How to Break Breaking the Silence: The Israeli Right Wing's Omertà Dreams

Unable to discredit Breaking the Silence, the right-wing's last resort is to vilify the organization for speaking out abroad – an absurdity in the age of social media. But it's working.

A screenshot from the Im Tirzu video, 'outing' four leftists as defending terrorists. Caption reads: 'When we fight terrorism, they fight us.'
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Did you hear the bad news? Israel has once again fallen victim to a vicious attack by a dangerous, cunning enemy that aims to simultaneously turn the world against it and destroy it from within.

That enemy? Breaking the Silence, a tiny left-wing organization that has been collecting witness accounts from former Israeli army soldiers who served in the territories. Its “crime”: Occasionally sharing its findings with audiences abroad.

In the two weeks since the current wave of attacks against Breaking the Silence began, right-wing and centrist politicians in Israel have been looking hysterically for ways to vilify the group. Some accused Breaking the Silence of “lies” and “inaccuracies” in its reports. These arguments quickly fell apart: in its 11 years, despite incessant attempts to discredit it, the organization has never been caught in a lie. It is simply too painstakingly meticulous, too thorough in its fact-checking. (This was evident in the summer of 2014, for instance, when Likud MK Oren Hazan, still a citizen then, tried to discredit BtS by providing a fictitious testimony about human rights abuses supposedly committed by IDF troops. He failed.)  

Unable to discredit the organization, its opponents adopted a new tactic: focusing on Breaking the Silence's (rather modest) activity outside Israel, accusing it of “defaming” Israel.

In other words: it may very well be telling the truth, but telling this truth outside Israel renders its motives suspect.

Former finance minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid claimed Breaking the Silence activists “crossed the line between criticism and subversion” and are “undermining the foundations of the state” by “besmirching IDF soldiers and officers abroad.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon banned Breaking the Silence activists from visiting army bases and taking part in IDF functions, agreeing with Lapid that “Breaking the Silence slandered Israel abroad.” Banning BtS activists from Israeli schools, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the same.

Proud of the IDF's morality?

In the days that followed, politicians, pundits, op-ed writers and ordinary citizens accused Breaking the Silence of “snitching” and “airing (Israel’s) dirty laundry abroad.” “You want to make the IDF more moral? Excellent! Start an organization called ‘Proud of the IDF’s morality’. But once you decided to slander the IDF all over the world, as if it was a malevolent organization, you’ve lost legitimacy”, read a viral post by Israeli TV personality Alon Gal.

The spin was remarkably successful. Last week Channel 10 reported a poll showing a majority of Israelis (53%) think Breaking the Silence should be outlawed. Only 22% opposed that and 25% were unsure.

In reality, only a small portion of Breaking the Silence’s activity is outside Israel. The vast majority of its activists work locally to raise awareness of the price Israeli society pays by maintaining the occupation of the West Bank.

But the argument struck a deep chord nonetheless.

The Italian term omertà, that originated in the culture of organized crime and was popularized by countless Mafia movies, is usually translated as a “code of silence,” an “oath of secrecy.” Over the years, it has also been used to describe a certain kind of group mentality, wherein deep-rooted familial loyalty prohibits contact or cooperation with authorities or outsiders, marking people who do so as traitors.

Criminal organizations can be expected to maintain a code of silence, for obvious reasons. You can understand why some police officers or other closed communities want to stick together and protect their own. But there are few examples of entire countries that tried to enforce a sweeping code of silence. Apparently, some right-wing politicians wish Israel would become a pioneer in that too.

Why go there?

“Why abroad?” was the most persistent question Breaking Silence activists were asked in the past week. Surely, if what they really want is to better Israeli society and the IDF’s conduct, they should approach the IDF and “change from within.”

This argument is specious. The IDF, which actually did open some investigations based on Breaking the Silence reports, is notoriously oblivious to internal criticism, as are most armies. Also, the onslaught Breaking the Silence activists have been suffering vindicates soldiers who prefer to remain anonymous and talk with the organization rather than become whistleblowers, lest they suffer reprisals.

But what makes the “why abroad?” truly absurd is that Israel is a country where practically everything is colored by outside interference.

Politicians on left and especially on right are increasingly funded by foreign donors. Israel's biggest newspaper, Israel Hayom, belongs to an American billionaire, Sheldon Adelson. Israel relies on the political support of American and European Jews. Right-wing organizations like Im Tirtzu that attack left-wing NGOs over their foreign funding themselves rely on foreign donations. Left-wing organizations and right-wing organizations alike seek audiences sympathetic to their message abroad.

Yet the question “why abroad?” that looms over the activity of left-wing NGOs in recent years persists, coloring them as “snitches” and traitors from within.

Possibly, this is a nagging legacy of the shtetl, where Jewish communities were closed off, and surrounded by hostile populations and oppressive state authorities. Partly, it reflects the growing isolationism of Israel, a country that has never held the outside world in much regard, and currently does not even have a full-time minister of foreign affairs.

But it also implies that Israel’s “dirty laundry” - its military occupation over 3 million people - is its own to air, or not to air, as if the rest of the world (not to mention Palestinians themselves) has no say over this matter, as if Israel itself (and the survival of the Jewish people) was not made possible by the interference of foreign nations.

However, the true absurdity of the question “why air the dirty laundry abroad?” is the underlying assumption that if it wasn’t for Breaking the Silence, no one would have known that the occupation of the West Bank isn’t very nice.

The "laundry", as it were, was already out. And it reeks.

Mainly, though, asking "why abroad?" is just terribly antiquated. In the age of Internet and social media, there is no “abroad” anymore when it comes to information: Anything that happens anywhere can instantaneously become viral. The simple image of a Palestinian boy being brutally arrested in the West Bank does more damage than a thousand Breaking the Silence reports can.

Israel can’t win the fight against knowledge, and right-wing politicians know this. “Why abroad?” is the call of their desperation. Really, it’s all they have.