Defame, Don't Engage: The Witch Hunt Against Breaking the Silence

While whistle-blowers are rarely popular, the only malice is coming from those who want to limit Israel’s political discourse.

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A screenshot from the Im Tirzu video, 'outing' four leftists as defending terrorists. Caption reads: 'When we fight terrorism, they fight us.'
Illustrative: A screenshot from an Im Tirzu video, 'outing' four leftists as defending terrorists. Caption reads: 'When we fight terrorism, they fight us.'Credit: YouTube
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

The witch hunt is on. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid have been suckered into attacking Breaking the Silence, by the lobbying of groups like Im Tirtzu, and angry army officers who do not think the Israel Defense Forces can tolerate any criticism from within. In fact, so many groups are attacking the organization at once that it smells like an organized campaign.

Breaking the Silence was founded and is led by officers serving in the IDF reserves who dare to assert that the occupation does damage to soldiers compelled to participate in the control of another people. (Full disclosure: I work for the Moriah Fund, which has given annual grants to Breaking the Silence though the New Israel Fund for many years.)

Yaalon claims that Breaking the Silence is “operating out of malicious motives,” and “blackens the name of our soldiers abroad.” These claims are absurd, since Breaking the Silence is made up of “our soldiers,” and their criticism is explicitly directed at Israel’s political echelon and its policies, and not at the soldiers, whom the organization considers to be victims of those policies. While whistle-blowers are rarely popular, the only malice is coming from those who want to limit Israel’s political discourse.

Right-wing leaders find Breaking the Silence threatening precisely because they are IDF officers, and this gives them credibility in the eyes of Israel’s public as well as the international community. They are neither conscientious objectors nor among the legions of Israelis who shirk military service. They do not even refuse their service in the territories. They simply exercise their rights as citizens when not in uniform to share their misgivings about the occupation, offering a very Israeli view that undermines the Greater Israel/normalization-of-settlements agenda of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties.

Israeli reservist Ido Even Paz, center, guiding visitors at the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition at the Kulturhaus Helferei in Zurich, June 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters

More than 1,000 soldiers have voluntarily offered testimonies about their service in the West Bank and Gaza. They believe the Israeli public has both the right and the need to know more about the specific ways serving in the West Bank or taking part in the Gaza wars harms our own soldiers, or raises questions about the polices guiding our practices. These objectives are pursued in order to provoke public debate, a legitimate and praiseworthy end in a liberal democracy, and a goal that is especially urgent at a time when anyone who refuses to toe the Greater Israel line is labeled as an enemy of the state.

The right wing looks for a way to brand any NGO that criticizes the occupation as disloyal. The claim that Breaking the Silence is spreading lies abroad about the Israel Defense Forces, or that they are enemy agents, reframes Breaking the Silence’s criticism of the occupation as an attack on a beloved and sacred institution; the army itself.

For Jewish Israelis, the IDF is not only a source of pride, but we identify with our soldiers in a personal way because they are us; our children, fathers, husbands, daughters, wives. It is easy to rile up anger and suspicion in the Israeli population – when most of them have probably never read a Breaking the Silence booklet of testimonies or met any of its members – by telling them the IDF is being attacked. Who will listen to “traitors,” even if they fulfill their patriotic duty to serve and protect?

But Breaking the Silence is also us: its members identify themselves as IDF soldiers, and they function as a kind of conscience for us and the army. They are desperately trying to get us to pay attention to the daily evils of our 49-year occupation, and the sporadic evils of the sporadic shooting wars with Gaza so that we will make ending the occupation our top priority.

The critics of Breaking the Silence mischaracterize it deliberately, so as avoid engaging with the criticism that the organization puts forward. Consider the astounding lack of debate about the tactics we deployed in the 2014 war in Gaza in which 2200 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of children. Note also that in the attacks on Breaking the Silence, no one is refuting any specific claims raised by individual soldiers or the organization as a whole; it is easier to defame the NGO than engage with their arguments.

“There are instances in which don’t know everything, instances when the operational level hides information from us,” a high ranking  officer in the IDF's Military Advocate General’s Office told Israel’s Channel 10 news last week. “The testimonies of Breaking the Silence, like those of B’tselem, have helped us in the past, and continue to help us investigate the truth of what is happening in the IDF.” Unfortunately, our current defense minister does not feel secure enough to welcome criticism from within. Either that, or he was bamboozled by the allegations of other officers, which now appear to be part of an organized campaign, involved Im Tirtzu and other right-wing organizations.

According to Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, the vast majority of their activities are educational and take place in Israel. Is there justification to the criticism that by sharing its findings abroad the group feeds Israel’s enemies?  

We know that the anti-Zionist maw is vast and voracious, and any self-criticism may be snapped up for the propaganda mill. But if we start to censor ourselves in order to avoid that risk, we can kiss our democratic discourse goodbye. This is a point of vulnerability in all liberal democracies when dealing with authoritarian forces, but we must counter it with our strongest weapons; the truth, and open discourse. In any case, to think that Israel-bashers need any more ammunition is nave. In any case, although the organization would never want to be coopted to provide cover for the occupation, they provide a welcome alternative Israeli voice to nationalist breast-beating, both at home and abroad.

If our leaders were not so busy with their populist witch hunt, they could be studying the Breaking the Silence testimonies to see what we can learn – as Israelis, as Jews exercising power for one of the few times in our history – about  the experience of our soldiers, and about how the occupation is poisoning us.

President Reuven Rivlin was publicly reviled because he dared to speak at the HaaretzQ conference in New York at which Breaking the Silence also appeared. The president, to his credit, remained unruffled, although he acknowledged that like the IDF officers who petitioned him to boycott the conference, he does not like to hear criticism of our military; few Israelis do. That does not mean we should not be listening when soldiers bravely, patriotically, and at great personal risk, come forward to say that some of what we are doing is wrong.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on The Promised Podcast.

Clarification: The following sentence was added on December 22nd 2015:
(Full disclosure: I work for the Moriah Fund which has given annual grants to Breaking the Silence though the New Israel Fund for many years.)

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