Saturday, March 24, 2007
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 www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp). 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.”