Mystery Australian’s next-of-kin seek compensation from Israel

Relatives of an Australian immigrant to Israel who killed himself in 2010 while secretly jailed on charges of violating national security are seeking compensation from the state, a source briefed on the affair said on Friday.

The source said the talks were preliminary as Israel had not formally faulted its prison authorities in the death of Ben Zygier, which was made public this week by an Australian television expose that described him as a Mossad officer.

A Mossad link has been neither denied nor confirmed by Australia or Israel, where military censorship and court gag orders kept many details of the case from the media.

The silence has fanned media speculation that Israel believes the 34-year-old Melbourne Jew had betrayed its intelligence agency's high-stakes work abroad.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which oversees the Mossad, did not respond for a request for comment on the matter.

Israel's Haaretz daily said the state agreed to pay “several million shekels” in damages to Zygier's family around six weeks ago, when an internal inquest declared his death a suicide.

The inquest result was disclosed by the Justice Ministry on Wednesday, in Israel's only official statement on the case. The statement, which did not identify Zygier by name, said a judge had also ordered an “evaluation regarding issues of negligence”.

A source briefed on the affair denied there had been any agreement to compensate Zygier's family for the failure of staff to prevent his suicide at Ayalon prison, where he had been held for months, under alias and in isolation from other inmates.

“There's no decision on negligence yet, so there's no compensation in any form in that regard,” the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “What there have been are initial inquiries by the deceased's representatives about compensation.”


A Zygier family lawyer, Moshe Mazur, declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the case.

So did Israel's Prisons Service. But one of its officials voiced skepticism about the idea of compensation being agreed with Zygier's family, saying such payouts in negligence cases could take “years” to negotiate.

Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli lawyer with whom Zygier briefly consulted while in prison, said he knew of no compensation deal.

Were the state to pay damages for negligence, he said, it would not reflect any official position on Zygier's guilt or innocence: “Even convicted criminals are eligible for compensation if their jailers fail to provide for their well-being as required.”

Feldman said Zygier died after being indicted for “grave crimes” but before being tried. Zygier had denied the charges against him but was considering a plea bargain, Feldman said.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said on Thursday that Canberra was told Zygier had been held over “serious offences under Israeli national security legislation”.

Feldman told Israeli radio on Thursday that a “Mossad liaison” contact had arranged his with Zygier.

The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, said in a report citing Australian security officials that Zygier may have been in contact with the intelligence services of his native country and “been about to blow the whistle” about Mossad operations – including their possible fraudulent use of Australian passports.

A veteran intelligence officer who declined to be identified by name or nationality said there was a possibility that, had Zygier indeed served Mossad, the agency would have paid death benefits to his family – regardless of the charges against him.

“If he was never tried, then he was never found guilty, and he may be considered to have died while in active service,” the intelligence veteran said. “That would make his next-of-kin eligible to the various relevant payouts.”

The Hebrew word for compensation, “pitzuim”, can also be used for benefits paid without claims of misconduct.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood

Eviction of Jew and Non-Jew Going to Trial

A federal court trial, alleging that the Orthodox Jewish owners of a Pico-Robertson building evicted a tenant because he shared his apartment with a non-Jew, is scheduled to open in Los Angeles next week.

The suit by Lawrence “Chaim” Stein alleges that he was evicted in 2004 by the board of Torat Hayim, a nonprofit that is best known for its Pico-Robertson school and synagogue, but that also manages a handful of apartments.

Stein’s central piece of evidence in the suit is a voice mail left on his phone answering machine by Michael Braum, one of the suit’s defendants and the pro bono manager of the apartment in the 8800 block of Alcott Street.

“I can’t believe you rented to a goy,” says the voice on the tape, which Braum has acknowledged as his in a deposition.

“Two days after that, we get an eviction notice,” Stein said.

Rejecting tenants based on religion is illegal. Braum noted in an interview that Torah Hayim’s tenants include non-Jews. He insisted that the issue was not religion, but that Stein unilaterally changed terms of the lease.

The eviction was later overturned in court. However, by that time, Stein had found another apartment, and his old quarters had been rented to someone else.

In the federal suit, Stein is seeking compensatory damages “in an amount according to proof,” and punitive damages up to three times the amount of actual damages.

Stein; his wife, Balan, and their four children, were living in a two-bedroom unit when Torat Hayim bought the building in 2000. According to Braum’s deposition, Torat Hayim acquired the building primarily as income property and secondarily to provide housing for the needy.

The rental income helps support Torat Hayim’s synagogue, private school and other services to the Iranian Jewish community.

Stein, a computer analyst, said he decided to let a non-Jewish friend, Marc Hutson-Montroy, move in with him after Stein’s purchase of a house in Las Vegas depleted his income. According to Stein’s attorneys, Braum showed up at the property on Sept. 15, 2003, and found Hutson-Montroy.

Braum acknowledged in the deposition that he asked Hutson-Montroy if he was Jewish. Braum told The Journal that he couldn’t believe that an Orthodox Jew would room with a non-Jew.

