Breaking the Silence Is Only a Danger to Israeli Right's Ambitions

The unavoidable and rather painful conclusion is that if the left wants to have an impact, it must regain its foothold in the IDF. And that’s a conclusion that won’t be easy to implement.

A visitor looks at the exhibition 'Breaking the Silence' at the Kulturhaus Helferei in Zurich, June 8, 2015.
Reuters

In light of the manic hatred and anger aroused by the Breaking the Silence organization, it’s important to remember the public disgust produced by the “moles in culture” campaign, the flop produced by the Im Tirtzu organization about two months ago. A very similar accusation was hurled at both soldiers and the artists: treason against the homeland in exchange for the money and love of foreigners.

Yet while the Israeli public, backed by politicians like Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, vehemently objected to the incitement against the artists, it warmly embraced the denunciation of the former combatants. The right-wing propaganda machine is capable of dealing with left-wing clowns and ballerinas – their inherent “wrong-headedness” is the tax we pay for funny stand-up routines, quality plays and good music – but it isn’t capable of dealing with left-wing combat soldiers.

A left-wing soldier who opposes the occupation is a severe blow to the legitimacy of the right’s rule, which was achieved through long years of hard work. The 1990s were the watershed years in which the Israel Defense Forces – the most influential institution in Israeli society – began to change its face.

The Ashkenazi elites stopped identifying, either politically or culturally, with the army’s goals and voted with its children. The ongoing occupation, which turned IDF soldiers into policemen of apartheid in the territories; the rise of the market economy and aggressive capitalism, which eroded the values of solidarity that had characterized Israeli society, if only in perception, when it leaned toward socialism; globalization, which encouraged the cultivation of universal norms rather than patriotic national separatism – all these pushed the children of the elites from elite combat units to elite high-tech units, or other units where they could “get something out of it.”

Into this vacuum gladly stepped the children of religious Zionists, Mizrahim from the periphery and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, with the goal of gaining a foothold on the ladder of Israeli mobility. Prof. Yagil Levy, who studies the relationship between the army and society, terms this process “the peripheralization of the army.” Under this process, the children of weaker population groups view army service as a vehicle for acquiring first-class citizenship. This in turn causes them to have stronger feelings of loyalty and to avoid challenging the army’s goals.

The first pre-army preparatory program, founded in 1988, signaled the goal that religious Zionism had set for itself even back then: producing senior officers and occupying places of power within the IDF and Israeli society. This process succeeded beyond expectations, because it meshed with the successful merger religious Zionism had made between religious values and patriotic ones. A study done by the IDF in 2010 found that the proportion of religious officers among graduates of infantry officers’ courses had jumped from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2007.

Rabbi Eli Sadan, the father of the pre-army preparatory programs, has said over and over that he doesn’t want a religious chief of staff. Perhaps he’s telling the truth, but it’s not outlandish to assume that the generation that follows him will want one.

Breaking the Silence, many of whose members describe feelings of moral alienation and isolation in the army units they served in, is still speaking in the name of soldiers’ rights – rights that the nationalist wing has expropriated due to the demographic reality in the army. The gap between the accusations of espionage and treason and the extreme weakness of the actual evidence against the group reflects the extent to which this infuriates the right. Breaking the Silence is the last, stubborn hold-out on the road to completing the right’s takeover of the army, and then of Israeli society. The defense minister’s statements against the organization show that he understands who the owners of his army are now, and whom he has to please.

The unavoidable and rather painful conclusion is that if the left wants to have an impact, it must regain its foothold in the IDF. And that’s a conclusion that won’t be easy to implement.