For Diaspora Jews, the Occupation Can’t Just Be a Spectator Sport

Seeing the reality of Hebron with groups like Breaking the Silence is important. But it’s even more crucial to take the anti-occupation message back into our Diaspora Jewish communities.

A tour organized by Breaking the Silence tour in the West Bank city of Hebron.
A tour organized by Breaking the Silence tour in the West Bank city of Hebron. Olivier Fitoussi

What is the responsibility of a witness to injustice?

I recently visited Hebron with Breaking the Silence.  Run by Israeli military veterans, the NGO collects testimony from soldiers about incidents of wrongdoing.

Some of these incidents are actual violations of law — like looting, assaulting detainees, or firing a barrage of shells on a random house in Gaza to commemorate the death of a fellow soldier, while others — practices like “mapping” a house — interrupting the residents in order to draw a floor plan, take down names and phone numbers and ID’s and snap photos — even if soldiers discard the data shortly afterwards — are part and parcel of running an occupation.

The goal of such practices, as First Sergeant (res.) Yehuda Shaul, a founding member of Breaking the Silence, describes them, “is to intimidate and to make our presence felt. They [the Palestinians] never know when we’re going to show up.”

In hosting tours of Israelis and non-Israelis to places like Hebron and South Hebron Hills, and in running many other educational events with youth movements, schools, and in universities, the group is clear about its aims: to help end the occupation.

As I attended the Hebrew-language version of the tour, the only non-Israeli among the group, I wondered about slacktivism versus activism, and about voyeurism versus bearing witness.

If the tour's goal is to fire up participants about the severity of the occupation while preventing the all-too-human tendency to get excited by peeping into others’ suffering, then one must first, I found, overcome a great sense of banality.

How unlike the bomb-dodging days and flare-illuminated nights of war correspondents across the planet’s most intense conflict zones, or at least as I imagine them, was this experience. I returned dusty, tired and, despite my best efforts to seek shade, sunburned. When it comes to the occupation, there is often very little to stimulate the senses.

There was the monument to the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Kiryat Arba park, and, nearby, the grave of Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994. Two weeks after our tour, a Palestinian teen from a nearby village would stab 13-year old Kiryat Arba resident Hallel Yaffa Ariel to death in her bed.

In adjacent Hebron, there was the infamous al-Shuhada street, which used to host a vibrant market and is now a ghost town. We stood across from an apartment building where Palestinian residents, no longer allowed onto the main street, must resort to leaving their homes through windows and the roof.

There was the Israeli settler, who, while being restrained by police officers, accused us of being “disgusting traitors.” And there were more mild-mannered settlers, too, some as young as 12 or 13, who tagged along on our tour, inserting their version of events where they could.

And there was the settler-with-a-sense of humor, who stood alongside our group, softly singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the Nation of Israel Lives”) while swinging his hips.

There were the unmarked cars interrupting our tour, the drivers flashing their police badges at our guide before questioning him. And there were the two impoverished Palestinians who didn’t leave our side, entreating us dozens of times to buy their embroidered cloth purses, even after we did.

The leader of our tour — an endless fount of knowledge armed with maps, facts and figures — was IDF First Sergeant (ret.) Ido Even-Paz, Breaking the Silence’s director of education.

I asked him the question that most often dogs the group from its critics. If their aim is to end the occupation, thus needing to change Israeli hearts and minds, why take the message abroad?

Even-Paz’s reply was striking. “We want to show the world that there's someone to talk to here in Israel; that, unlike extremely closed societies, we are a vibrant democracy. If that means that we are serving as a fig leaf for the government, so be it."

After having taken thousands (in Even-Paz’s estimation) of Israelis and non-Israelis on their tours, and given that 71.5% percent of Jewish Israelis don’t actually believe there is an “occupation,”  Breaking the Silence has its work cut out for it. Shaul tells me they can’t “keep up with the demand” for events, having run 90 in Israel over the last six months.

Most of their activities, he stresses, are in Israel — not abroad. And Even-Paz cites the fact that some Israeli top brass — like former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Yuval Diskin, as well as Israeli Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Alik Ron and Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin — have come out publicly in support of the NGO. These moves reflect a broader trend of the Israeli security establishment pushing back on the government’s orientation towards the Palestinian question.

As for the broader world, the international community tends to see military rule of West Bank residents — and civilian rule for Israeli residents — for what it is. Diaspora Jews, for their part, are divided: many are troubled by the occupation while others take their cue from the Israeli government.

So, five years after Peace Now board member and prominent American Jewish feminist and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin visited Hebron and used the “a” (for apartheid) word to describe it, what is the proper thing to do?

We must continue to talk about the occupation in our own communities, however indifferent or hostile the reception. We must be aware of the fact that the Israeli government does not — and cannot — speak for the millions of West Bank Palestinians under its rule.

Supporting groups like Breaking the Silence is one way to bolster Israeli democratic discourse while helping push the needle within Israel towards meaningful policy change, however slow the process may be.

A postscript: Breaking the Silence has again made headlines after being vilified by the president of Ben Gurion University (who vetoed the Middle East Studies department’s selection of the NGO to receive its annual peace prize on the basis that the group, in her words, doesn’t represent the “national consensus,”), and by Yesh Atid leader and MK Yair Lapid, who went after the new editor of Haaretz’s English edition, Noa Landau,  for being the partner of a Breaking the Silence activist.

In a subsequent Facebook post (Hebrew), Lapid apologized for his sexist remark, while doubling down on his criticism of Haaretz and Breaking the Silence (calling the latter a “dangerous organization”).

If pushing Israelis to end the occupation is viewed as 'dangerous', I can’t help but wonder how the alternative — another fifty years of this — is any less so.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov