Democratic Activists Are Now Marked Out as Israel's New 'Traitors'

Speakers from Breaking the Silence triggered my engagement with Israel. Now I'm afraid for their lives.

Rocco Giasante

I first knew that Israel’s story would be a part of my own one night six years ago, in the back row of a theater at the Tel Aviv museum. On the stage the then co-director of Breaking the Silence and the organization’s lawyer discussed a series of interviews with soldiers who had fought in operation Cast Lead several months before. I had found some random stranger to translate the event for me, and we huddled our heads together, like teenagers on a date, so she could whisper without drawing too many angry looks.

Those weeks were my first time in the country, which surprised many Israelis I met. There seemed to be a notion that every American Jew grows up visiting each summer. But while I went to Jewish Day school and had Israeli friends from a young age, I didn’t make that first trip until I was thirty – and hardly any of my Jewish friends had ever been, either.

There were reasons to stay away. The violence, for one. But I also harbored a vague discomfort. I didn’t know much about Israeli politics, but I knew that settlements were unhelpful to achieving a peace agreement, and Israel’s responses to its threats seemed consistently disproportionate. These views were unremarkable among my peers, children of parents shaped by Vietnam who grew up learning that their Judaism and their liberal values were interdependent and inseparable. After college I worked in American progressive politics and I talked about my Jewish commitment to justice, but it didn’t seem all that pressing to make my way to Israel. If anything, it was worth avoiding.

That night at the Tel Aviv museum I knew I would not be avoiding Israel any longer.

While I had a lot to learn about Israel, the conflict, and the operation in Gaza, those on stage represented everything that I had been taught one should be as a Jew, in the world. This feeling gripped me in my seat, but the specific quality was hard to name. It had to do with holding together a commitment to one’s people and to justice, and to embracing the contradictions, cost and courage those twin obligations can at times demand.

As I walked back to my apartment that night through the heavy air of the summer Tel Aviv night, I thought of the IDF soldiers that had come to speak at my Jewish Day School. I wondered how the conversation in my community and U.S. politics would be different if my parents and teachers and friends heard the young men and women I listened to that evening. I thought hearing them would change their lives. And I realized they had already changed my own. I knew that whatever I would do in the coming years, it would be in community with those on that stage.

When I returned to the U.S. I took a job as Director of J Street U. I organized several tours for Breaking the Silence soldiers on staff at college campuses. I brought hundreds of students on tours the organization led in Hebron. And I saw how their work drew thousands into the community of those contributing towards a more just future for Israel.

It was rather bewildering then to be in Jerusalem two weeks ago, as controversy over the organization and their “international work” – work that I helped facilitate and support – dominated the evening news. The story was provoked by a vile video targeting the organization (along with three other human right’s groups), produced in support of a bill that would require all NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments wear a badge in the Knesset, which has just passed its ministerial review stage. The debate over the video’s accusations broke down between those who saw the international work of Breaking the Silence as evidence of their traitorous intent, and those that condemned such work but defended the organization’s right to do it.

That such attacks are leveled is not all that surprising. After all, for those interested in perpetuating the status quo, it is much more difficult to condemn Israeli soldiers than Palestinian solidarity activists (who are just “misguided and nave”). But as an American, it was particularly depressing to hear Tzipi Livni condemn the group a couple of weeks ago at the HaaretzQ in New York and to read Yair Lapid’s English interviews or Ari Shavit’s opinion piece. These “supporters” of the group seem to believe that while democracy may require that speech of these soldiers be defended, those who attack the organization are correct that they are irresponsible and undermine Israel in the international arena. The view seems to be that somehow Israelis can handle these testimonies, but the goyim just can’t understand.

The irony is that while those who attack Breaking the Silence fear that the testimonies will turn those who hear them against Israel, it is their accusations – and the lukewarm “defense” of their work – that does the real damage. Those who slander democratic activists as “infiltrators” call to mind, for most Americans, some of the worst aspects of our 20th century history: from McCarthy’s hearings investigating “Soviet agents” to accusations by segregationists that whites who supported civil rights were “nigger lovers” (for American Jews, both carry strong shades of anti-Semitism).

Ultimately, the debate, and the passage of the bill through committee on Sunday, proves the point that Breaking the Silence have been making over the last decade: that a country cannot occupy another people endlessly, and cannot be in conflict perpetually, without losing its moral center and its democratic soul.

This would all just be sad, another note in a depressing song, if that were all. But when I asked an Israeli friend over dinner in Jerusalem if he thought there was real danger to those in the video, he replied quickly.  “Of course,” he said. “Remember, this is a country where the Prime Minister was killed – and he was a war hero, a Zionist giant.” I stared into my beer, and felt afraid for my friends, and for this country that has become a part of me.

Daniel May was Director of J Street U from 2010-2013. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Religion, Ethics and Politics at Princeton University.