city that sadly became a no-go zone because of its reputation as the hideout of criminal gangs.

For Gevisser  it takes on a deeply personal and terrifying meaning, because it is from The Wilds that three men climb a fence on a summer’s evening in January 2012, and enter a fourth-floor apartment building where he is watching  television with his friends. Then a brutal, but all too familar attack unfolds at gunpoint.

He writes of the ordeal:

Something seemingly irrevocable changed that night in my relationship to Johannesburg, my home town, the place I lived for four decades, the place of this book.

It could easily have turned Gevisser, as such incidents have done to many other white and black South Africans who have been victims of its appalling crime rate, into a hater, and his memoir, a journey into bitterness.

But, it does not. In fact it does the opposite.

Gevisser’s journey to understand the elusive city of his birth – from its earliest foundations as a gold mining bonanza, through its decades of segregation, cruelty and political activism to its status as place of economic opportunity  – is a deeply compassionate one.

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For more on what’s interesting about Jo’burg, read my blog post: Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg