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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