Media Microscope: Intelligence Scared

Allon Lee

The tragic death of Australian-Israeli citizen Ben Zygier continued to play out in the media long past the initial revelations on February 14, and much coverage contained speculation on whether Australian Jews could feel warmly toward Israel and remain loyal to Australia.

Tony Walker decided that Australian Financial Review (Feb. 23) readers needed a second dose of his views on Israeli-Australian Jews who may have dual citizenship.
“What has proved especially unsettling…is the revelation Zygier sought multiple…Australian passports…as a Mossad agent operating for and on behalf of a foreign government in clandestine missions. This suggests, at best, conflicted loyalty to the country of one’s birth and adoption. At worst it could suggest the wilful misuse of an Australian identity to further the interests of a foreign power.” Except there is so far no evidence Zygier broke Australian law or spied on his country of birth.

In a Fairfax Media interview (Mar. 8), law academic Ben Saul proposed “Australian law should prohibit Australians from spying for any other country or some countries”. Which countries did Saul have in mind?

Leslie Cannold related how a former employer “asked me to explain why Jewish people – usually so intelligent, politically astute and reasoned – were so irrational when it came to Israel…Swallowing hard, I told him what I knew.” Unfortunately, she didn’t tell the rest of us (ABC “Unleashed” Feb. 26).

On ABC TV‘s “Q&A” (Feb. 25), Eva Cox rebuffed an audience member’s suggestion that a double standard was being applied to Israel’s alleged use of foreign passports for intelligence gathering when it was most nations’ standard practice.

Cox said “If Israel intends to survive its ability to be open and not to lock people up in jails, not to hide people, not to hide what they’re doing, really raises serious questions… about the legitimacy of the claims to be a democracy that Israel puts up.”

Yet, as had been widely reported since Feb. 19, Zygier had four lawyers, and agreed to the secrecy provisions to protect national security and his family’s privacy, and everything was done under judicial supervision. Fellow panelist Foreign Minister Bob Carr acknowledged Zygier’s “family… had access to him on a large number of occasions”.

Tony Jones asked Carr “have you taken steps to find out whether other intelligence agencies from different countries might also be using Australian passports?” Carr responded with “we will leave that ‘til we’ve got [a pending DFAT] report.” However, the DFAT report released on Mar. 6 did not address Jones’ question.

Ross Burns praised the DFAT report as “a refreshing change from the flurry of speculation from the Israeli ‘security’ commentariat ever fertile with inventive speculation hoping to draw Australian agencies into complicity in Israel’s security concerns” Australian (Mar. 11). Actually, it was Fairfax’s Philip Dorling who reported on Feb. 15 that “Australian security officials” suspected Zygier was arrested because he was “about to disclose information about Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports.” Most Israeli commentators actually downplayed any direct link between the reasons for Zygier’s imprisonment and Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Mar. 11) asserted that “the tragic death…has everything to do with Australia and our relations with Israel”, speculated that Australian officials overlooked Zygier’s arrest for “fear of offending Israel or jeopardising security” and demanded “Israel must show that Zygier was treated humanely and that it will not condone abuse of our passports. To that extent Australians are putting great trust in…Israel’s parliament and regulators to hold Mossad to account.”

In contrast, Greg Sheridan argued that Zygier’s death has “nothing to do with Australia, nor with Australia/Israel relations. Those media commentators who have suggested the case somehow raises questions of dual loyalty among Australian Jews are utterly contemptible,” Australian (Mar. 7).

Gerard Henderson also heaped scorn on dual loyalty arguments noting that “a century ago, some sectarians labelled Catholics as possessing a dual loyalty. This was cover for an imputation that their real loyalty was to the Pope or to the Irish nation, usually both. Today, the allegation tends to be made against Jewish Australians, whether or not they hold both Australian and Israeli nationalities.”

Henderson warned that “an accusation of dual loyalties against Jewish Australians from an anti-Semite is regrettable but not unexpected” but “when such claims are made by those who should know better, it is a matter for genuine concern,” Sydney Morning Herald (Feb. 26).

AIJAC’s Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz wrote that for some people “Jews in Australia must be exceptions in order to be Australian… We must go above and beyond the other communities in Australia to prove that we really are part of society,” ABC “Religion and Ethics” (Mar. 4).