Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Response to the Bombastic "Open Letter to Breaking the Silence"

A few months ago, the Stand-With-Israel organization, upset over the fact that the Israel Campus Coalition had voted unanimously to allow ideological diversity among its constitutent groups, circulated an "Open Letter to 'Breaking the Silence'." Now, the Magnes Zionist is not a member of "Breaking the Silence," so I can't speak for them. But since the letter has resurfaced on the Israel Hasbarah (Hebrew for: "Party Line") website, and since shabbes was out late tonight, I thought I would write my response. An Open Letter to Members of "Breaking the Silence"
We, the soldiers and people of the State of Israel, are deeply pained and outraged by the activities of your group, “Breaking the Silence.”
Now, how's that for a bombastic opening! "We, the soldiers," as if the letter is signed by the entire Israeli people and the IDF! Couldn't you guys drop the definite article? Or were you attempting to imitate Jefferson?
You, a handful of former IDF soldiers, travel abroad to tell foreign audiences we allegedly committed abuses during our IDF service. You claim such abuses are typical.
Most of the members of "Breaking the Silence" are present IDF soldiers who do reserve duty -- more than I can say for a lot of the yordim who signed the "Open Letter." But let that pass... Note in the paragraph above that the "alleged abuses" in the first sentence become just "abuses" in the following sentence. Come on, guys -- are they abuses? Then they aren't "alleged." If they are only "alleged" -- then how can anybody claim that they are typical! But in fact, BTS doesn't claim that they are typical; they claim that based on their experience, and on the experiences of other soldiers whom they know, these abuses are widespread. How widespread? That is not the issue. The issue is that they are widespread enough, and are not dealt with by the IDF. And if you don't believe them, then read the BTS website.

You claim to speak for us. You do not.

"Breaking the Silence" claims to speak for the group, and not for anybody else. They realize that they are a minority of voices crying in the wilderness, and that many people disagree with them. They also recognize that many soldiers haven't had the experiences that they have had. They are the lucky ones.

You claim we are silenced. But we regularly speak up. No army is perfect and we, too, face difficult issues, but we work through them just as every army in a democratic society does. We will not let you misrepresent us. We have the right and the duty as the majority to testify that your accounts do not reflect what we have seen with our own eyes and what we have experienced.

I don't want to picky, but nobody is denying anybody the right to speak up. Soldiers who have not experienced what the other soldiers have -- as reflected in the testimonies on the website -- have a moral obligation to say so. If you think that the testimonies are lies, or exaggerations, or made up, then please explain why you think so.

You say there is need for new self-critical dialogue, but in Israel all voices, including yours, are heard. Yet you deceive foreign audiences by telling them otherwise.

I don't get this at all. None of the group said that they were silenced in Israel, except when the IDF broke up their picture exhibition. After the initial media splash in Israel, interest died down. That is not surprising in a country where Kohav Nolad (the Israeli "American Idol") had better ratings than the coverage of the evacuation from Gaza.

You give alleged examples of terrible IDF abuses, but your goal is not to uphold the IDF’s ethic of “purity of arms.” You are aware that there is a chain of command for reporting abuses, and when proven, they are severely punished. Once again you deceive foreign audiences by telling them otherwise.

Yada, yada, yada...It is hard for me that anybody who served in the IDF could write such a line. Nu, hevreh, be'emet. The IDF, like any army, like any organization, engages in covering their ass ("kisuy tahat", be-'ivrit zehah). It's no different from the US army in that regard. Sure, when it has to, in order to enforce army discipline, or because some photographer managed to capture a beating without his film being confiscated, it investigates. There are procedures. There is even an ethical code. And it is taught to the soldiers. There are orders for when one is allowed to open fire. And I genuinely believe that the IDF, like any other normal army, wants to enforce discipline.

But READ THE TESTIMONIES ON THE WEBSITE -- all this is dealt with there. There are enough screwups, foulups, stam rishut, that thousands of Palestinians civilians have been shot, and very few people have been punished. After all, the army investigates the army.

Would you like to live under a Palestinian occupation, and have a Palestinian army justice system investigate their abuses? Don't you see that this is a recipe for injustice? Or are you so brainwashed that you think the army bureaucracy is a paragon of virtue.

Your goal apparently is to introduce a debate about Israel’s policy in the Territories. That is a legitimate topic for discussion.

Hello...that's not their goal. Their goal is to expose abuses and to let the Israeli public and the world know what is happening. See the website

But you want it to be their goal. You see, you would love them to be another leftwing IDF-bashing group. The fact that a lot of these people are combat officers drives you nuts, doesn't it. We are not talking about Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky here. We are talking about the people who are guarding you (the ones of you who live in Israel and not in LA.)

