Breaking the Silence Is a Legitimate Outlet for Israeli Military Whistle-blowers

Israeli leaders strive to present Breaking the Silence as the enemy. Outlawing the human rights group would not bode well for Israeli freedom of expression.

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A Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron.Credit: Olivier Fitussi

A year ago I participated in an event held by Breaking the Silence of reading out soldiers’ testimonies. The testimony I read was very technical: roads, checkpoints, nothing confidential. The testimony was published after being approved by the military censor.

Are soldiers supposed to tell about what happened to them in the army only to the army? Can a society exist as free if it is forbidden for a person to tell about a violation of human rights, or behavior in violation of an agreed upon ethical code, in which they participated?

The Israeli criminal code protects a person who wants to tell about rights violations. “An act is not seen as a violation of this section if the intention of good faith is evident from it, or if it was carried out in good faith with the intention to bring, in ways that are not forbidden by law, about a change in the arrangements of the state or an action of one of the authorities,” states the law.

Every soldier who turns to Breaking the Silence and tells about what they did and saw during their military service acts as someone who turned to a journalist. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and now also Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and alongside them the group of those condemning and shocked, strive to turn the human rights group and legitimate protest into the enemy, in order to prepare the ground for its elimination under the auspices of the law.

This step, which has been conducted in the past few months with the cooperation of Channel 2, which broadcasts materials of the Ad Kan (“No More”) organization, has highlighted the Israeli persecution complex. The claim is that the only address a soldier has is the army. And if they want to speak with someone else? Let’s assume, for the purpose of debate, it is decided that whistle-blowers cannot tell anyone about what they saw, but only to the body where they experienced the violations or knew about it? This means there is no substantial freedom of speech and expression.

Breaking the Silence interviews soldiers, confirms what they say, passes the material to the censor and raises the matter for public discussion. There is no difference between this and documenting violations of the rights of prisoners in prisons. But Netanyahu does not want an organization of demobilized soldiers to speak in the name of soldiers; he wants for citizens to be imprisoned inside a militant paradigm, in which everything that is done in the army will be protected from criticism. Not military journalists, not critics from the left, and certainly not human rights organizations.

But if everything is okay, legitimate, legal – then why do people speak out? Because they want to do something in order to move Israel, and the army, from where they are now. They have a conscience. As challenging as it may look, the right to ask a soldier who comes to testify where exactly the his tank stood, in order to confirm that he saw what he reported, must be preserved and protected. If not, anyone who tells what happened to them or others during their military service can potentially be arrested.

The book “The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War” acted as a sort of valve to release emotional and moral pressure for Israeli soldiers after the 1967 war. The testimony of Breaking the Silence are tomorrow’s “Seventh Day.”

It may be radical action for now, but it is essential. If we stop the activities of Breaking the Silence it will be possible in the future to stop all expression. Even that of people who right now feel uncomfortable, or embarrassed, or think it is forbidden to say anything. When they have something to tell tomorrow, no one will be listening any more.