Down Undercover

02.18.13

Prisoner X Raises Tough Questions For Australian Jewry

At Shabbat dinner tables around Melbourne this past weekend, heavy-hearted discussions might have centered around the tragic case of Prisoner X, who came to the forefront of the community’s attention following last week’s Foreign Correspondent report on the ABC.  Views would be varied and challenging, raising issues of dual identities and torn commitments shrouded in silence, disbelief and confusion. The Prisoner X story has raised some confronting issues regarding the commitment of Australian Jews to the state of Israel, and the potentially devastating consequences that can ensue when one compromises their citizenship to act for Zionist/Israeli causes.

My own Shabbat dinner table was representative of the madness and sadness that has engulfed Melbourne and Australian Jewry this past week. Across the table from me sat a communal leader, who for once became an unlikely silent presence in an attempt to protect the Zygier family and our haymishe, and sometimes insular community. Next to me was the passionate, and somewhat blinded Zionist whom Israel can do nothing wrong by. Across the way was the humanist who like the young professional, emphasized the overwhelming sadness he felt for the dismissal and negation of Prisoner X’s human rights. And finally, right at the very end of the table, was the voice of peace, a voice conveyed determinedly by a friend who has not yet ceased to believe in the dream. For him the story of Prisoner X is representative of the broader conflict and of the absence of peace and solution. “As tragic as this whole Prisoner X story is, in a week it will be forgotten. And then next month, there will be a new Mossad affair, and they will get the bad guy, or they will be caught out doing something dodgy, like was the case in the Mahmouad Al Maboh affair with the [Australian] passports in Dubai," my friend said. "Ultimately, this will keep happening till we have peace with our neighbors.”

These were the different reactions among Australian Jewish communities to the fiasco, where the most common sentiments revolve around disbelief and confusion. There are so many questions: What does it mean to be a dual national, literally or ideologically? What does it mean to identify as a Zionist? And why has this particular story dominated the media, despite the countless crazy stories unfolding all over the world, every day? 

Many responded with utter silence—something quite uncharacteristic of a community that is notably vocal and opinionated when it comes to Israel. Indeed, for a community where the vast majority identify as Zionist, speaking out when the word Israel is mentioned is almost a given. But this time, silence has permeated the “bagel belt,” partly as an empathetic, respectful and protective measure for Ben Zygier—the alleged Prisoner X—and his family, and partly to protect the media breaching the community’s walls. Then there's the shock and disbelief, and not knowing what to say at all. Others have aired the idea that they feel betrayed as Zionists. At shul this past weekend an aspiring olah, who dreams of building her life in Israel, indicated an overwhelming sense of frustration and even anger for the State and the situation: “I feel utterly despondent. We are brought up to believe that Israel is a just country, and that Israel’s army is the most fair and honorable, but this is just one more incident adding to the list of ‘No it is not’.”

For the many Australian Jews who identify strongly with the Jewish homeland, and who feel deeply connected to its history, future, and to current reality, the idea that the state is responsible for the death of a proud and devoted Australian Zionist and dual citizen has driven some to question their own commitment to the cause. A youth movement graduate who has dedicated much of the last ten years to volunteering for various Israel-related organizations lamented: “I wonder why I bother sometimes. Why I spend hours and days and months engaging in attempts to better a state that seemingly wants to abuse my community’s and my own commitment to its improvement.”

The distress is compounded by the 2010 incident in which Mossad allegedly stole the passports of several Australian Olim—those who immigrated to Israel—for use in security operations outside of Israel. These incidents have left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Australian Zionists, many of whom have given their time, passion and hearts to the state of Israel, and who now feel manipulated and exploited by the Israeli government in such a way that it compromises their previously comfortable sense of dual citizenship and dual loyalties.

As Australians, we expect freedom of access to information; we expect to know where an incarcerated national is being held, for what reason and whether in fact there is validity to such imprisonment. We also expect that all prisoners be treated fairly with consideration of their human rights, regardless of the severity of their crime. However, I would expect that many Zionist Jews would put the defense and security of the State of Israel over and above their sense of responsibility as Australian citizens. The speculation that Prisoner X’s actions could have placed Israel’s security at risk will be enough for many to conclude that Israel was justified in its action. It's apparent that in parts of the community, Israel’s security—that of the collective—gets priority over and above everything else, whatever the cost. Netanyahu called upon this sentiment when said of the Prisoner X case, “Let the security forces do their work quietly so that we can continue to live in security and tranquillity in the state of Israel.”

There is also a strong sentiment that first and foremost this incident is a gross abuse of human rights. "Above all the feelings this has generated," one Australian-Jewish professional told me, "I am most saddened by the mistreatment and suffering of a fellow human being." The feeling that a person can be incarcerated, that their human rights can be violated so flagrantly and in a democratic, first world country is deeply disturbing. And for a number of people I have encountered, this is the issue of greatest significance to have emerged from the story of Prisoner X.

One recurring idea that has arisen in the aftermath of this story is that of the conflict of interest that arises when a person is loyal and committed to more than one country: Is having multiple citizenships something that we as Australians should perceive as a threat? Is it problematic if a person serves in an army of an adopted country? How about in its intelligence service? Or for that matter its secret service? Is it acceptable if there are no underlying ideological, political or moral conflicts between your two homelands, if they have and continue to serve each others' national interests? And what then if a conflict of interest arises? Should one serve in an army that acts in opposition to the values or policies of their other country?

These questions have been reverberating in my mind all week long. We live in a globalized world where it’s common for people to have multiple loyalties, and some may carry passports for multiple countries. This isn’t just about who to support in a soccer match between Australia and Israel. It’s about complex ideas of identity, politics and religion. And which may include performing military duties that one country may not condone, This weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at the tensions this weekend when, defending his government's treatment of Prisoner X, he said Israel was "more threatened and face(s) more challenges" than other countries, yet maintains a democracy. “We are not like other countries,” he said, something Australian Jewry has been acutely grappling with for a week now.