Why Breaking the Silence Became the Most Hated Group in Israel

The campaign to delegitimize a group of combat soldiers who are shining a light on the darker side of Israeli military operations is a sign of how big a threat it is to the comfortable consensus.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A visitor looks at the exhibition "Breaking the Silence," at the Kulturhaus Helferei, Zurich, June 8, 2015.
A visitor looks at the exhibition "Breaking the Silence," at the Kulturhaus Helferei, Zurich, June 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In one way at least, Breaking the Silence – the name chosen by a group of ex-Israel Defense Forces soldiers dedicated to documenting the darker side of the occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s campaigns in Gaza – is disingenuous. There never was complete silence and the organization didn’t actually invent anything.

The tradition of Israeli soldiers telling an alternative narrative to the official hagiography goes all the way back to 1949. Then, shortly after the end of the War of Independence, S. Yizhar’s novella “Khirbet Khizeh” – a semi-fictional retelling of an Arab village's evacuation – was published. It was the first of a handful of subversive books and articles told or written by soldiers, revealing the less glorious aspects of Israel’s wars. And while they were always in a minority, they were nonetheless accepted as part of mainstream culture.

In October 1967, four months after the Six-Day War, “Soldiers Talk” (released in English as “The Seventh Day”) was published and became an instant best seller. It featured transcripts recounting the experiences of Kibbutz members who had fought in the war and returned home with conflicted emotions.

While some, particularly on the Zionist left, saw these soldiers’ accounts (which continued during the first intifada in the 1980s and early 1990s) as a vital contribution to the democratic debate, others pejoratively labeled them yorim ve’bochim: shooting and crying.

The stories of the anguished warriors infuriated many on the right, who saw them as besmirching the “most moral army in the world.” But they also angered the radical left: they accused the soldiers of trying to salve their own consciences by coming clean, but not being prepared to take the next step and refuse to continue serving as reservists.

So why, if it is merely continuing an Israeli tradition, is Breaking the Silence causing such controversy now? Why is President Reuven Rivlin under so much fire for delivering a speech at Haaretz’s New York conference, which also included Breaking the Silence members (but not on the same stage)? Why is the Israeli government mobilizing its diplomatic resources to try and prevent the NGO from appearing abroad and receiving funding from European governments? Why has Education Minister Naftali Bennett forbidden schools from holding classroom discussions with Breaking the Silence representatives?

It starts with the scale and longevity of Breaking the Silence. “Shooting and crying” used to be a one-off act of catharsis in the wake of a war. But since the NGO was launched in 2004 by a group of ex-soldiers (who arranged a small exhibition detailing their service in Hebron), it has evolved into a full-fledged organization with teams of interviewers, fact-checkers and periodic reports published in Hebrew and English. It has become a constant thorn in the establishment’s side, and a convenient target.

It’s no longer a convenient interlude to air our collective, burdened conscience and then return to business as normal. Breaking the Silence doesn’t offer us quick relief; it keeps coming back at us with more.

Breaking the Silence employees at the organization's Tel Aviv office, December 16, 2015.Credit: Reuters

And then there is the enthusiastic reception the group receives abroad, in “hostile” international forums and the global media. If you have issues, why air them outside, people ask – unless your real motivation isn’t fixing problems at home but spreading anti-Semitic libel among the goyim?

This is a ridiculous claim that wilfully ignores the fact that we're in 2015: even if Breaking the Silence was only publishing in Hebrew and talking exclusively to local news outlets, its reports would still be immediately translated and distributed around the world.

Right wingers have no problem fighting their battles overseas, and did so vociferously when they were in the opposition (especially in Diaspora countries). Likewise, Breaking the Silence is right to want to control the narrative wherever it is told and, as patriotic Israelis, its members believe there should be an alternative presented abroad. Besides, running an organization costs money and publishing in English is a necessary part of fundraising – and right-wing NGOs are certainly no slackers in that regard.

But the “libelers” label sticks, not only because it is used by critics from the right, but because it’s a convenient way for centrist politicians like Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni to prove their patriotism and distance themselves from Breaking the Silence.

Credit: YouTube/Im Tirtzu

The delegitimization of a group of combat soldiers challenging the system is also a sign of how big a threat it has become to the comfortable consensus. Ideologically, it took a step back from the previous wave of dissention. Before Breaking the Silence, there was a wave of petitions by soldiers – including small groups of pilots and special forces fighters – who said they would refuse to serve in the territories and carry out missions in Palestinian civilian areas. They may have been a mere handful, but they shocked Israeli society – and, according to those close to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, shook him enough to begin contemplating his pullback from the Gaza Strip.

Breaking the Silence has never embraced conscientious objection or called for soldiers to refuse orders – which makes it that much harder to ostracize the group. Ironically, some anti-Israel activists, while eagerly using the details of Breaking the Silence reports, have criticized the group for this, accusing it of collaborating with Israel’s cause by cleaning its conscience.

It has also been criticized, from those same quarters, for not taking its evidence to the International Criminal Court (it offers collected testimonies to the IDF’s military advocate general instead), and scrupulously maintaining the soldiers’ anonymity.

Before Breaking the Silence reports are published, they are sent to the Israeli military censor to ensure that no classified operational details have been compromised. The fact the group has tried to play by the rules has helped it receive a hearing from at least part of Israel’s mainstream media, but only made the right wing ever more determined to try and delegitimize it.

Perhaps, though, the demonization of a group of young, patriotic soldiers shouldn’t be that surprising during a period of intolerance when even the most right-wing president in Israel’s history is called a traitor for speaking out against racism and xenophobia.

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