“If he brings in one McDonald’s sandwich, Stein cannot eat there anymore,” Braum said, referring to kosher dietary restrictions.

On Sept. 25, 2003, Braum’s message on Stein’s answering machine referred to Hutson-Montroy three times as a “goy.”

“Are you there? Are you moved out? Why? What kind of benefit do you get in giving this apartment to a goy?” Braum asked in the message, which Stein saved.

Days later, the eviction notice arrived.

Braum maintained in the interview that his use of the word “goy” was not meant as an insult.

It was his understanding, he said, that Stein was living there with his wife and children.

“Nobody had called. Nobody gave me the key,” Braum said.

It’s standard practice, he noted, for apartment owners to forbid subleases and to require new tenants to fill out an application form.

The suit is not the first run-in between Stein and Torat Hayim. Another dispute was settled by a rabbinical court in 2002.

In the 2002 case, Braum blamed a mold problem in the apartment on the overflow of a washer-dryer draining into a toilet. Stein blamed it on poor building maintenance.

That matter was settled in a rabbinical court, which ordered a $3,000 payment to Stein for having to “live in uninhabitable conditions” for three months, Stein said.


Through God’s Eyes

One of my students once asked me what was the greatest gift that my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach gave me. My reply was immediate: “He gave me a new pair of eyes.”

I had grown up praying from the first day I could speak.

I was raised observing Shabbat from the moment I learned to distinguish between “permitted” and “forbidden.”

I grew up believing that God cares about every detail of my life, even before I had completed the psychological development of separation and individuation.

But how was I to actually see God in my life? How was I to close the gap between what my mind constantly repeated but my heart so deeply questioned? Or rather, how could I wed what my heart knew with what my mind continuously challenged?

This week’s Torah portion is laden with details and hence, God’s presence, in each and every step that we take. It leads us through a legal maze of issues touching upon social justice and the holidays, in addition to laws of property and ownership.

The Torah portion teaches us of four distinct paradigms of damages that one’s possessions can cause (a goring ox; the damage caused by their eating or kicking; fire; a pit) and the nature of responsibility that the owner of the animal or the digger of the pit, or the source of fire is obligated to compensate the offended party with. It is not the immediate damage that an individual causes, but rather his or her possessions that are the cause of the damage. One could presumably claim that the person carries no responsibility to the damage that an object in that person’s possession causes, for it is not really that person; it is that person’s possession.

It is my belief that the Torah is challenging us to respond to that initial reaction and to inquire to what extent do we assume responsibility for our possessions? It is our answer to this pressing question that will illumine the space we are willing to give God in our life, bringing God into realms far beyond what meets the eye.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe (R’ Mordechai Yoseph Lainer of Isbitza, 1800-1854) addresses the parameters of the laws of damage and reflects on the boundaries with which we choose to identify our selves. How do we define who we are? If I were to ask you “Who are you?” how would you answer this question? With your name? With your profession? With your marital status? Would you respond to my query with where you were born, or perhaps where you currently live? Better yet, you might share with me your philosophical truths? To what extent are the titles you hold on to and the possessions that you own an expansion of who you are?

For the Ishbitzer Rebbe there are multiple concentric circles that we inhabit. There are concentric circles of time: the present (ata); forever (l’olam) — our lifetime; and eternally forever (l’olmei ad) – which exists beyond our particular lifetime. Another concentric circle is the one that surrounds our soul and the multiple layers that we garment it with — starting with our body and expanding outward to all those answers that you offered to the question “Who are you?” Our possessions are but one extension of who we are, and reflect one facet of who we are in the world. The nature of an object changes by virtue of its owner.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe’s teaching invites us to expand our sense of self and by doing so, to expand our sense of responsibility to the injustice in the world. It doesn’t allow us to be indifferent to what surrounds us. If we are moral and ethical people, our possessions will reflect this. If my dog eats my neighbor’s roses, the Ishbitzer Rebbe will tell me that I am not the person I claim to be. If someone trips on my doorstep or my guest stubs his or her toe on a chair in my home, I am not the person I claim to be. If my hammer falls off the table and hurts someone, I am not the person I claim to be.

There will not be an immediate and evident correlation between the damage caused and the part of my soul that needs mending. For this we need to be willing to bring God into what appears as a “coincidence” and to observe ourselves through God’s eyes, to scrutinize ourselves from the viewpoint of the divine: Eyes that will not be afraid to see deeper. Eyes that are simultaneously honest and compassionate. Eyes that demand us to embrace our greatness and the role that we are to play in God’s world.

I’m a city girl, born in the Bronx, bred in Yerushalayim, living in Los Angeles. I have no idea what a goring ox looks like or what constitutes the acceptable or nonacceptable way for it to walk the paths of the world. But when I will read this Torah potion on Shabbat morning, I will read it with one eye looking outward, and one eye looking inward.

I believe that a new pair of eyes is the greatest gift a teacher can give.

Reb Mimi Fiegelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.