Ilana Dayan proves once again why Uvdah is Israel’s premier news magazine program, airing (Hebrew) a moving, deeply troubling portrait of the last days in the life of Ben Zygier before he killed himself in Ayalon prison. She interviews senior prison officials, including someone who spent an hour with him the week before his death. This man, haunted to this day by what should have been done to help Zygier but wasn’t, officially demanded that the State address the deep depression from which he clearly suffered. This prison officer warned the State prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, that there was a clear danger that the prisoner might commit suicide.
Dayan also interviewed Mossad and Shabak officials who, instead of focusing on the gravity of the fact that they were party to a man’s death, argue about who failed in not detecting his unsuitability for being a Mossad agent.
The most disturbing portion of the show is the interview with Nitzan in which he refuses to accept any responsibility for Zygier’s death. He continually tries to turn the tables by telling Dayan that Zygier had excellent legal representation which should’ve been dealing with their client (as if this means the State , which has imprisoned him in the first place, may wash its hands of any responsibility in the matter). He also resorts to claiming that Avigdor Feldman, who saw Zygier a day before his death, didn’t find any evidence of suicidal impulses or depression. He neglects to add that Feldman was not his regular attorney, only met him a single time, and was not a mental health professional able to make such judgments about Zygier’s condition. He even raises the puerile claim that any prisoner who wants to kill himself enough will find a way to do so. What’s especially troubling morally about such a statement is that it has nothing to do with Ben Zygier, who wasn’t a statistic. But rather a man who needed help which Nitzan did nothing to offer.
Clearly, Nitzan doesn’t see it as part of his job responsibility to be concerned for the fate or well-being of security prisoners. He’s part of a judicial system which sees Zygier as a product that has to be moved from warehouse to market. What happens to the product along the way is of little interest as long as it gets where it needs to go: which is a conviction and incarceration.
What is most moving about the documentary is the testimony of the prison official who says that he still sees Zygier’s piercing blue eyes staring at him as if demanding to know why more wasn’t done to help him. He recounts the last words Zygier said to him as he was about to leave his cell: “You’ll return to visit me again?” The prisoner was a man desperate for human contact, who was wasting away both physically, mentally and psychologically. The prison authority officer notes that Zygier had lost a great deal of weight, that he’d been prescribed anti-depressant medication, that he had the clear look of a man on the brink. He says that what was necessary was for someone from the Mossad to come to Zygier in his cell and tell him: “You screwed up. But don’t worry, everything will be OK.” Clearly, this message never came because the agency wasn’t the sort that would offer such comfort.
The report of a prison social worker, which Dayan offers, says that Zygier was afflicted with guilt about what he’d done and obsessed with the fear that he could never show his face again once he returned to society. He couldn’t imagine himself able to find work again once what he’d done became known.
The most newsworthy part of the program was Dayan’s commentary on the reasons Zygier was imprisoned. She says he was not a traitor. He did not willfully betray state secrets. His crime, if there was one, was unintentional. He slipped up and accidentally compromised an intelligence operation. She doesn’t say more than this. So we don’t know whether she knows the full story. It appears she does, or at least enough of it to speak with confidence as far as she’s willing to go in exposing his error.
All this begs the question: if a man makes an error and compromises an intelligence operation, even a critical one–why do you disappear him, treat him as if he’s a leper, and drive him to suicide? What can he possibly have done to deserve such treatment? As Amir Oren wrote movingly in a Haaretz column: “We failed you, Ben.” Yes, Israel did fail Ben.
The biggest tragedy aside from the one that happened to Ben Zygier and his surviving family is the tragedy that this marks for the State of Israel. All of us who observe Israeli society know that its values have coarsened. We know this for sure, because of the numbing moral impact of Occupation. But Israelis could always say that at least Israel knows how to treat its own citizens, especially those who are Jewish, in a more civilized manner. But the Zygier case shows that even an Ashkenazi Jew from a privileged western Jewish community can be tossed away as a liability. Life isn’t just cheap if you’re Palestinian. Now, it’s cheap even for the former elite.
Zygier’s decline was helped along by the fact that he had no one to advocate on his behalf. While apologists for the State’s negligence claim he had legal representation and family visits, it’s clear that Zygier had poor legal help (which lawyer allows his client to die in prison?), and was harmed by the fact that his parents lived thousands of miles away in Australia. Were Ben Zygier the child of the one of the eighteen families that own much of the capital in the State of Israel, he wouldn’t have been left to rot in prison. Were he an Arison and Ofer, he’d have been treated far differently.
The lesson from this is that in Israel, unless you’re one of the 1%, you’re expendable. And you’re expendable whether you’re Palestinian or Jew, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, native Israeli or native to a wealthy Diaspora community. This is not your grandfather’s Zionism. This is a new form of it. One that harbors no old-fashioned sentimentality for the old values. It can no longer afford such sentiments. If you don’t measure up, you’re liable to end up on the trash heap, discarded like an old tire. That’s what happened to Ben Zygier.
Who will pay for this? Well, likely it will be that prison officer who was so troubled by Ben’s death. They’ll claim he was negligent in preventing the suicide. Meir Dagan? The Mossad chief who first recruited Ben to work for him; and who didn’t come to the cell and tell Ben that whatever happened it would come right in the end? He’ll come off smelling like a rose. Yuval Diskin? Whose interrogators helped bring Ben to the brink by believing his life outside prison would be worthless? No one will touch him.
The cult of secrecy protects those who are guilty. It prevents anyone, whether a negligent agency or an entire nation, from learning any lessons from mistakes. It leads them to repeat the same mistakes over and over. That’s what will happen in this case too.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.