Look, I can understand somebody who answers , "All this is regrettable, but Israel's existence is at stake. Maybe the price for Israel's existence is subduing 3 1/2 million Palestinians. If they don't like it, let them move to Detroit." That's ok; I can understand that. But just know the price you have to pay. Don't kid yourself into denying the abuses.

But instead of debating the issues, you have chosen to defame the IDF and misrepresent Israel to foreign audiences hoping that you will win support for your political agenda. This is dishonest, sensationalist manipulation. You are simply exploiting foreigners’ ignorance about us and spreading misinformation and hate.

And what is the political agenda? Can you find a quote on the website which will tell me what that is? Note how the authors invent a political agenda for the group, then criticize them for not debating the issues. The group is not interested in debating the "issues." They are not well-heeled propagandists (oops, masbirim) who are taught how to score points on college campuses. These guys are disgusted with what they have done or witnessed.

And the testimonies themselves come from left, right, and center -- hilonim, datiyim, and even mitnahalim.

Can you bring a single example from the website which is" misinformation."

We, the soldiers who served at border patrols, in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza raise our voices in protest. You dishonor yourselves and us, and you demean our sacrifices. We have done everything in our power to uphold the purity of arms and to be true to Jewish ethics during even the most difficult times.

May God bless you for that (and punish you for your immature, rhetorical excesses....)

We raise our voices to remind you of the tens of thousands of us who have endured physical pain, faced death, been taken hostage and been severely wounded just because we upheld our principles and our core value that all human life is precious. We remind you of the difficult moral dilemmas we face daily because terrorists embed themselves among Palestinian civilians and use them as human shields since terrorists do not abide by the Geneva Convention.

Neither does Israel, but we'll let that pass. Or maybe you haven't heard about nohal shakhen, where Palestinian civilians have been used as human shields by the IDF. After years of complaints by human rights group, the Israel supreme court struck it down. But, of course, the army still does it, despite the court.

Let me put it this way -- if Palestinian terrorists blew up ten thousand Jews and ate them for breakfast, that would not excuse, condone, or justify trashing a Palestinian doctor's office and leaving two piles of shit in the middle of the room.

"Breaking the Silence" is not saying that Israelis soldiers are bad people, or are particularly immoral. (If it was, then there would be no group. You don't see "Breaking the Silence" in Serbia or Rwanda.)

BTS is not Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. This is not the UN talking. These are combat soldiers who are perpretrators or witnesses of the abuses. They are confessing to their own crimes, not to the crimes of others. They know that the army does not punish the perpretrators unless the press has gotten to them. That is not because the IDF is is because it is an army.

The only argument you can have with the group is that what they have witnessed is not representative. Fair enough. I wonder what it would take to convince you that these abuses are more widespread than you think...or are you immune to change, since the IDF is always right....

But let me tell you something -- if what you are saying is right, and what they are saying is wrong..

How come it took three years for the opponents of "Breaking the Silence" to start a petition?

How come the "Open Letter" originated in the US and not in Israel?

How come most Israelis I know, even those who don't like the group, don't contest their war experiences?

They may try to contextualize them ("Look, most of these things happened during the dark days of the second intifada, when the soldiers were under pressure") or they may criticize the testifiers ("Why didn't they report the behavior to their commanding officer?"), or they may justify the practice ("Hey, we have to show the Arabs who are the bosses, or otherwise there will be chaos.")

Or is your petition initiative that of rightwing American Jews, some of whom have made aliyah, the sort of folks who are willing to talk about IDF abuses only when settlers are evicted.

To sum up: the point of the group is not to say that IDF is not a moral army.

The point of the group is to say that the "most moral army in the world" will inevitably commit such abuses -- even if it doesn't want to -- because that is what an open-ended occupation does to you.

After all, if the IDF needs koah harta'ah (deterrence) it has to teach the civilians a lesson, If it has to demonstrate the IDF presence (le-hafgin nokhahut), it has to scare the civilians. So you trash a few offices, you take a few souvenirs, you smash a few cards, you make a few Arabs clean up the mess -- she lo yarimu rosh.

Every once a while, when a magavnik (Border Police) stam beats up a Palestinian to show him who is boss, somebody catches it on camera. Then the politicians get upset, the army says it will investigate, and takhlis, nothing happens. And that is for the one out of thousands of cases which make it to the press.

Don't believe me? Read about it, ye defenders of Israel, here. Then watch the video.

