Soldier Pays the Price for Criticizing the Israel Army

IDF soldier Shachar Berrin was sentenced to a week in prison after he attended the taping of an international TV program, during which he stood up and expressed his opinion of the occupation.

Corporal Shachar Berrin, an immigrant from Australia and a religiously observant lone soldier – he has no family in Israel – is waiting to be sent to military prison. Berrin is a member of the rescue unit of the Home Front Command, and is stationed in the Jordan Valley.

The punishment, delayed for the time being, was meted out by his battalion commander. The charge: taking part in a political meeting and in an interview the media, without permission from the army.

But Berrin did not take part in any sort of “political meeting,” nor did he give an interview. Last Thursday, the 19-year-old soldier was in the audience in the hall of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center, in Jerusalem, for a taping of “The New Arab Debates” – a program of the German television network Deutsche Welle that’s broadcast around the world, moderated by former BBC interviewer Tim Sebastian.

The proposition debated by the panel appearing on the show was: “The occupation is destroying Israel.” The speakers consisted of the settler-activist Dani Dayan and a member of the left-wing Meretz party, Uri Zaki. Berrin, who was in uniform, stood up to address Dayan. The settlers and right-wing activists in the audience filmed him, and in less than 12 hours he was ordered to return to his base, where he was tried and convicted – even before the program was broadcast. (It aired this week.) Berrin makes his comment at minute 43 of the hour-long show.

This whole incident shows that when rapid, determined action is called for, the Israel Defense Forces knows how to act. When soldiers kill Palestinian children, the investigation is stretched out over years, gathering dust before usually going nowhere. When soldiers are filmed holding abusive slogans, or when they identify publicly with “David Hanahalawi” – the soldier from the Nahal Brigade who threatened a Palestinian youth with his rifle and roughed him up a year ago, prompting hundreds of soldiers to express solidarity with him on the social networks – no one considers putting them on trial. One one officer and three commanders were given disciplinary hearings; they were charged with failing to set an example to their subordinates and were punished by being confined to their bases. But if a soldier dares to attest publicly that his fellow soldiers are humiliating Palestinians, the IDF mobilizes rapidly to trample, punish and silence. That’s what happened to Shachar Berrin.

In the question-and-answer segment, after Dayan remarked that the fact that Israel is in 11th place in the World Happiness Report demonstrated that the occupation is not destroying it, Berrin asked for the floor and said (in English): “My name is Shachar Berrin and my question is for Dani Dayan. It was mentioned that Israel is the 11th happiest country in the world I propose that what makes a country good isn’t whether it is happy or not, it’s the ethics and morality of the country. When soldiers are conditioned and persuaded on a daily basis to subjugate and humiliate people and consider other human beings as less than human, I think that seeps in, and I think that when the soldiers go home they bring that back with them.”

Tim Sebastian asked Berrin whether he was speaking “from personal experience.”

Berrin: “Sure. Definitely. Just the other week, when some Border Police soldiers were rough with Christian tourists, another soldier, a colleague, said she couldn’t believe what they were doing: ‘I mean, come on, they are people, not Palestinians.’ I think that resonates throughout the occupied territories. I serve in the Jordan Valley, and we see every day how soldiers look at these people not as human beings, not as someone who is equal, but someone who is less than them. And to think that we can just leave the racism and the xenophobia – that they will only be racist when they humiliate Palestinians – of course not I think that once you are conditioned to think something, you bring it back with you and that it deeply affects Israeli society and causes it, as our president says, to be more racist.”

Murmurs were heard in the audience: “He’s a jobnik [derogatory term for noncombat soldier], he’s a liar.” Dayan also lashed out: “You’re not the only person who was in the army. I was in the army, I have a daughter in the army. It’s demagogy. I think the guy is lying.”

Sebastian: “You think he’s lying? On the basis of what? Because you don’t like it?”

Dayan: “I challenge him to bring one example in which a [commanding officer] gave him an order to treat Palestinians inhumanely.”

Sebastian: “You’ve never seen the reports from [the organization] Breaking the Silence?”

Dayan: “Breaking the Silence is also one of those groups that are part of an orchestrated effort against Israel.”

Sebastian: “They’re all liars?”

The event ended. The audience vote on whether to support the motion for the debate ended in a tie. But even before that, it was clear that some of those present would immediately report Cpl. Berrin’s subversive behavior to the IDF authorities. The program’s producer, Tanya Sakzewski, asked Berrin whether he wanted his face scrambled in the broadcast. But he told her he had nothing to hide.

Berrin was born in Israel to Jewish-American parents and moved with them as an infant to Australia, where he lived approximately until bar-mitzvah age, when he moved back to Israel with his mother, brother and sister. His brother, Seraphya, told me this week from Melbourne, where he lives, that Shachar had agonized at length over whether to serve in the IDF, primarily because of the occupation.

Seraphya, who served in the hesder yeshiva program (combining military service with religious studies), tried to persuade his brother to serve in order to become acquainted with the country’s reality and so that “more good people” would be in the army.

Shachar attended the Shalom Hartman Institute’s high school for boys in Jerusalem, and worshiped regularly at Shira Hadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox congregation in the capital. His parents are separated and live abroad: His father is a businessman in Thailand; his mother teaches Judaism in Berlin. In the end, he decided to take his brother’s advice to serve in the IDF and to try to be a “good person.” He has served in the IDF for a year and a half.

Berrin has been jolted more than once by what he has seen during his service. Last month, in a handwritten note (in Hebrew) to his brother, he described a conversation he had witnessed: “Being transported to this morning’s mission. The commander, Dvir Peretz, noted that sometimes Palestinian schoolchildren who visit the baptism site [on the Jordan River] want to be photographed with soldiers. He prohibited us from having our picture taken with them, claiming that ‘It comes out looking bad’ and that ‘left-wing groups like B’Tselem can make use of it against us.’ In response, Brit El-Har, a female soldier, said: ‘Too late. We’ve already been photographed. They insist and push to have their picture taken. What am I supposed to do?’

“Officer Dvir: ‘Just kick them.’ Brit: ‘I can’t kick them. They’re kids.’ Officer: ‘So what? Every one of them will throw a Molotov cocktail at you when he grows up.’ Brit: ‘Not every one.’ Officer: ‘Yes, every one.’ After that conversation, I spoke to Brit and she defended what she said: ‘I hate Arabs, but they’re just children.’”

Seraphya told me his brother had received a citation for “outstanding performance in advanced training.” Shachar has never regretted entering the army. The day after the TV program was taped – last Friday morning – he received a text message ordering him to return immediately to the base. On Saturday evening, the battalion commander sentenced him to a week in prison.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated this week, in response to a request for comment: “The soldier was tried for expressing himself in the media without authority or permission, as called for by army orders.”

This week, Sebastian, who made many world leaders sweat during his long-running BBC program “Hard Talk,” returned to his home in London. From there he sent me this email: “I’m sorry the soldier got sentenced. I hope the IDF will come to respect him for what he said even if they don’t like the way he said it. It takes guts to speak out in public, knowing the consequences. Those who shouted the soldier down and called him a liar – with no evidence to support that accusation – should prove their charge or apologize. They need to show some guts as well.”

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This article was updated on May 28.