The Problem With Breaking the Silence

To treat soldiers' testimonies of the exception as reality is misleading, and particularly problematic when outsiders use them to vilify Israel.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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When put in front of a camera, it's clear to the soldier what he's expected to say. It's show time.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

“What’s happening to Ziffer?” people are wondering behind my back. “Is it true that he became a right-winger after his visit with Sara Netanyahu?” A few months ago, the French magazine L’Obs (Le Nouvel Observateur) even raised the issue publicly, when it opened a three-page article about Israel with the words, “What bug has bitten Benny Ziffer?”

The answer is that I was in fact bitten by a bug, so to speak, but not during my visit to the Prime Minister’s Residence. It happened when I was a guest at an intimate dinner in the residence of a senior German diplomat who’s stationed in Jerusalem. With me at the table was a key activist of the Breaking the Silence NGO, when the organization was just starting out.

I have to say that on that occasion I felt the same acid frustration my father did when, as an adolescent in Vienna during the 1930s, he was compelled to join in his friends’ laughter at the anti-Semitic jokes that made the round of his class, in order to be accepted and not stand out as a Jew.

The only difference was that at the dinner I attended, people laughed – more accurately, hurled fierce and cynical invective – at Israel as a criminal occupier. But the situation of humiliation was the same. I told myself: Never again. I will never again allow this, if only in memory of my father.

Hence my mixed feelings about Breaking the Silence. On the one hand, boundless admiration for the conscience and high morality of Israel Defense Forces soldiers who testify to criminal acts they witnessed during their army service. On the other hand, anger that through Breaking the Silence, those testimonies reach external people and groups who make use of them to vilify Israel and strengthen its enemies.

This week, I discovered that I have a brother-in-anger: the journalist Avri Gilad, who hosted Yuli Novak, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, on his television program, “The World This Morning.” It was an unpleasant conversation. Gilad attacked Novak bitterly, as though she were the representative of a hostile terrorist organization. The responses were quick to come. Almost unanimously, the media seem to agree that Gilad’s rightward bent has made him lose his marbles; a comparison has also been drawn between him and intellectuals who collaborated avidly with the Nazis.

Because I have the feeling that this is also what will soon be written about me, I hasten to come to the defense of my assailed colleague. It’s true that a journalist who moderates a TV panel discussion needs to behave objectively, or at least make a pretense of objectivity. From that viewpoint, Gilad played havoc with the principle of the categorical imperative. In other words, if everyone were to behave as he did on his show that morning, total chaos would reign in the media and every program would become a platform for the expression of its host’s opinions.

On the other hand, there is also something very biased and morally flawed in the work of Breaking the Silence – again from the aspect of that same categorical imperative. The point is that the whole attractiveness of the organization derives from the fact that those who give the testimonies are an exceptional few, unsung heroes who are doing the work of exposure and criticism anonymously or when at risk. To treat the testimonies of these exceptions as objective reality is simply misleading. Especially when the testimonies are presented abroad, to people who aren’t familiar with the Israeli reality.

The whole genre known as “testimony” needs to be reexamined, as it seems to have been squeezed dry and has developed largely into a caricature of itself. We need to remember that not everyone who puts a microphone and a video camera in front of someone else is Claude Lanzmann.

I say this for the simple reason that, with the world having grown accustomed to the researchers who collect innocent testimonies about anything and everything – those before whom the camera is held up get an urge to heighten the experience they are telling about, and thereby to persuade themselves that their lives, which until then may have seemed prosaic, might be of some importance after all.

Take the case of a young man who has just completed his military service: Hold a video camera in front of him and he starts to talk – at first it’s hard, but slowly it starts to flow. Very quickly he finds that the magic works by itself, and lo and behold, he has become morally superior to tens of thousands of his mute buddies who fought and served with him. Strange, but that’s how it works. But beware: The testimony has to look non-self-conscious, emanating from a primal, untamed condition of consciousness, though it is very clear to him what he’s expected to say. That paradox is the essence of the matter. So, yallah, it’s show time.

In other words: There are no innocent testimonies – a fact well known to everyone who is even slightly acquainted with the theory of narrative. Every story is in large measure a fiction, or at least a fictitious arrangement of reality. And when Breaking the Silence sells us ostensibly primary testimonies, that is misleading.

It was for all those sophisticated deceptions that Avri Gilad railed at the executive director of Breaking the Silence. Accordingly, I felt a need to come to his aid. If I’d been in his place, I probably would not have behaved differently, if only because the memory is still fresh of that dinner with the Breaking the Silence activist at the residence of the German diplomat in Jerusalem. I should have overturned the table when I heard those vilifications of Israel, or at least shouted, but only out of politeness did not do so.

That’s the bug that bit me, nothing else.

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