Rafael Epstein: Prisoner X



Early last year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broke an incredible story about Australian lawyer working in Israel who had been moonlighting for the Mossad. Somehow he ran afoul of the law and, after being charged with treason, hung himself inside a maximum-security prison back in 2010. His name was Ben Zygier but in Israel he was known only by the alias, Prisoner X. The revelation sent shockwaves through Australia’s Jewish community and intelligence communities from Canberra, to Tel Aviv and Tehran, and left journalists on all sides reeling for answers.

A few weeks later, a joint investigation by Australia’s Fairfax newspaper and German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Zygier was a Mossad agent who’d gone rogue in an ill-fated attempt to prove his worth to his superiors. But Zygier was outwitted by a double-agent to whom he unwittingly gave the names of the Mossad’s operatives in Lebanon. At least two – as many as two dozen – Lebanese citizens were arrested and sentenced to lengthy sentences for spying for Israel. When the Mossad fingered Zygier as the mole, he was arrested and reborn Prisoner X – a traitor who posed such a threat to the security of Israel that his very name had to be erased, his arrest and incarceration had to be kept top secret and the Israeli media had to be gagged. But the gag only slowed the flow of information.

Since then, Prisoner X has become a household name in Australia and Israel. Now, a book, also entitled Prisoner X (Melbourne University Press, 2014), is alleging that Der Spiegel’s findings are as false as everything else in the house of mirrors that was Prisoner X. It’s the first book by Rafael Epstein, an ABC journalist not involved in the original investigation but who knew Zygier via their mutual association in a Jewish youth movement in Melbourne more than two decades ago.

Epstein takes readers back to his and Zygier’s days at one of the many flourishing Jewish youth movements operating in the city. Funded by Israel and various Jewish agencies, their purpose is the dissemination of Zionist ideology through social events, camps and subsidised study tours in Israel. Told through the stories of holocaust survivors and independence fighters who overcame overwhelming military might to reclaim the Jewish homeland, the movements’ draw is magnetic. As a former member of a similar youth group in Brisbane, I can attest to this. It was the equivalent of the Black Panther movement for middle-class suburban Jews.

Many non-Jewish people have said to me that they don’t understand why Ben left Australia, where he grew up, to live in Israel. For me and my friends it was a matter-of-fact, everyday occurrence for people we knew to shift halfway round the world – not for a job opportunity or to live in a cultural centre like New York or London, but to join a uniquely Jewish nation (45)

Fast forward to 2003. Epstein and I have gotten over the fantasy of being Israeli soldier-citizens and moved onto other things. Zygier has not. He is living in Tel Aviv and working as a commercial lawyer when he receives a cryptic letter asking him if he’s looking for interesting work overseas. Sent by the Mossad, it proves irresistible for Zygier who, after serving as a combat soldier in the army, still yearns to be part of something bigger than himself. Zygier’s intelligence is formidable, which helps him pass all the Mossad’s little tests. But seeing his friends killed in combat has rattled his mind. He has serious emotional problems. As an agent in the field where composure is everything, Zygier is in way over his head. By 2009, the Mossad has all but washed its hands of him.

It’s at this stage in Zygier’s life that Der Speigel believes he was double-crossed by Hezbollah in an elaborative ruse one can imagine taking place in sepia inside a crowded, smoky teahouse somewhere in the Levant.

However, Epstein points to a Melbourne campus where Zygier was studying management while on extended leave from the Mossad. One day, Zygier starts talking. He likes the attention and his audience like to listen. Among them is a foreign exchange student from Iran who knows what he’s hearing is valuable and he relays it back home. Zygier blabbed during recess. It was as simple as that.

Epstein goes on to explain how the Mossad lured Zygier, by then an expectant father, back to Israel on false pretences and had him locked up. He writes about how Zygier’s personal psychological torment, systemic failure, human error and vitriol for a man accused of being a traitor conspired to allow Zygier to take his own life with a bed sheet in a high-tech, CCTV-monitored cell designed for none less than Yigal Amir, assassin of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

For all the book’s investigative brilliance, perhaps the only criticism one can level at Epstein’s book is not literary but journalistic. He doesn’t disclose his sources – or is at least unable to.

“My central revelation is based on a conversation I had with a person who works in intelligence,” the author told me in an interview. “I didn’t just take their word for it, I went through a painful process to prove as much as I could by matching what they said with what other people have told me and I piece things together. But no, I can’t verify. It’s impossible to test.”

Inasmuch as he adds yet another layer of camouflage and subterfuge to an already convoluted story, Epstein also becomes a part of the hall of mirrors his book attempts to poke holes through.


Rafael Epstein. Prisoner X. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2014.

Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based journalist and photojournalist. He is an Asia-Pacific stringer for TIME magazine, CNN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera.

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