It’s December 2015 and, as I have done for the past 4 years, I attend the Limmud Conference, this time in Birmingham, UK. It brings together circa 3,000 people (mostly British, but also American, Israeli and French Jews, and even a few non-Jews), who want to learn about Jewishness, Judaism, Zionism and humanism in general.
I am one of circa 100 people who came to listen to a representative from Breaking the Silence (BtS) – a group of former Israeli soldiers who claim that the IDF systematically and deliberately commits a whole series of wrongful acts, ranging from unethical behaviour to war crimes.
I am a very unusual member of that audience: I have served in the IDF, including (extensively) in the West Bank during two Intifadas. I am, therefore, able to critically dissect the BtS narrative, gauging how it stacks up against my direct, personal experience. The rest of the audience is made up, mostly, of British Jews. Very few of them (if any) have served in the army – any army; they never had to take a weapon in their hands; they’ve never been in Gaza or the West Bank – let alone in Iraq or Afghanistan. For most of them, this talk by Breaking the Silence is the first time they ever listened to a former Israeli soldier. Or to any former soldier.
And that particular former soldier is telling them things that make them very uncomfortable: Israeli troops, he implies, systematically burst into peaceful, random Palestinian homes – for no reason other than to oppress; they destroy property for the sake of destruction; they beat people up; they even shoot innocent Palestinians for no good reason. The IDF this guy describes is not an army conscripted to defend the country; it’s a pogrom mob.
The highlight of the BtS presentation is a short video. \ In it, a soldier in IDF uniform and gear is shown beating Palestinian men at a military checkpoint. He even boasts and philosophises about it, attempting to justify his acts.
Stunned, the audience draws its collective breath. This time, it’s not just a narrative, but a video. No longer can they deny that things like these truly happened – not even to themselves; it’s all there, straight from the horse’s mouth.
No, the Breaking the Silence chap isn’t lying – that beating did indeed take place. He isn’t technically lying but – I’d strongly suggest – he is engaging in deceit. Because this video has not been recorded by Breaking the Silence, but by… the IDF’s own Education Corps. There is no ‘silence’ to break: the deed hasn’t been covered up; this video has actually been used by the IDF for training purposes – to teach other soldiers how not to behave. As for the offending soldier in the video, he has been apprehended, tried and sent to prison for his wrongdoing.
In fairness, the BtS guy did mention those facts. But he did so quickly and in passing, after showing the video and not before. And I wonder: how many people, in that stunned, shocked audience, have picked up those rather key details?
During the short Q & A session that followed, I challenge the BtS guy: did his unit really burst into random Palestinian homes, with no reason? No, his unit didn’t – but other units did. Did he see those ‘other units’ with his own eyes? No, he didn’t – but he heard about it… I want to keep on challenging him, but the ‘fixer’ (a British Jew from a well-known ‘pro-Israel’ – ahem! – organisation) intervenes to shut me up: they have to move on, other people also want a chance to ask… I have apparently asked the wrong questions; questions that might ‘spoil the effect’ from the ‘pro-Israel’ fixer’s point of view.
I’ve been reminded of all that recently, when I was offered – by the virtual television channel J-TV – a chance to debate with a Breaking the Silence spokesman, a chap called Avner Gvaryahu. (The short video of that debate can be viewed here or here).
Fair disclosure: I despise Breaking the Silence. It’s not that they hold opinions that are very different from mine; frankly [sigh], a lot of people hold opinions very different from mine! Much as I disagree with them, these BtS chaps are entitled to their opinion; they are even entitled to promote those opinions and try to persuade others. But the way they go about it is, in my view, thoroughly anti-democratic and intellectually dishonest.
‘The only narrative in town’
Upon reaching the J-TV studio, I learn – to my huge surprise – that the BtS spokesman has refused to be interviewed concurrently with me. I say ‘huge surprise’ because Avner Gvaryahu does not know me from Adam! Yet not confronting this unknown individual (me!) is so important to him that he carefully ascertains with the producer that he’d be speaking unopposed – before assenting to be interviewed. So, rather than a debate, the video had to take the odd format of two separate interviews: first Avner will have his say; only when they’ll finish with him will I be allowed to react. But why? I am not a notorious terrorist (or even a not-so-notorious one!) I do not incite to violence and strife. Why not share the stage with me?
Well, it turns out (regretfully) that this isn’t about me at all – as mentioned I am not that famous. It’s just that speaking unopposed and largely unchallenged is what Breaking the Silence activists like to do outside Israel. And if, by chance, someone like me happens to be in the audience, then that someone is quickly silenced. Only Breaking the Silence is allowed to… well, break the silence! It’s the old ‘freedom of speech for me, not for you’.
On some level, it’s understandable: as I mentioned in the interview, Gvaryahu’s own comrades, those who served with him in the same unit, accuse him of lying. They did so not anonymously, but openly. And this may be an unpleasant experience, were it to happen face-to-face.
Breaking Israel’s arm
On their website, Breaking the Silence define the group’s aim as
“to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”
To a naïve foreigner, this might sound logical. To an Israeli, it sounds a bit weird. After all, most Israelis – men and women – have served in the army. And pretty much everybody who did, has at some point (during their regular service – 3 years for boys, 2 for girls – and/or during their annual reserve duty) served in the ‘Occupied Territories’. They have manned checkpoints, stood guard in sensitive places, patrolled the area and confronted violent riots. That is, trust me, a lot of ‘reality‘ and plenty of ‘exposure’. What can Breaking the Silence add to that?
