Breaking the Silence: Why Take the Message Abroad?

The left-wing NGO made up of former soldiers found itself at the center of a public storm and under ferocious attack from across the Israeli political spectrum.

Ilan Lior
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Palestinians watching Israeli soldiers go by near Hebron.Credit: AFP
Ilan Lior

“Why abroad?” was the most persistent question members of Breaking the Silence were asked this week in interviews, on social media, and in personal messages. The small NGO, more used to being sidelined, found itself at the center of a public storm and under ferocious attack.

It was accused of slandering Israel around the world and of damaging its international image. The radical right-wing Im Tirtzu movement issued a video accusing the activists of being “moles” – agents for foreign states. That led to a spate of curses and threats on the lives of the NGO’s activists, all former Israel Defense Forces combatants.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted Breaking the Silence in the Knesset for “spreading libel about IDF soldiers in the world.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon instructed the IDF not to cooperate with the NGO, whose motives he said were “malicious.” and “blackens our soldiers’ faces abroad.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett forbade the group to enter schools. Even Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid attacked the NGO from the opposition and said it “harms and sullies the IDF abroad, spreading lies about our combatants.”

Breaking the Silence was set up 11 years ago by combatants who served in Hebron. They recounted their personal experiences from their service in the West Bank and started to gather testimonies from others about the violation of human rights under the occupation. Today, the organization has collected testimonies from more than 1,000 soldiers and has published them in the media, on the Internet, in booklets and at events and exhibitions.

Today it employs 15 people, who all gave their own testimonies, as well as dozens of volunteers. The organization’s staff guide Hebrew and English tours in Hebron, take part in conferences, meet youth and students and hold demonstrations.

Over the past year, NGO have members met senior White House officials for the first time. They also took part in events in the United States, Spain, The Netherlands and Scotland and held photo exhibitions in Switzerland. Amidst the storm raised by the group’s activity, the NGO’s founder, Yehuda Shaul gave a lecture in Denmark.

A visitor takes a picture at the 'Breaking the Silence' exhibition at the Kulturhaus Helferei in Zurich, June 8, 2015.
A visitor takes a picture at the 'Breaking the Silence' exhibition at the Kulturhaus Helferei in Zurich, June 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters

“The absolute majority – at least 85 percent – of the organization’s activity takes place in Israel, in Hebrew, or with Jews,” says director Yuli Novak in an interview with Haaretz. “We do a lot of work with Diaspora Jews, mainly in Israel, with youngsters who come in various groups and meet with us.”

As for the activity overseas, “the occupation isn’t an internal Israeli matter,” says Novak, who served as an Air Force officer. “The Israeli occupation that we see as immensely damaging to Israel, is maintained and supported abroad. Millions of dollars, mostly tax money, are invested in telling the world ‘if you’re for Israel you’re for the occupation.’”

“We bring to this debate an Israeli, patriotic voice that says ‘we love Israel, but the occupation harms it.’ It’s critical that the world knows there are Israeli soldiers who think the state’s future depends on ending the occupation.”

Achiya Schatz, a former combatant in the Duvdevan special operations unit, says, “People are silenced and gagged in Israel. Anyone who opposes the occupation is seen as a traitor.”

“When the settlers’ Yesha Council speaks abroad how come nobody criticizes it? It’s sheer hypocrisy. The attempt to divert the debate to [our activity] abroad is government spin,” he says.

The NGO’s critics say it strengthens the BDS movement. “We don’t support BDS, we never supported them or cooperated with them,” Schatz says.

“Obviously Breaking the Silence statements raise objection. When you see the unpleasant sight in the mirror we put up, your first instinct is to look aside,” she says.

But “Israel’s problem is the occupation. What makes Israel look bad is that for 48 years we’ve been ruling another nation and not showing any sign that we mean to change it – not soldiers telling what the occupation looks like,” she says.

Novak says former combatants who have undergone special training in gathering information take the testimonies. Only those that are checked, cross-checked with others and verified are published. “No Breaking the Silence testimony has ever been refuted,” says Shatz.

Novak refutes the claim that a Palestinian fund gave the NGO more than a million shekels to produce negative testimonies against the IDF. The fund, he says, works from Ramallah, but belongs to European states. “My work is not determined by the donors’ wishes,” he says. “The organization’s activity is entirely open and transparent.”

The last few days have been especially difficult for the NGO’s people. Their email and Facebook accounts and mobile phones were filled with death threats and curses.

“Some people fear for their life all the time. We all have families and they’re worried. It’s difficult, but the price of silence is too high,” says Shatz.

On the upside, the number of supporters and people wanting to give testimony is also rising.

“We’re in the company of the state’s president, Supreme court judges and other figures the right is trying to silence. So the attack isn’t only us, it’s dangerous to Israel. We’d expect our government and Knesset to stand by our side – not because they agre with us, but because democracy is crumbling,” she says.