Breaking the Silence Is No Human Rights Organization - and I Should Know

While Breaking the Silence is not an illegitimate organization, it uses unproven allegations peddled as truths to credulous foreigners in order to override the decisions of a democratic government.

Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky
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Newly released from Soviet prison, Natan Sharansky arrives at the Western Wall in February 1986.
Newly released from Soviet prison, Natan Sharansky arrives at the Western Wall in February 1986.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO
Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky

Members and supporters of Breaking the Silence—the group of former Israeli soldiers who accuse the IDF of committing immoral and illegal acts in the West Bank—have on several occasions likened their campaign to that of the dissidents who fought for human rights in the Soviet Union. In 2010, for example, Breaking the Silence was on a short-list of three finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, which recognizes leading human-rights activists around the world, and defenders of the controversial nomination hailed the group as an heir to Andrei Sakharov’s legacy.

In this view, the struggle to end Israel’s military presence in the territories by bringing international pressure to bear on the Jewish state is analogous to the struggle to bring down the Iron Curtain by calling the world’s attention to Soviet repression.

Unfortunately, the comparison is deeply flawed. For one thing, it completely ignores the distinction—so clear and so important to Soviet dissidents—between dictatorship and democracy, and with it the fundamental differences between the Soviet Union and Israel. Soviet dissidents set out to democratize a dictatorial regime, to create the kind of representative institution with which Israel is already blessed. Because such institutions were entirely absent in the USSR, we had no choice but to rely on external forces to induce the regime to respond to our claims.

Breaking the Silence, by contrast, sets out to bypass an existing democratic government and resolve a controversial political issue by means of international pressure. It is of course legitimate to believe that Israel’s military presence in the West Bank should be ended immediately. But it is equally legitimate to believe that such a withdrawal would be dangerous and even catastrophic for the state. This is a political question that should be decided by Israel’s citizens through their elected representatives, not by a small group of self-appointed prophets and their chorus of foreign supporters.

Breaking the Silence also employs entirely different tactics from those of the Soviet human-rights movement. In reporting violations to the Soviet regime, we provided details about every case so that the public record would be crystal clear and the regime itself could (at least in theory) respond. Yet Breaking the Silence operates in such a way that the Israeli government has no chance of ever properly investigating or responding to its claims. This is all the more striking when one considers that Israel, as a functioning democracy, has established channels to prosecute such infractions that we in the USSR could only dream about.

I have learned that since 2004, Breaking the Silence has not once appealed to Israel’s state prosecutor or military judiciary to request that the government or army investigate an alleged violation of human rights, despite the fact that Israel probed and punished many such infractions during the same period. What is more, although the IDF chose of its own accord to investigate the group’s allegations, it had no way of verifying or disproving them because Breaking the Silence refused to release any identifying details about the soldiers involved.

The group claims that such anonymity is necessary to protect its soldier-informants. How hollow this excuse sounds, however, when one considers that Soviet citizens faced repercussions far worse for criticizing their regime and yet still publicly joined our campaign. Documents that other dissidents and I personally signed and submitted to Soviet authorities contained details about hundreds if not thousands of persecuted citizens, of various faiths and ethnicities, all of whom understood that in identifying themselves they were becoming easy targets for interrogation and reprisal. Nevertheless, when members of our group were arrested and the KGB contacted many of these same people, not one was ready to testify against the information he had provided.

In other words, our campaign relied on the readiness of regular citizens to stand against official pressure in order to reveal the truth about the regime’s cruelty. Breaking the Silence is not prepared to rely on even one Israeli soldier to make his name public and face whatever the consequences may be.

I do not wish to suggest that Breaking the Silence is an illegitimate organization, and I find accusations that it works as an agent of some foreign government to be ridiculous and unfair. The group’s critics ought to challenge it through public discourse rather than through legislation.

But let us be clear: This is not a human-rights organization in any meaningful sense of the term. It is one thing to focus international attention on the plight of those persecuted by corrupt regimes by publicly bringing their cases to authorities in a position to investigate and respond. It is quite another to use unproven allegations peddled as truths to credulous foreigners in order to override the decisions of a democratic government.

Those wishing to take up the mantle of the Soviet struggle would do well to ponder the real risks taken by dissidents who speak the truth about repressive rulers. They would also do well to pause and take stock of how very fortunate they are not to have to take such risks themselves.

Natan Sharansky is the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a former refusenik and prisoner of conscience in the ex-USSR.

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