While serving on a military base in the West Bank, Benzi Sanders recalls opening his eyes one morning and being struck by the sight of a tattered Israeli flag caught in the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Jewish settlement just across the way.
“I couldn’t help thinking about how that flag, torn into shreds, symbolized what had become of my romantic vision of Zionism,” says the former New Yorker. “So I got up and took a picture of it.”
Sanders, 28, is part of a first-of-its-kind delegation of Jewish-American veterans who are returning to their communities to share their not-so-happy stories of serving in the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank.
The two-and-a-half-week tour, which kicked off in Philadelphia last Wednesday, is sponsored by Breaking the Silence — the Israeli organization of former combat soldiers dedicated to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Founded in 2004, the group gathers testimonies from soldiers about their experiences serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and organizes tours highlighting what it sees as the injustices of the occupation. Its activities have stirred considerable controversy in Israel, and members of the group have often been denounced by right-wingers as “unpatriotic” and even “traitors” for speaking out against their country.
Breaking the Silence regularly brings delegations of Israeli army veterans to the United States to share their experiences. This tour, however, is the first one in which it is bringing a group of so-called lone soldiers — the term used to describe army recruits whose families reside outside of Israel. Some 3,500 of them serve in the Israeli army at any given point in time, with about one-third coming from the United States.
Six former lone soldiers — all of them originally from the United States (some have since moved back there) — are participating in this East Coast and Midwest tour. They have 20 events scheduled at Jewish community centers, synagogues and campuses in cities such as St. Louis, Boston and Washington.
Sanders, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, attended MTA (aka the Yeshiva University High School for Boys). After graduating, he spent three years in Israel attending yeshiva programs before gaining Israeli citizenship and joining the IDF in 2012. He was stationed in the West Bank for most of his three years in the special forces unit of the Nahal Brigade. Although he remains observant, he hesitates to identify any longer as “Orthodox,” he says, because the movement in Israel has become so aligned with right-wing politics.
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Sanders recently graduated from Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, where he was active in a student group affiliated with the left-wing Meretz party.
In a letter published on the Breaking the Silence website to coincide with the U.S. tour, the former lone soldiers explain their motivation for speaking out. “Because each year, thousands of passionate youth from our Jewish communities in North America decide to serve in the Israeli military or move to Israel knowing they will be conscripted, we believe our communities should understand the implications of this decision,” they write. “All of our experience — from things that felt ethically gray to the moral wrongs that keep us up at night — were the result of policies that are integral to the occupation and settlement enterprise. These moral catastrophes will continue so long as those in power in the Israeli government choose to continue enforcing the occupation, and American support enables these decisions.”
The former lone soldiers note that although their “values and beliefs” had motivated them to enlist in the army, their service in the territories led them to question the “morality” of the occupation. “This includes daily tasks that the state considers necessary in order to uphold it, and with which we were tasked: Patrolling Palestinian towns and cities, ‘making our presence felt’ by raiding homes in the middle of the night, arresting Palestinian youth and using riot gear to disperse demonstrations,” they write.
The other delegates are former New Yorker Maya Eshel, who served in the human resources division of the IDF and is currently a student at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Jacob Portman, originally from Ohio, who served in the Paratroopers Brigade and is currently employed as a chef in Chicago; Eitan Berman, a graduate of the Young Judaea youth movement from Atlanta who served in the Nahal Brigade and currently lives in New York; Rebecca Strober, originally from Philadelphia, who served as a shooting instructor in the army and is now director of education for Breaking the Silence; and Nathan Hersh, who served in the Givati Brigade and now lives in Philadelphia, where he is pursuing a graduate degree.
Hersh, 34, moved to Israel right after he graduated college. When he was first drafted into the army, he says, he believed “it was about protecting the state and that Israel couldn’t have security without the occupation.” A few months into his tour of duty in the West Bank, he relays, he began to see things very differently.
“I realized that this was more about protecting the [Jewish] communities in the West Bank than about protecting the state,” says Hersh. “I also understood that the very idea of a porous border was insecure.”
His military training, he says, had focused on “taking over large swaths of territory and fighting off invading armies.” But all this turned out to have little relevance for his service in the West Bank.
“All of a sudden, it was about nonlethal enforcement, about interrupting traffic and about arresting people in the middle of the night,” relays Hersh. “It had really nothing to do with my understanding of protecting the state.”
‘You’re a traitor’
In March 2011, during Hersh’s tour of duty in the West Bank, five members of the Fogel family were murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the settlement of Itamar. It was a defining moment for him. “It made me think about how many resources are going to protect this community in the West Bank when, if they lived in Israel, this tragedy likely wouldn’t have happened,” says Hersh.
Hersh, who previously served as director of the U.S.-based nonprofit Partners for Progressive Israel, writes regularly for international and Jewish publications (including this one) about his service in the IDF and his views on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Consequently, coming under attack for his views has become par for the course in recent years. But that still didn’t prepare him for what transpired during the tour’s inaugural event last week.
“When some anonymous troll calls you a traitor on Twitter, that has literally no value,” he says. “But when someone in the Philadelphia Jewish community walks up to you and says to your face, ‘You may think of yourself as a patriot, but you’re a traitor’ — that is a lot more damaging, and it carries a lot more weight.”
It hasn’t deterred him, though. In fact, Hersh believes that when American veterans of the Israeli army speak out, it can be particularly impactful.
“I think it’s very important that American-Jewish communities hear this from people who grew up in their own communities, who started here, experienced what they did and are coming back to talk in good faith about what’s going on there,” he says, adding, “Whether it will be received in good faith is another conversation.”
For Strober, it was quite literally a homecoming. The tour’s first event was held at Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom, the Reform congregation in which she grew up. “It was like my two lives coming together in one place,” relays Strober, 30. “It was really exciting to be able to go back to my community and talk about my experiences.”
Although some hecklers did show up and tried to disrupt the event, she says that “for the most part, the reception was really, really positive.”
Despite growing up in a liberal home, Strober says she knew very little about the occupation and what it entailed before moving to Israel alone at age 19.
“I never even saw a picture of the Green Line or had it explained to me while I was growing up,” she says, referring to Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders.
Lone soldiers tend to be more motivated to serve than their Israeli-born counterparts, who have no choice in the matter. That could help explain what Strober refers to as their “extra silence” about what goes on in the occupied territories. “I noticed it more and more as I became an activist,” she says — which is why she believes this particular tour is so significant.
“Of the thousands of soldiers from North America who enlist every year in the Israeli army, many serve in the occupied territories,” she says. “The American-Jewish community, which raised us and supported those of us who decided to enlist, needs to know what they’re supporting.”