Journalists have their value. I can think of few other writers who would take on a project where the records and witnesses are so few and the risks so plentiful – of offending everyone in sight, including powerful institutions of the state.
Good journalists are conditioned for this kind of battle and, in Rafael Epstein’s case, perhaps are even made for it. In February 2013, when news broke in Australia of the apparent suicide of a mysterious prisoner in an Israeli jail, Epstein was positioned to draw on a wealth of experience negotiating the toughest beat in investigative journalism. In the spy-versus-spy world of international security and counterterrorism there are few reliable sources and Epstein had rare contacts. Even better, when the name Ben Zygier was revealed, the journalist realised he actually knew the victim formerly known as “Prisoner X”. In the late 1980s, they belonged to the same Zionist youth group in Melbourne.
The spy story had been broken, unusually these days, not by Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden but by other journalists, notably Fairfax Media’s Jason Koutsoukis and the ABC team of Trevor Bormann and Vivien Altman. In the subsequent months, Epstein must have worked hard, travelling, researching and writing. All the while, the “white-hot” story, as he termed it, continued to make world headlines and radiate intrigue.
Epstein’s research began to cast doubt on reports explaining Zygier’s imprisonment as a consequence of bungled foreign order spying for the sake of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. In Prisoner X, he persuasively argues that Zygier’s sin had been instead to unwisely blab about his work for Mossad when on study leave in Melbourne.
The attributable facts assembled to make his case are, as he admits, spare, but that is the way of these stories. There is more to storytelling than the gathering of facts and Epstein manages to add colour and texture, as well as veracity, through his rendering of the sociology of some familiar worlds.
Some of the best segments in Prisoner X deliver insights from the internal life of a journalist measuring the weight of competing misinformation and wrangling sources. Epstein has astute observations on further moral and intellectual dilemmas that abound in the shadow lands of spying. One small chapter is called “Lying for a living”.
Best of all is his study of the diaspora of Jewish identity. Ben Zygier was one of many Jewish Australians who aspired to serve his other homeland with pride.
These interwoven threads of sociology bind well a difficult narrative. If only more shape and strength could have been carried by the other thread of psychology, to help us know better the central character.
For all its 200-plus pages and Epstein’s skill and fascination with his subject, the portrait of Ben Zygier is thinly drawn. As the author explains, the Zygier family did not co-operate, and though unnamed friends are interviewed, observations are trite and contradictory. According to these sources, Ben Zygier was unfocused, untrustworthy, unrelaxed and not to be taken seriously. Alternatively, he was patriotic, likeable, normal, a standout guy, dynamic and extremely sharp. That is not to say Zygier couldn’t have been all of those things, but as character study, it doesn’t reach beyond a bomb burst of superficial commentary.
A similar criticism of a failure to join the dots might have been made of the author’s account of events leading to Zygier’s arrest and secret incarceration. Prisoner X details a history of Israel’s use of foreign passports to provide better cover for clandestine operations. In 2004, Mossad spies were caught harvesting passports in New Zealand. In 2010, following the execution of Palestinian arms dealer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, local police revealed widespread use of false identities by the assassination squad. Four fake passports were Australian. The timing of the Dubai assassination runs close to the arrest of Ben Zygier in Israel. And beforehand, in Australia, Zygier had been drawn into an ASIO investigation of passport abuse.
But sometimes the dots don’t join, and it is to Epstein’s credit that his story resists conflation. The author finds no direct connection, seeing the occurrences instead running parallel. While Prisoner X occupies a world billowing with conspiracy, Epstein manages a sober distance.
His own reckoning sees the arrest and death of Zygier as the end state of a story more banal than the stuff of most spy thrillers. Although evidence is again spare, Zygier is revealed as unstable, unsuited to high-pressure spying – and even suicidal.
An interview with Israeli lawyer Avigdor Feldman, one of the last to see Zygier alive, offers a telling impression that “one of Ben’s biggest fears was that he would be rejected by the Israeli society that he so wanted to join”. Join that with the news from his last visitor, his wife and mother of their two children, and you feel some of the despair that began to saturate cell 13. Ben’s wife, who goes by the pseudonym “Haya” in Prisoner X, had delivered the devastating news that she was leaving him.
There is a lot of detail outlining Zygier’s final hours following his tearful wife’s departure from Ayalon Prison. It represents cogent evidence in a story otherwise blackened with redaction, demonstrating that Zygier died by his own hand. You would wish similar transparency applied to so much of what we are not allowed to know.
While there is repetition and a feeling of an author rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline, Epstein’s command of Prisoner X is strong enough for the reader to see Zygier’s punishment of secret imprisonment for an undetermined period as hardly fitting a still uncertain crime.
In challenging these secrets, Rafael Epstein delivers a measure of justice to Ben Zygier and his story. JG
Melbourne University Press, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein ". Subscribe here.