Opinion |

Why Breaking the Silence?

A place where breaking the silence is illegitimate - is not a democracy.

Yuli Novak
Yuli Novak
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Breaking the Silence activists protest against the occupation in Tel Aviv, in March 2016.
Breaking the Silence activists protest against the occupation in Tel Aviv, in March 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yuli Novak
Yuli Novak

When an autoimmune disease breaks out the immune system gets confused and instead of protecting the body it attacks itself. It seems that in the past year, such behavior has developed as a natural, but worrisome, reaction to the government’s campaign of incitement and intimidation against the Israeli left.

For over year, we at Breaking the Silence have faced an obsessive attack on the part of the Israeli government and the prime minister. We fought back and we are still here, stronger and more effective than ever.

Along the way we learned something about how this business works. As a political activist, my obligation is to break the silence about the disintegration of Israeli democracy, too.

At first, I thought the government and prime minister had made a mistake and had chosen the wrong organization to demonize:

An organization of combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, liberal and moderate, which does not call for refusing military service or for a boycott of Israel, which does not deal with war crimes and does not even offer a specific solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An organization whose main message represents the DNA of a liberal democracy: “The occupation must end, because to rule over millions of people without rights is immoral and bad for Israel.”

So why then did they actually choose to target Breaking the Silence?

Because in order to continue the occupation the government is adopting more and more of the nationalist-religious values of the settlement movement, which inherently contradicts the liberal-democratic idea.

When soldiers from the people’s army make a moral decision and expose the immorality of the occupation, they are breaking the silence. Breaking the silence can exist only in a democratic country and is very bad for the occupation.

A place where breaking the silence is illegitimate - is not democracy. In this sense, the attack by the government and the settlers against Breaking the Silence is intended to fundamentally change the Israeli system of government.

When the government brutally attacks Breaking the Silence it sends a clear and threatening message to the entire liberal-democratic camp: Everything that Breaking the Silence represents and does is beyond the borders of the new national consensus.

Speak about rebellion against the occupation, you will become a target for incitement. Criticize the settlements, you will be stopped. Say something about equality for Palestinians, express respect for human life, freedom and justice - you have taken a risk.

And if, God forbid, you act so boldly and speak about these things in foreign languages - you will be upgraded to the status of “traitors and spies.” In simple terms: Democrats, take care not to try us, you are next in line.

Facing these manipulative messages, there are those who become confused and instead of defending the values under attack, they toe the line according to the right’s plans and start attacking themselves.

This explains why, for example, the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Rivka Carmi, withheld an award from Breaking the Silence based on the claim that “they are not part of the Israeli consensus.”

Carmi surrendered her own values, “changed sides” and aided the government in defining, once again, the limits of Israeli consensus: The occupation regime is the consensus and it is illegitimate to criticize it.

Elected representatives of the Knesset, who are supposed to be the opposition and defend democracy, have caved in, too, time after time in the face of these threats.

This is what happened when a number of Knesset members from the Labor party signed a settlers' petition calling to boycott Breaking the Silence; and this is what happens when members of Labor whisper to tell me that “it is clear they are with us,” but that they regret that if they defend Breaking the Silence they might be considered too “leftist” and lose votes.

Under pressure from dangerous incitement, the Labor party has not only abandoned the soldiers who 'broke the silence' but itself and its own values, too, over the past year.

In contrast, I saw over the past year quite a few impressive examples of a determined and effective struggle in the face of the regime's violence:

Faculty from Ben-Gurion University who found a way to evade the president’s decision; principals who insisted on inviting Breaking the Silence to their schools, despite the threats of Education Minister Naftali Bennett; thousands of Israelis who donated to us, who hosted our meetings in their homes; cultural institutions that cooperated with us; Jewish institutions in the United States who despite enormous pressure refused to renounce us; and many others.

In these times, anyone who cares about Israel must choose whether to take shelter in the warm bosom of the new “consensus,” or join the struggle over the democratic future of the State of Israel.

There is a huge amount to do, there is no reason to despair. To stand proudly with Breaking the Silence is certainly a good start, and will send an important message: We remember who we are and what we believe in, and now we are fighting for our home

Yuli Novak is executive director of Breaking the Silence.

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