December 21, 2015 - What the “Breaking the Silence” controversy is really about



This week, Alpher discusses why the Israeli political right is so brutally attacking the Breaking the Silence NGO, and why now; whether mainstream Israelis are defending Breaking the Silence; why is the foreign funding a problem, whether the settlers and right-wing NGOs are funded from abroad; the allegations regarding exaggerations and supporting BDS; the oft-quoted statement that the IDF is the most moral army in the world; what he suggests regarding Breaking the Silence and the right-wing campaign against it; the bigger picture: the right wing and the occupation.

Q. Why is the Israeli political right so brutally attacking the Breaking the Silence NGO, and why now?

A. Breaking the Silence, founded 12 years ago by combat soldiers who had completed their service doing West Bank policing duties, seeks to describe to Israelis and increasingly the international community the ills and evils of Israel’s military occupation there, at the most personal level. The political right argues that the thousand or so members of Breaking the Silence are exaggerating, are playing into the hands of the BDS movement, and are accepting funding from foreign countries with hostile agendas in order to do this.

The right was particularly angry last week with President Reuven Rivlin, who appeared on the same stage with Breaking the Silence at a conference in New York sponsored by Haaretz. Im Tirzu, an aggressive and extremist right wing NGO, labeled Breaking the Silence leaders “shtulim” (spies, moles, implants), meaning, in effect, traitors and agents for Israel’s enemies. All this has played out virally in the conventional and social media, has involved nasty threats from the right, and has fed into right-wing initiatives to legislate against various aspects of the left’s activities regarding human rights and the occupation. Some observers fear that rightist incitement could lead to an attempt on the life of Rivlin or of a Breaking the Silence activist. Defense Minister Yaalon has banned appearances before soldiers by Breaking the Silence; Education Minister Bennet has banned them from high schools.


Q. Are mainstream Israelis defending Breaking the Silence?

A. Rivlin very visibly defended its right to speak out. So did former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin. Amiram Levin, a revered retired general and commando, published a strong newspaper ad defending the organization. Notably, most of those defending Breaking the Silence tend to take exception to its activities abroad and advise the organization to confine its activities to Israel.


Q. Why is the foreign funding a problem? Aren’t the settlers and right-wing NGOs funded from abroad?

A. The right argues that funding for Israeli human rights NGOs by foreign countries, primarily European but here and there US government agencies as well, gives those countries illegitimate influence over Israel’s affairs. In a few cases, such as funding for Israeli Arab NGOs dedicated to encouraging Arab voting in elections, the funding allegedly influences the outcome of those elections.

There are two significant contradictions involved in these accusations. For one, virtually all well-off countries, Israel included, fund projects and organizations in other countries. Israeli agencies, for example, fund Jewish education in the US, Europe and South America and work with Jewish youth and other groups in many countries. Semi-official US agencies promote democracy in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and elsewhere. Every major German political party is, under German law, allotted funds in accordance with its parliamentary representation for the explicit purpose of promoting its values worldwide. The countries that most loudly object to these practices are those that are less than democratic.

So these objections from the Israeli right paint Israel in a very problematic light. German members of parliament are quick to point out to Israel that a country that provides the Israeli Navy with state-of-the-art submarines at a huge discount has a right to promote its values there without the relevant NGO recipient members being branded outcasts by forcing them to wear special tags when visiting the Knesset (the gist of legislation pending before the Knesset).

Then too, the Israeli right is as noted itself heavily funded from abroad. That the funding comes from private organizations and individuals rather than governments reflects, first and foremost, the fact that no self-respecting government in the world wants to be associated with the Israeli right and the settlements enterprise. As to the individual and organizational funders, they include evangelicals like the notorious John Hagee who hopes that fueling conflict in the Holy Land will accelerate the pace of the second coming, Armageddon and the demise of the Jewish people, and Jewish billionaires like Sheldon Adelson who has openly stated that he doesn’t care if Israel is not democratic. Im Tirzu accepts funding from Hagee. Some American Jewish organizations that fund settlements are openly flouting US foreign policy. Democratic and upstanding Israelis on the political right have nothing to be proud of here.


Q. And the allegations regarding exaggerations and supporting BDS?

A. Breaking the Silence clearly has exaggerated on occasion, such as when it portrayed video of a trigger-happy Israeli soldier in Hebron wildly firing a heavy caliber machine gun in 2002 as if this were some sort of norm. And there may be activists who have generated the impression of collaboration with BDS. But this is clearly not the mainstream policy of Breaking the Silence.


