Film review'Ben Zygier was not a traitor'

What happened to Prisoner X? New film seeks to shed light on disgraced Mossad agent

Premiering at Jerusalem Film Festival, Israeli-Australian production revisits tale a decade after it was exposed — but reveals frustratingly little

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

An image from the 'Prisoner X' film about the life of Ben Zygier. (Arik Weiss/Medalia Productions)
An image from the 'Prisoner X' film about the life of Ben Zygier. (Arik Weiss/Medalia Productions)

The question of the true story behind the downfall of Prisoner X — Australian-Israeli Mossad agent Ben Zygier — rattled Israel for much of 2013. But few concrete answers ever arose.

After news broke that Zygier had been secretly imprisoned and then took his own life while behind bars in 2010, contradictory rumors and reports of his activities reverberated around the world. Did he out a Hezbollah double agent? Leak information to Australia? Or Dubai? Did he actually kill himself, or was he murdered in prison?

A new documentary from Israeli Hilla Medalia and Australian Amos Roberts, which premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival earlier this month and will air on Israel’s HOT and Australia’s ABC this fall, seeks to shed some light on the explosive story.

In interviews with friends, journalists, his attorney and through recreated testimony from an anonymous Mossad operative, “Prisoner X” explores how Zygier evolved from a young idealistic Zionist growing up in Melbourne to a young father of two accused of treason and driven to suicide in solitary confinement.

The film tells a dynamic and gripping story for those unfamiliar with the plot, but provides few new details or theories about the life and death of Zygier. So much has been written in the decade since the explosive story was first uncovered, with so many different theories floated, that it is difficult to discern if there was new or simply repackaged information.

Ben Zygier's Australian passport (photo credit: screen capture Channel 10)
Ben Zygier’s Australian passport (Screenshot Channel 10)

At times frustratingly yet understandably vague, the documentary is also often quietly devastating, tracing the life of a young man with so much promise, which ended in so much tragedy.

Amid the many theories, the film does appear to reach some conclusions, including that Zygier took his own life, and was not killed; that whatever crime he was charged with was likely due to a mistake, rather than intentional betrayal; and that Israeli authorities mistreated and abandoned a mentally unstable Zygier, leading to his wholly preventable death.

“I can tell you – without of course getting into the details – that Ben was very far from the boundary that I set for myself of those I would not represent,” said Zygier’s lawyer, Moshe Mazur in the film. “He was not a traitor.”

Multiple people interviewed in the documentary suggest that the theories floated about Zygier’s betrayal were a smokescreen for his true activities, which allegedly were carried out in Iran. Most seemed to agree that Zygier had worked undercover for a company in Italy that had dealings in Iran and that his downfall was linked to the time he spent at Monash University in Melbourne, where he revealed the wrong information to the wrong people.

Yet stories repeatedly circulated that Zygier outed informants in Lebanon or thwarted an operation to retrieve the bodies of three Israeli soldiers missing for decades.

“What doesn’t quite fit is that the people that were exposed as being Mossad informants – nothing really bad happened to them,” opined Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis, who was one of the first to be tipped off about Zygier’s double life.

An image from the ‘Prisoner X’ film about the life of Ben Zygier. (Avner Shahaf/Medalia Productions)

Australian journalist Rafael Epstein, who knew Zygier as a child and wrote a 2014 book about the case, suggested that the narrative that emerged was about a story that’s “murky, it’s not of strategic interest to Israel. It provides a simple reason for why Ben should be in jail. It just didn’t ring true,” he said. “It’s a good story for Mossad because it also gives nothing away about one of Israel’s most important espionage areas, which is Iran.”

None of Zygier’s family members appeared in the documentary: not his parents, sister, wife nor his children, who are now teenagers.

Australian reporter Trevor Bormann said he was filming a news segment from the cemetery in Melbourne where Zygier is buried when he encountered his parents.

“I approached them, they were shocked to see me,” recounted Bormann in the film. “And Ben’s mother said something to the effect of, ‘All you’re going to do in this, is to put me in this empty plot next to my son.’”

Ultimately, more than a story about espionage gone wrong, “Prisoner X” tells a story about the state using and abandoning a young idealist, throwing him behind bars without telling a soul and burying the story alongside him. Were it not for an Australian expose published in 2013, Israelis would likely have never known about Zygier and how he took his own life in 2010 in a cell specially designed for Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“When you see the whole picture, it is perhaps the most unnecessary death that you can think about in these circumstances,” said lawyer Mazur, adding that the State of Israel should have kept Zygier safe “also when he was overseas, and also when he was here, under their supervision.”

The rumors that the Mossad had killed Zygier were way off base, said journalist Epstein. “The truth is worse because they just didn’t give a shit about him.”

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