So this is our reply to you—our signatures to show that you, a handful of misguided individuals, are not telling the real story, that you magnify the few exceptions to our standard behavior and miss the total picture which is far greater than your collective experiences and imaginations. We are replying to your misguided words with far more than the 140 politically-motivated academics who signed your letter.

As if the "Open Letter" is not politically-motivated....

We, the people of this land, come to you out of the great tapestry that is Israel—young soldiers, reservists in their thirties and forties, who are people of color, Christians, Arabs and Druze—who believe that Israel has a right to live in peace and security. We come from across the political spectrum but all of us care deeply and have lost and wept and yearned for a peace that we have tried to usher in with dignity, respect and honesty.

(Wait till I wring out my handkerchief....)

How can anybody write of "honesty" when they write such emotional drivel as this? I guess that, according to the authors, the newspapers who published the Abu Ghaib pictures believed that the US does not have the right to live in peace and security. Or they were guilty of lashon haroh

For us and for our children, we ask you to cease your destructive and misleading activities.

What about your parents?

The Captive Children File I

Every once a while I will waste my time and respond to tinokot she-nishbu, "captive children," or in this case, folks who have been so brainwashed by the Israel party line (in contemporary parlance, hasbara) that they are unable to think straight.

Judith Weiss complains that "Breaking the Silence" is guilty of slander, i.e., leshon ho-ro' (or lashon horah, to use the common yeshivish mispronunciation that Ms. Weiss uses) because the group has publicized testimonies of soldiers who have confessed to, or witnessed, inappropriate behavior towards civilians.

I find the halakhic argument that Ms. Weiss raises interesting. If it is lashon horah to decry embarrasing behavior that violates the halakha -- like pedophilia and wife-beating, for example -- then she has a point. In fact, some orthodox have used that argument to stifle orthodox pedophilia and wife-beating. When Gary Rosenblatt, the New York Jewish Week's editor, exposed an orthodox rabbi who was accused of sexual molestation, he was accused by some people of lashon horah. Ms. Weiss apparently is of the "Don't-wash-our-dirty-laundry-in public." Or maybe she is more tolerant of Jewish sex offenders than of IDF soldiers humiliating Arabs.

Note that when "Breaking the Silence" toured the US last fall, they were accused of distorting the IDF record, which is a shande for the goyim (you can figure that out, if you read this far.) Fair enough. But now, according to Ms. Weiss, they can't even talk about it in Israel to an Israeli crowd!

The group has collected close to a thousand testimonies, four hundred of which are on their website. Conservatively speaking, I figure that for every soldier who testifies to a representative of this group, at least ten do not. How do I come to that conclusion? First, occupying armies, especially in long-term occupations, and when they are in stressful situations, dehumanize the population. That is just the way things are everywhere. For another, what motivation do soldiers have to offer testimonies to other soldiers? Another reason -- who wants to make a big deal about ordering an old Arab man to clean up a checkpoint? Most of the humiliations published on the Breaking the Silence website are not considered as such by Israelis. She-lo yarimu rosh!

What Ms. Weiss doesn't get -- and here the analogy with the pedophile breaks down -- is that it is perfectly normal for good, moral, eighteen-year soldiers, to do immoral things.That can't be prevented. You can call it unintentional, and much of it is. But it's a fact. The testimonies speak for themselves.

What I expect from Ms. Weiss and her cohorts is to deal with the testimonies themselves, and not invent straw men. Let her read them and comment on them. Let her feel the pain of the soldiers who are giving the testimonies.

Because if you can't understand how soldiers are traumatized by seeing old Arab men humiliated by their buddies -- if your defense-mechanism reflexibly spits out, "out-of-context," "small minority," "most moral army in the world" then it is about time that you let your heart melt -- before you and your friends do serious damage to that army.

The New York Times Piece on "Breaking the Silence"

