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Red Rag weekly column: the Ben Zygier affair; Akiva Orr, RIP
By: Gideon Spiro
18 February 2013 (English version 23 February)

Did he commit suicide?

There is a children’s song that begins, “A terrible noise in the Land of the Dwarves”. And indeed these days there is noise and tumult in Israel after the disturbing revelation about a Mossad agent named Ben Zygier, heretofore known as “Prisoner X”, who was arrested on suspicion of security violations. Judges issued publication bans, no member of the citizenry who was not connected to governing circles knew anything, and due to the blanket publication-ban handed down by the courts, the press published nothing. The offences of which he was accused were so serious in the eyes of the regime that it was decided that he should be imprisoned with the highest level of isolation, surrounded by cameras and guards who would to keep watch over him 24 hours a day, in order to prevent him from being harmed. And not only that, but his detention was so secret that his identity was changed. He was jailed under a name that was invented for the purpose of his detention. And the jailers themselves did not know who he was. Thus is a person made to disappear. It is a practice of the most sinister regimes.

We would have been sentenced to remain in media darkness for several more years, if not for an Australian investigatory programme. The security establishment tried to prevent the publication of the Australian report, and obedient judges issued a publication ban on the report. Heads of the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (ISA - Shin Bet) and the army evidently still live in the pre-Internet era, when they could decide what we would know and – especially – what we would not know. In the Internet era it is impossible for long to block the flow of information, and Israeli websites and bloggers quoted from the Australian report. In addition, three courageous Knesset Members, Zehava Galon, Ahmad Tibi and Dov Henin, took advantage of their parliamentary immunity, violated the orders of the military censor and submitted questions on the matter in the Knesset. At that point all the fences were broken down and even the Security establishment understood that their struggle to stop it had failed, and those same judges who had previously signed publication bans now rescinded them.

This is what we know as these lines are being written: An Australian Jew, Ben Zygier, who was educated among other places in a Zionist youth movement in the pro-Israel Jewish community in Melbourne, emigrated to Israel to join the army, and afterwards he joined the Mossad. One of the reasons why the Mossad was glad to get him was the fact that he had dual citizenship, Israeli and Australian. With an Australian passport is it possible to enter countries that are barred to holders of Israeli passports. It is no secret, and it has been observed repeatedly, that the Mossad uses passports of Jews with dual citizenship for purposes of liquidations and other acts of terrorism. Some of the owners of the passports learned about how they were used after they were asked to lend their passports for a while and then got them back with stamps from countries they had never visited. Countries whose passports the Mossad has used for murder missions have protested to Israel over that use. The government of Israel promised not to do it again, but it has broken that promise repeatedly.

What are the grave security violations of which Ben Zygier was suspected and which justified such drastic measures against him? They’re not telling us, lest, God forbid, we cast doubt on their gravity. Journalists close to the Establishment are creating the impression that they are party to the secret – that the Mossad chief whispered into their ears the details of the suspicions in return for not publishing them, and so all they tell us is that the offences were grave indeed. As a bonus they add details unflattering to Zygier, to discredit him as they did to Mordechai Vanunu in his time. Those journalists are more committed to the bosses of the clandestine services than they are to their readers and to a democratic press that will realize the principle of the public’s right to know.

Reports from the Australian media suggest that Zygier was planning to meet with an Australian journalist to reveal to him details about the way the Mossad has used Australian passports. The Australian journalist said that before the meeting, while he was on his morning run in Jerusalem, his apartment was broken into and searched, and he thinks that his telephone has been tapped as well.

And this brings us to the climax of the plot: all this took place two years ago. In early 2010 Ben Zygier, who became “Prisoner X”, was arrested, and eight months later he was found dead in his cell. The official version put out by the Prisons Service is that he committed suicide by hanging. That is not credible: the man was under 24-hour camera surveillance. How could he have deceived everyone? Magistrate’s Court Judge Dafna Blatman, who was appointed to investigate Zygier’s death, took two years to come to the conclusion that he hanged himself. She needed two years for that? This only raises further questions about whether the man committed suicide or was murdered. There are many ways to commit a “clean” murder. His food could have been poisoned to cause a heart attack and a hanging could have been staged after his death. They could have hanged him and arranged the cameras in such a way that the executioners would not appear on the screen.

