Breaking the Silence Amplifies Israeli Democracy's Weaknesses

Since 2004, Breaking the Silence has been coping with Israeli democracy's weakness with regard to everything related to military oversight, but in doing so illustrates it in an least two areas.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

One of the most prominent statements heard recently during the stormy debate about the Breaking the Silence organization came from former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin. “One doesn’t have to love them,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “but they are a very important part of every democratic regime and an important part of its strength.” This may be true, but at the same time Breaking the Silence – which gathers testimonies from soldiers about human rights violations in the territories – also illustrates democracy’s weakness.

Democracies whose armies are involved in wars do not settle for formal oversight arrangements over the military. More often, these are augmented by various types of internal oversight provided by ordinary soldiers. The soldiers report to the senior command, to politicians, and even to the public – whether directly or through their families and friends – about improper behavior in their units, or try to halt problematic behavior by their comrades or commander, sometimes by questioning the logic or justification of a given mission.

In Israel, this pattern of oversight emerged during the first Lebanon war (1982) and the first intifada (1987 to 1993), introduced mainly by middle-class, secular soldiers. As the presence of this population dwindled in the Israel Defense Forces, and with it the public interest in military ethical violations, the subsequent vacuum was filled by Breaking the Silence. Since 2004, when the second intifada was raging, the organization has been coping with Israeli democracy’s weakness with regard to everything related to oversight of the military, but in doing so illustrates it in an least two areas.

The goal of Breaking the Silence is first and foremost (in its own words), “To raise public awareness about what takes place in the territories.” Often, though, the group doesn’t merely function as a complement to the politicians and military commanders who are responsible for the army’s conduct, but actually replaces them. Speaking to Haaretz in 2009, then-Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit said the group, along with B’Tselem, is “a channel for passing on information about very important things, to make the IDF’s activity normative” – as if Breaking the Silence were part of the command structure.

However, the organization does not reveal just exceptions, but the policy that generates them. Formulating policy and then monitoring it is meant to be part of the Knesset’s job. But that work has been paralyzed by parliament’s limitations. It’s hard to imagine, for example, soldiers from Breaking the Silence describing their difficult experiences to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the way Vietnam veterans did in the U.S. Senate. It’s even more difficult to imagine the Knesset committee properly investigating policy in the territories, as is expected in a democracy. If that were the case, part of Breaking the Silence’s work would become superfluous.

The second objective of Breaking the Silence stems from the fact that, of the thousand or so soldiers who agreed to testify to the organization, almost none did anything in real time about the situations they described. They didn’t report the violations, nor did they try to restrain their comrades. The testimonies reveal a deep sense of loneliness, translated into helplessness; all that remained was to testify after the fact.

Ofer Vaknin

This was not the situation in the wars of the 1980s, when many soldiers sensitive to injustice acted in real time. The diminished presence of the middle class in the army is responsible for this difference, along with the more intense religious-Zionist education both outside the army and within it, which weakens the legitimacy of objecting to injustice and violence. Active resistance is demonstrated nowadays primarily by religious soldiers, aided by their civilian rabbis. This is also a violation of the democratic principle of maintaining political balance in the army.

Breaking the Silence is indeed important for democracy, but also testifies to its weaknesses.