Memo From Jerusalem Israeli Soldiers Stand Firm, but Duty Wears on the Soul By STEVEN ERLANGER JERUSALEM, March 22 — Some of Jerusalem’s nicest people gathered the other night to listen to a talk by an Israeli soldier troubled by how he and some of his colleagues had behaved in the occupied West Bank. The small crowd on a rainy evening was a bit disheveled, with lots of untamed hair and sensible shoes. Largely English-speaking, they were generally somewhere on the left of Israel’s wide political spectrum, and they listened earnestly as Mikhael Manekin, 27, spoke quietly about his four years of service with the Golani infantry brigade in the West Bank. Mr. Manekin and his colleagues spent a lot of their time at security checkpoints around Hebron and Nablus, controlling the movement of Palestinians to try to ensure that suicide bombers could not infiltrate Israeli cities. The checkpoints are part of a security network, including the separation barrier, that protects Israel, but also deeply inconveniences Palestinians who would never consider strapping on a bomb. Mr. Manekin is the director of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli combat soldiers and some current reservists, shocked at their own misconduct and that of others, who have gathered to collect their stories and bear witness. Since 2004, the group has collected testimonies from nearly 400 soldiers (available in English at He spoke of how some soldiers humiliate or beat Palestinians to keep crowds in line and how soldiers are taught to be aggressive, but how most behave within decent moral limits — and of how the fear that hundreds of people could erupt in anger wears on the soul and turns young men callous. “I don’t think this is a problem of the military,” he said. “It’s a problem of the society. We’re sending these kids in our name. And there has to be a space to talk of bad things. It’s not enough to say, ‘But there’s Palestinian terrorism,’ which there is, but that’s too easy.” He felt conflicted whenever he went back into the army on reserve duty, he said. “I love my soldiers, and I’m a good officer,” he said. “But going back into that system is hard. Still, I see my future here and my children’s future. And I want a safe country, like everyone, and also a moral country.” In the aftermath of Israel’s inconclusive summer war against the militant organization Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Mr. Manekin’s stories struck an ambivalent note even in this audience at the Yakar Center for Social Concern, founded in 1992 to promote debate and dialogue among Israelis and their neighbors. Run by Benjamin Pogrund, a distinguished journalist from South Africa, the center embraces difficult topics like the status of Israeli Arabs, settlements, religious orthodoxy and challenges to democracy. There is a general gloominess in Israel after the war with Hezbollah, a sense that neither the government nor the army performed very well, and the result is widespread anxiety and a new mood of introspection. The government is one thing, but the army is the core institution of this little state, and a fine new film about the army’s last days in Lebanon in 2000, “Beaufort,” is being praised for its depiction of the sensitive Israeli soldier bravely doing his duty despite his fear and the usual political and military confusion. While criticism of the army is quite acceptable in Israel’s democracy, and not just on the left, Breaking the Silence left some raw feelings here. At the recent talk and discussion session, one man stood and said Mr. Manekin and his friends were hurting Israel, especially its image abroad, in order to salve their own consciences. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Tall and dignified, about 45, the man said that he, too, had served in the West Bank, “and I’m proud of what I did there to defend Israelis.” It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints to keep them cowed, he said, his voice shaking a little, “because we are so few there, and they are so many.” Then he said: “These people are not like us! They come up to our faces and they lie to us!” That was enough for Uriel Simon, 77 years old, a professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University and a noted religious dove. “As for liars,” Mr. Simon said, then paused. “My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!” he said. As for the Palestinians, he said: “Of course they lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint! We lied at checkpoints, too.” Everyone is afraid of mirrors, Mr. Simon said, readjusting the knitted skullcap on his nimbus of white hair. “We hate the mirror. We don’t want to look at ourselves. We don’t like photographs of us — we say, ‘Oh, that’s not a very good likeness.’ We want to be much nicer than we are. But here there are also prophets who are mirrors, who are not afraid of kings and generals. The prophet says, ‘You are ugly,’ and we don’t want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear.” Later, Mr. Simon tried to describe the ambivalence and even confusion, as he saw it, in the room. The army is central to Israel, and the problems so complicated, he said. At the beginning of the summer war, as in the beginning of any war, including the war in Iraq, “there’s a euphoria that derives from an almost irrational belief in power and force, that the sword can cut through all the slow processes.” It is more enthralling if, like Israel, “you have so much power that you can’t use, and suddenly you can.” But the euphoria is always short-lived, he said, because no army is as efficient as advertised, and power rarely delivers the clean outcome it seems to promise. “We bomb southern Lebanon like mad, and still they continue to send missiles at us,” he said. The frustration is even more intense “for a people like Israel forced to live on its sword, for who will save this little state?” he asked. “The United Nations? The good will of America? We’d be overrun 10 times before America awakes, even if it wants to awake. So every 10-year-old knows the sheer importance of the Israeli Army, and the more you need it the more you expect from it.” At the end of the evening, Mr. Simon said, he went to talk to the tall man who had been so upset. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe me, but I agree with 90 percent of what you said.’ ” Mr. Simon laughed softly. “It just showed how confused he was.”