The Justice Ministry tells us that everything was done under judicial oversight. To many Israelis that may sound good, but I am not impressed. Those who know the Israeli judicial system know that judges in Israel are a rubber-stamp for the covert services. A Mossad man whispers into the ear of a judge the mantra “national security”, and like an automat he signs every detention-order, including complete isolation. For example, Judge Hila Gerstel, president of the Central District Court, issued a publication-ban on Zygier’s detention, including a ban on reporting about the publication-ban. That’s the absurdity we have come to. Do judges like Gerstel and her ilk provide “judicial oversight”, or would it be more correct to say that they are judges who submit to every whim of the clandestine services? And the legal defence that a person in Zygier’s position receives is also sometimes problematic. He cannot freely retain a lawyer of his choosing, but only from a list of lawyers who have been approved by the ISA. And sometimes the loyalties of lawyers on that list are divided between the ISA and their client. The tendency will then be to suggest that the client accept a plea-bargain that will put him in prison for many years, instead of fighting to exonerate the client.

Attorney Avigdor Feldman related that he met with Zygier two days before he was found dead in his cell (not as his defence lawyer but because he had been asked to give an opinion), and the impression he got was of a man who admitted no guilt and was determined to fight to clear his name. That is not how someone who is planning to commit suicide acts. And moreover, even if it really was suicide, someone caused him to do it. You will not read what follows in Mme Blatman’s report, which almost certainly will be published one of these days. Below is a very partial list of things that can lead to suicide:

First, complete isolation, which is a kind of torture; second, interrogations accompanied by threats that if he does not confess, he will sit in prison for the rest of his life and his family will shun him, and other threats along those lines; third, physical torture, such as stress-positions, binding to a chair and others. Forty-six years of Occupation have converted Israel into a torture-empire. The colonialist-Jewish brain works tirelessly to develop new torture techniques. They are one of Israel’s biggest exports – just ask officers in the US army; fourth, the prison authorities have indirect ways of encouraging suicide. Mordechai Vanunu told me that whenever they brought food to his cell in plastic containers, the guard observed to him that it was in order to prevent suicide. When this is repeated over and over, the subject sticks in the mind of the prisoner, and some of them eventually fall into the psychological trap; fifth, unlike Mordechai Vanunu, a man of extraordinary emotional strength who withstood over 11 years of isolation and who had made a political about-face before his arrest and so had no expectations of the Israeli government, Ben Zygier saw himself as a Zionist and an Israeli patriot, who had left a comfortable life in Australia and was captivated by the Zionist ideal, according to which a Jew belongs in Israel, and so he felt that the State, instead of thanking him, had betrayed him and was accusing him unjustly; sixth, his lawyers took him the State’s proposal for a plea-bargain, under the terms of which in return for a confession of guilt he would be thrown into prison for 10 years (according to one version) or 15 years (according to another source); seventh, the Mossad and the ISA had an interest in sending Zygier to meet his Maker in order to prevent him from testifying at a trial. They did not want a repeat of the trial of Mordechai Vanunu, whose testimony embarrassed the security establishment and at which leaders of the state were compelled to testify at the trial and submit to cross-examination.

Previously I mentioned the journalists with ties to the security establishment who are made party to the most secret material in return for a commitment not to publish it. One such journalist is Ron Ben-Yishai, one of whose previous jobs was commander of the army broadcaster, Galei Tzahal. In a programme on Channel One on state television (17 February 2013) which was devoted to “Prisoner X”, he participated in a panel as an expert on the army, the ISA and the Mossad. When he was asked by the interviewer what Zygier was accused of, he replied that he could not disclose that due to the censorship ban, but he did say without going into details that the violations were related to verbal indiscretions. In other words, Zygier talked. And that strikes a sympathetic chord in me. Whereas Ron Ben-Yishai is the type of journalist who keeps information to himself without sharing it with the public, I take exactly the opposite position, that those who publish secret information that the government wants to conceal are providing a democratic service. That is why I have always supported Mordechai Vanunu, I supported the soldier Anat Kamm (even though she expressed remorse at her trial) who took advantage of her access to a military computer to copy secret documents and pass them to the journalist Uri Blau, who gleaned from them evidence of crimes committed by the Occupation army, and published it in his newspaper Haaretz. At the time I wrote that if I had been in possession of the plans for the First Lebanon War (1982), I would have published them and prevented the deaths of thousands of people and the wounding of tens of thousands.

