Let’s Talk About the Occupation – in (American) English

Ari Shavit’s strategies for bridging the gap between U.S. Jews and Israel effectively act to obscure the line that separates Israel from the occupied territories. That line is what Breaking the Silence seeks to protect.

avner gvaryahu
Avner Gvaryahu
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A Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron.
A Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron.Credit: Olivier Fitussi
avner gvaryahu
Avner Gvaryahu

At the height of the onslaught against Breaking the Silence two months ago, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit joined the commotion by criticizing the organization’s operations abroad in an op-ed, "Why I broke my silence". "As a long-time silence breaker, I hope that the new silence-breakers find a better and more appropriate way to say their piece," he wrote.

Shavit wrote that he understands our motivation to discuss the reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) but "doesn’t like" the fact that we talk about the occupation in English.

It was therefore interesting to read his recent article about touring campuses across the U.S. in which Shavit says he shared his opinions with thousands of students on dozens of campuses over the past year. Clearly his own views aren’t bound by self-censorship in front of an English-speaking crowd. But why are Shavit’s views more worthy of being heard abroad than those held by Breaking the Silence, myself and fellow members included, participants in an organization of over 1,000 soldiers who have served in the OPT over the past decade?

As someone who has been working with Jewish communities across the world for years as part of my job with Breaking the Silence, I agree with Shavit on one foundational issue. He is right to identify the central problem facing those who wish to maintain and strengthen the relationship between Israel and American Jews: The growing crisis between the Diaspora and Israel over the latter’s policy of prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories.

This policy of occupation, like the extremist and messianic positions voiced by senior members of our government internationally, make it difficult for liberal Jews to support and identify with Israel. The Israeli government continues to sink deeper into its own international isolation and is rapidly distancing itself from the liberal values that inform the Western world. At the same time, American Jews – as a minority in the U.S. – sanctify the value of "tikkun olam" (repairing the world) and see it as a civic duty. The systematic oppression of another people with no end in sight does not sit well with this worldview.

But where I part ways with Shavit is how he proposes to solve this crisis. Shavit’s solution: Establishing a "Jewish Peace Corps" as a way to improve Israel’s image ("Only a 'Jewish Peace Corps' Can Save Zionism From Its Millennial Crisis").

Instead of tackling the problem itself, instead of stating loud and clear that we must fight to end occupation for the sake of this country’s future and the future of its relationship with world Jewry, Shavit wants to send Jews to Yerucham, Ukraine and Cambodia on behalf of Israeli "hasbara." In this sense, Shavit is essentially trying to mask the occupation. But millions of Palestinians deprived of rights are not going to disappear, and no number of diversions can help. For Israel to be "identified with human rights, social justice, environmental activism and the effort to make the world a better place," it actually needs to embody these values, not just pretend to.

Shavit’s approach is well aligned with the current government's, which in trying to rationalize the occupation and the settlement enterprise, is working to obliterate the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. The government is presenting world Jewry with two choices: Either you are pro-Israel, which means pro-settlements and pro-occupation, or you are anti-Israel. This approach to "hasbara" paradoxically works to bolster the BDS movement abroad, which argues that supporting Israel is equivalent to supporting the occupation and vice versa. Instead of pushing for a solution based on the 1967 borders, we have gone backwards to fight for our right to live within the green line.

This is exactly why Breaking the Silence operates in English in the U.S. We believe that we must show the world another way of understanding what is happening in Israel today. We tell our audiences that it is important to distinguish between Israel proper and the OPT. As Israelis and former soldiers, we try to clarify what the occupation is and why it is important to distinguish it from the debate over Israel’s very existence. We tell people that we love Israel, but hate the occupation.

I am currently a student at one of the American campuses that Shavit has visited. "Apartheid Week" is being held here, but I won’t be participating. As an Israeli who is dedicating his life to improving the country’s future, I am vehemently opposed to the notion of obscuring the Green Line. That is why I also won’t participate in Shavit’s efforts to do exactly that by establishing a "Jewish Peace Corps."

Ari Shavit, if you still yearn for a genuine solution to Israel’s existential problem, its relationship to Diaspora Jewry, or its democratic character – and are convinced that the country’s right to exist as a national homeland for the Jewish people must be distinguished from the occupation – say so. Be explicit about it, instead of continuing to stick spokes – this time in English – into the wheels of the struggle to end the occupation.

Avner Gvaryahu served in the IDF as a sergeant in the Paratroopers Brigade from 2004 – 2007. He is a member of Breaking the Silenceand is currently pursuing his M.A in New York.



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