Q. But isn’t the IDF the most moral army in the world?

A. This is where we encounter the real significance of the current flare-up over Breaking the Silence. The real issue is the occupation itself--not how “morally” it is administered. After nearly 50 years of occupation, defending it by citing the IDF’s high moral standards is pathetic. First, because there are no prizes given internationally for “moral” armies and no way of defining which army, if any, is more moral. Second, because an army that wants to maintain a high moral standard would and should have found a way to embrace Breaking the Silence and listen more attentively to its complaints. And third, because there is nothing to compare to, no military moral yardstick for occupiers: no other army has occupied more than two million of its neighbors for nearly 50 years.

The real issue is political, not military. The only problem I have with the focus of and on Breaking the Silence is that, ostensibly, if that organization had its way, we would actually have a more enlightened and moral occupation in terms of the daily behavior of IDF soldiers--yet we would still have an occupation. That’s why until now the organization was welcomed when it offered to lecture to soldiers and would-be soldiers. But does this make the occupation any more acceptable in the eyes of Palestinians and the world, not to mention moral Israelis?  The IDF, which becomes a police force when it comes to occupation activities, might theoretically be “moral”, but the occupation by definition cannot be. Occupation corrupts, and 50 years of occupation (we are a year and a half away from that dubious landmark) corrupt very seriously, no matter how hard we try.


Q. So what do you suggest regarding Breaking the Silence and the right-wing campaign against it?

A. Most of what I suggest relates to an ideal world and probably not to Israel’s and the region’s current reality. Still, perhaps President Rivlin, a right-winger who has behaved admirably where human rights are concerned, could take the lead in addressing the following package of ideas.

First, one key rationale presented by Breaking the Silence for appealing to Diaspora Jewish and international audiences is that the IDF does not take the organization’s allegations seriously. The IDF should try harder. It should make a renewed effort to work not only with Breaking the Silence but with Peace Now, Yesh Din and B’tzelem as well. It should publicize the findings of its inquiries based on these organizations’ allegations. And these organizations should bend over backwards to sound out the IDF reaction to its findings before publishing them, and to publish the IDF reaction along with their allegations. (A lot of this happens today, but not in a comprehensive and inclusive way on the part, for example, of B’tzelem that emphasizes objectivity above all and demonstrates a willingness to go the extra mile with the IDF.)

Second, Breaking the Silence should declare a temporary freeze on its activities abroad and among the Diaspora. It should declare that BDS supporters and anti-Zionist soldiers are not welcome in its ranks (they aren’t, but it must make this declaration repeatedly). As columnist Amnon Abramovich wrote in Yedioth Aharonot, “If I were asked, I would advise Breaking the Silence to be active in Israel and not abroad and to adopt local rather than universal arguments--explanations that are friendly to the Israeli user rather than the global user.”

Third, Yaalon and Bennet should rescind their bans on appearances by Breaking the Silence before soldiers and high school students approaching their compulsory service.

Fourth, the responsible right wing should rein in its attack dogs.

Finally, after a trial year, all sides should sit down with Rivlin and evaluate the situation.


Q. And the bigger picture: the right wing and the occupation?

A. The Israeli right wants to have its occupation cake and eat it too. If it succeeds, Israel will become either a non-democratic apartheid country or a non-Jewish, non-Zionist bi-national state. Either way, it will be highly conflicted internally--meaning the issues raised by Breaking the Silence won’t go away.

Retired general Shlomo Gazit was the first IDF official in charge of the West Bank and Gaza nearly 50 years ago, and later served with distinction as head of IDF Intelligence. In his weekly blog last weekend he explained why the right’s wishful thinking regarding criticism of the occupation will get it nowhere:

“We in Israel are unlucky:

  • The Jewish people are the focus of world interest, whether the Christian world or the Muslim world.
  • The little Land of Israel is important to the world. . . . It draws the interest of at least half the world’s population. The name Jerusalem is no less known than London, Paris, Mecca and the Vatican. The nearly dry Jordan River is no less known than the Nile. . . .
  • And of all the violent political conflicts in our world, this is the conflict and the place that, multitudes believe, will eventually bring about Armageddon, the end of the world.”

Last but not least, those who insist very publicly that the IDF is the most moral army in the world should be advised that they are actively encouraging the world to apply a double standard to the IDF’s behavior, whether in the West Bank occupation or in defending Israel against rocket attacks by Gaza-based Hamas. If we’re so moral, of course the world should look at us with a magnifying glass!