Regarding the public’s right to know, I do not only declaim principles, but I have also long tried to implement them. When I was the editor of Post Mortem, the student newspaper at Haifa University (academic year 1971/2), I was repeatedly rebuked and warned by the military censor for the newspaper’s publication of reports and articles on subjects that required advance clearance from the censor. I knew he had the authority to close the newspaper, but I decided to take my chances and ignore him. I would not let him dictate to me what to publish and what not to publish. And in fact I did not submit to the censor any report or article for advance approval. The gamble paid off. And when I was a correspondent for Al Hamishmar in the US and at the United Nations, a great deal of information came into my possession which the newspaper refused to publish in the presumption that the censor would disqualify it. In other words: advance self-censorship. In such cases I always passed the information to colleagues from the international press. When I was a government employee I would receive both secret and non-secret information, and whatever was not published in Israel I passed to foreign journalists who published it in their newspapers, after which it was printed in Israeli newspapers in the form of quotes from the foreign press. Today I am not near the halls of power, so my capacity in that regard is considerably diminished. And besides, today, in the age of the borders-transcending Internet, it is also less necessary.

To sum up: I commend those who talk freely, and I condemn those who suppress and conceal.


A few days ago, Aki (Akiva) Orr, a scholar and a dear friend of mine, died. Below is what I said at the funeral:

Aki – a man of the Left, a founder of Matzpen, a socialist, a humanist, democrat, friend, benefactor, a hater of war and a lover of humanity, a prolific intellectual who never stopped seeking paths to a democratic society that would subsist without the violent mechanism of the state, died peacefully in his sleep, as befits a man who struggled all his life for justice that transcends nations and borders.

Aki was the ultimate example of the thinking Left, free of dogmas and cults of personality. As an intellectual he strove for a democratic and egalitarian society that would be as free as possible from the violent mechanism of the state. And the age of the Internet is in fact advancing us towards Aki’s ideal, for it is now possible to bring every issue before the public for decision through a stroke on a keyboard.

Aki loathed nationalism and racism. Hence his anti-Zionism. The two of us were natives of Berlin and we both went to British Palestine at the age of three, and both of our families escaped from Nazi Germany. If not for the Nazis, our families would not have emigrated and we would have grown up as Jewish Germans or German Jews, or as Germans of Jewish origin, for our families were deeply rooted in German culture.

Aki belonged to the minority for whom the lessons of the Nazi experience were expressed above all in a trans-national struggle against nationalism and racism. His anti-Zionism stemmed from the fact that he believed that nationalism and racism were inherent in the Zionist idea. He saw a continuous line from the idea of “Hebrew labour” to the Judaization of the Galilee all the way to the settlements. Jewish self-determination stops being just when it is conditioned on the dispossession of another people and the negation of their rights. He was realistic enough to understand that it is impossible to go back in time a hundred years, but we must repair what we can, and the Holocaust must not be used as an eternal license to oppress another people.

Aki was among the group of leftists, too few to my dismay, who understood the terrible danger posed by a nuclear Middle East, and he joined the Israeli Committee for a Middle East Free of Atomic, Biological and Chemical Weapons. We were colleagues in activism. Every 6 August, Hiroshima Day, we would together join a demonstration to remind Israelis that relief and salvation will not come to us from the hundreds of nuclear bombs Israeli has accumulated, for they will bring us a new Holocaust; the solution is the divestment of the region of those weapons so that no leader will have the option of using them. Thence also his consistent support for Mordechai Vanunu.

Aki was a friend whose door was always open. During the years he lived in England, countless people found a warm welcome at his home, and it was always done without you feeling uncomfortable for inconveniencing your host. For me his home was the natural place to rest my head whenever I visited London. He never placed himself above anyone else. The intellectual in him did not lock him up in an ivory tower. He went down into the vale of tears of political activism, argued with passers-by, and would often astonish his adversaries with the vast quantity of knowledge and facts at his command that left them slack-jawed. He retained some characteristics from his time in the Israeli merchant marine. He always dressed simply, his appearance was impressive but not intimidating, his voice boomed but did not threaten. A man who projected kindness without relinquishing his political principles.

When all is said and done, all here who have come to eulogize Aki will without exception be eulogized ourselves one day. Until my day of my own eulogy comes, I will always treasure the image of Aki as a comrade in ideology and struggle, as one of the pillars of the Left, and not only in Israel. May his memory be blessed.

Gideon Spiro

Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent
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