Breaking My Silence

Yes, I know, I have been away for a month, enough to kill off this blog. But the recent media coverage of "Breaking the Silence," the IDF veteran group that collects testimonies about IDF war crimes and humiliation of the civilian populace, has roused me from my dogmatic slumbers. Let's start with the Reuter's piece in the Washington Post article about the group's Hebron tour. The tour has been a big success not only with foreign media and diplomats, but with Israeli groups, and even American yeshiva students. If you are visiting Israel, go and see how life has been made hell for the Palestinians by the so-called "Jewish" settlers (I use quotation marks because the Hebron' settlers Jewishness is in doubt, at least according to the Rambam, who rules that cruel people are of dubious Jewish lineage.) Israeli army veterans show dark side of occupation By Bernd Debusmann, Special CorrespondentReutersTuesday, March 20, 2007; 3:18 AM HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) -- Disenchanted Israeli army veterans have turned into guides to one of the bleakest places on the West Bank, the Israeli-held part of Hebron, to highlight what they say is the ugly face of occupation most Israelis never see. Over the past 20 months, former soldiers have led some 2,500 people, in small groups of around a dozen, mostly Israelis, on grim show-and-tell excursions meant to explain the brutalizing effect of daily routine in an occupied city. Stops on the tours include the positions from where former squad commander Yehuda Shaul says he fired his grenade machinegun, night after night, into a densely populated neighborhood from where Palestinians, night after night, fired on Jewish settlements. "A grenade machine gun is an awesome weapon, but it is inaccurate," he says. "The grenades kill everything within a radius of eight meters, injure anyone within a radius of 16. So, at first you worry about hitting innocent civilians. After a while, you shrug off the worries and get used to it. In the end, you look forward to blasting away." Burly, bearded and from an ultra-orthodox background, the 24-year-old Shaul was one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who shocked Israel in 2004 with an exhibition of photographs and video testimony on harassment and abuse of Palestinians. The exhibition, which ran for weeks in Tel Aviv and was briefly on display at the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) spawned the tours of Hebron, where many of the soldiers in the group served during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising. More than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have died in the intifada, which saw a sharp increase in Palestinian suicide bombings and hardened the mental wall between Israelis and Palestinians. ERODING MORAL VALUES "The tours have two goals," said Shaul. "Show the effect the occupation has on the occupied AND on the occupiers, the way it disrupts Palestinian life and the way it erodes the moral values of Israeli soldiers. "The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) blames excesses, when they come to light, on 'rotten apples'. But few soldiers end their West Bank tours with entirely clean hands. Israeli society prefers to keep silent about this." Shaul spoke as he walked through the eerily quiet, deserted old city of Hebron, past shuttered shops and graffiti painted by some of the 650 Jews who live in four settlements in H2, the official name of the sector under Israeli control under a 1997 accord that effectively divided the city. H2 takes up about a fifth of the area of Hebron and embraces what used to the bustling market of the Old City, the wholesale market, and Shuhada street, the main commercial artery in the days when 30,000 Palestinians and 500 Jews shared the area. Shuhada is now a "sterile street," where Palestinians are not allowed to walk. H1, the rest of Hebron, is home to 150,000 Palestinians, few of whom ever cross the checkpoints that control movement between the two parts of the city. "Kill the Arabs," says one slogan on a wall in the old market. "Arabs In," says another, over an arrow pointing to a garbage dump. Shaul served 14 months of his three-year service in Hebron and says he began having doubts over the justness of what he was doing shortly before returning to civilian life. He began talking to other soldiers and found they had similar misgivings. "This is how Breaking the Silence was formed. Since then, more than 400 soldiers have come forward and given video testimony of their experiences, evidence that the occupation is not the black-and-white story most Israelis think it is." "REVENGE FOR 1929" But in the black-and-white world of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides cite dates in Hebron's long history to bolster their views. For the settlers, a day of Palestinian infamy is August 23, 1929, when mobs killed 67 Jewish men, women and children and drove the rest of the community out of the city. Shaul recalls an incident which added to his growing doubts -- young settler girls throwing stones at an elderly Palestinian woman, bent low by the weight of baskets she was carrying. He asked the girls what they were doing. "Revenge," said one. "For 1929." For Hebron Palestinians, the date that best illustrates the mindset of the settlers is February 25, 1994, the day Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein used his army-issue Galil assault rifle to kill 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians. The attack drew harsh condemnation from the Israeli government but, Hebron Palestinians point out, it backfired on the victims: to keep the two communities apart, the army closed Shuhada Street and the wholesale market next to the Avaraham Avinu settlement. It is a compound of low, gray buildings and few Palestinians remained in their vicinity. The house of one who did, Hashem al-Azzeh, often serves as the last stop of Breaking the Silence's city tours. Al-Azzeh is not a loquacious man and prefers to convey his points through home-made videos. One shows a throng of settlers invading his home (while he was absent), the other is of settlers stoning Palestinian school girls as Israeli soldiers watch. "Israelis usually are really shocked when they see this," he says. "We are not."