‘The day you leave the army is the first day in your life that you are an adult civilian. That is when you start to think, you can pause.’
I am on a Breaking the Silence tour and we are driving from West Jerusalem in Israel, to our destination: the south Hebron hills in the West Bank, Palestine. Our guide, Yehuda Shaul, one of the founding members of the organization and its Foreign Relations Director, undertook Israel’s compulsory military service during the second Palestinian Intifada (‘uprising’), from March 2001 to March 2004, and he is telling us about his experience of serving in the second most powerful army in the world: the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004, shortly after the end of the Intifada, where the IDF fired one million bullets during the first month of the uprising alone. In the past nine years, over 800 former IDF soldiers have testified to the organization about what they did and what they witnessed in the occupied West Bank during their service. Awareness-raising tours are run monthly, and educational visits to schools and colleges in Israel are regularly conducted. A photography exhibition has also been shown in parts of the EU and US.
Explaining the aim of the organization, Yehuda Shaul tells me that the one thing they demand of Israeli society is ‘that you sit down and listen to what’s been done in our name; our testimonies provide a mirror to that. What are our moral boundaries? What is our red line as a democratic society?’
It is vital that Israelis themselves speak out and urge their peers to take their share of responsibility, instead of simply distancing themselves from the actions of their military and government
I wonder whether many of the one million Palestinians and refugees (mostly from sub-Saharan Africa) who are treated as second-class citizens in Israel would share his view that the country is a democracy. I get the impression from Shaul and from Breaking the Silence’s mission statement that the organization was founded partly on the belief that the state of Israel had lost its way – particularly during the second Intifada – but that it remains, at its roots, a democratic and moral society. The violent manner in which Israel was founded and is maintained, however, calls into question the belief that the country ever had ‘moral boundaries’ or ‘standards’. The country crossed a red line when it massacred civilians and forced millions from their homes in 1948 and in the 65 years of nakbas (‘catastrophes’) that the Palestinian people have suffered since.
Yet in exposing the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians, Breaking the Silence members are able to question the status quo of the society that has formed them: ‘Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that which is done in its name.’ It it is vital, the organization believes, that Israelis themselves speak out and urge their peers to take their share of responsibility, instead of simply distancing themselves from the actions of their military and government.
Breaking the Silence doesn’t have an official position on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, preferring to let the truth from veteran soldiers’ testimonies speak for itself. The former combatants hold differing views: some believe the occupation should continue, but that the methods used to maintain it are too harsh; others campaign for the end of the occupation but hold ‘liberal-Zionist’ views, advocating the two-state solution which would keep Israel a Jewish and, therefore, undemocratic, state; and yet others believe in a single, democratic, secular state for all.
The taboo of speaking out
The one thing these Israelis do all have in common is that they chose to speak out. While some organizations and individuals working for Palestinian self-determination will not work with groups which appear to be normalizing the Israeli occupation by not actively condemning it or signing up to the principles of the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, Breaking the Silence’s lack of position means that anyone can feel free to take part and testify. And breaking the silence – whether before or after one’s military service – is a bold move in a society where the pressure to conform is huge and the price can be high. Sahar Vardi refused to serve in the army in 2008. ‘Criticizing the army is criticizing your brother, father, friends,’ she says. ‘Psychologically it becomes hard to do.’
‘Criticizing the army is criticizing your brother, father, friends. Psychologically it becomes hard to do’
Those who choose to go public about their refusal to undertake military service or who speak out after having served often experience intimidation. One refusenik I met had received death threats and the walls of her family’s home had been sprayed with graffiti. After going public with his refusal to fly missions over the Palestinian territories, former Israel Air Force pilot Yonatan Shapira found it impossible to get a job at home, so now works in the US for six months a year. Yet, while our tour guide says that ‘it is comradeship that keeps you in the army’, there is hope that soon it will be comradeship and a sense of solidarity with refusenik peers and with the Palestinian people that will keep people out of the army.
For many young Israelis, completing their compulsory army service in their early twenties is the first time they start to question the perceived truths in their society regarding Palestinians and the occupation: what they have been taught to believe at school, from family or friends and by society as a whole. The militarization of Israeli society is such that being a soldier is as much a part of growing up as taking an exam or going on a first date.
Forty percent of people that Breaking the Silence members aim to share their testimonies with are young Israelis before they have been drafted. Yet ‘Breaking the Silence does not publicly support refusal’ says Vardi.
When a young soldier sees me reading one of Breaking the Silence’s books on a bus, he tells me that a member of the organization had spoken to him and his peers during army training. ‘I didn’t like them, trying to force their opinions onto us,’ he says. There is some credit to be given to the Israeli army for allowing young recruits to listen to truthful and unflinching accounts of working in the West Bank. For balance, however, this particular soldier had also heard a talk by an Israeli settler – part of the New Israeli Guardians organization – speaking of Bedouins taking ‘his land’.
Breaking the Silence, through its tours, talks, exhibitions and books, does not only hold a mirror up to Israeli society; it encourages us all to see our reflections in it. Many countries around the world are complicit in or have aided the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and so we are all responsible. The organization also urges us to examine our own ‘red lines’ as societies and as individuals, and to have the courage and humility to acknowledge when we have crossed this line.