Still, there is nothing wrong with “expos[ing] the Israeli public” to any kind of “reality”. The only problem is… that’s not what BtS does at all!
Unless one believes that, in order to “expose the Israeli public to the reality”, BtS activists have to travel to Sydney and Cape Town, to Berlin, Brussels and San Diego. Because that is where the group is most active – abroad. BtS activists have become true globetrotters: in the past three years or so, they have delivered many dozens of presentations, speeches and interviews not just in North America and Europe, but in places as remote as Australia and South Africa. Even the BtS ‘guided’ tours of Hebron and East Jerusalem target as a rule foreign visitors, not Israelis. Hopefully, Avner Gdalyahu still uses Hebrew in conversations with his family and friends; as for his ‘silence’, it is almost always broken in English!
Let me be clear: much as I disagree with their narrative, I would find nothing wrong with BtS promoting it in Israel; after all, trying to persuade one’s countrymen is what democracy is all about. Most Israelis see control over parts of West Bank not as ‘good’ in itself, but as ‘the lesser evil’. So, if BtS has found a way to relinquish that control without critically endangering the Jewish state (a way that has somehow escaped everybody else’s scrutiny), then they are very welcome to suggest it. But, as mentioned, that’s not what they are doing.
Avner Gvaryahu was – to put it mildly – liberal with the truth during the interview, when he tried to present BtS overseas activities as ‘occasional’ or ‘opportunistic’:
“I’m here [in the US] to pursue my Master’s [degree], that’s what brought me here. Breaking the Silence does not have an office in New York […] But what we try to do when we have an opportunity like this when I’m here in the States or when we have a representative visiting the UK, for example, then we always try to reach out to communities we believe are crucial for this discourse…”
I do not know who pays for Avner’s academic studies; I do know that he is listed on the group’s website as the Breaking the Silence ‘Diaspora Programming Coordinator U.S.A’. As for the BtS representative I heard at the Limmud Conference back in December, he wasn’t just “visiting the UK” to do some Christmas shopping!
Unfortunately, their activity abroad reveals the group’s ‘mission statement’ as a naked lie: Breaking the Silence strives not “to expose the Israeli public to the reality”, but to indoctrinate foreigners who know little about that reality. BtS works “to expose the Israeli public” alright; only not “to the reality”, but to external pressure. Their chosen tool is not persuasion, but anti-democratic coercion.
In passing, let me remark that, from Breaking the Silence’ point of view, the recourse to external coercion is an admission of failure. Those who command compelling arguments have no need to twist arms. Having miserably failed to persuade Israelis – i.e. those who actually serve in the IDF and know the situation on the ground – BtS is now attempting to bully them, by raising the spectre of ‘diplomatic’ and undiplomatic external pressure.
Breaking the deafening noise
One does not need to read as far as the ‘mission statement’ to find deceit. It is actually blatant even in the group’s name. Which insidiously suggests that there’s some kind of (imposed, conspiratorial or just ignorant) ‘silence’ around the issue of ‘occupation’; or around IDF ethics.
Is there really a ‘silence’ that needs to be ‘broken’ by some courageous activists endowed with superior moral backbone? To test that hypothesis, I have performed the following simple experiment: in a Google search box, I have typed the Hebrew words “הכיבוש הישראלי” (“the Israeli occupation”) within quote marks. Then I hit ‘Enter’. Wonders of technology: the search took all of 0.32 seconds to return no less than 52,900 hits. That’s a rather roaring ‘silence’! And I’m not talking about obscure publications, either: among the top results I noticed articles published on Walla (one of Israel’s top Internet portals) and Ynet (a popular news portal owned by a group that also operates one of Israel’s leading printed newspapers).
As for IDF ethics, just Google “אלאור אזריה” (El’or ‘Azaria, the name of the IDF soldier who shot dead an already wounded and apparently incapacitated Palestinian terrorist). I did; this time, Google returned… 571,000 hits in just under a second!
But that’s in Israel. What about global coverage? Is the world silent about ‘the Occupation’? A search for the terms BBC, Israel and “West Bank” took 0.36 seconds to return 519,000 hits. I confess I did not read them all; but the top pages contained links to BBC news items referring to Israel’s occupation of the ‘Palestinian territory’. By the way, changing the search terms to BBC, Turkey and “North Cyprus” produced only 24,000 hits…
There is no ‘silence’. It’s a lie. What BtS wants to ‘break’ is not a non-existent ‘silence’, but those very audible opinions they disagree with.
Breaking the truth
More on Breaking the Silence’ tenuous relationship with the truth:
Part and parcel of the group’s narrative is the systematic attempt to suggest (subliminally at least) that that narrative is dominant, that it is general, typical or prevailing. As usual, I’ll start from the group’s own website. It states:
“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada […]
Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel’s security. While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is done in its name. Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. We strive to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.”
Note the loose language: BtS appears to speak generally in the name of “[s]oldiers who serve in the Territories”, rather than in their own name – a small number of “veteran combatants” (indeed, a negligible minority, considering the IDF headcount)! In other words – Sancta Chutzpah!! – they presume to speak also in my name (I have served in an IDF fighter unit for many years – as a regular soldier and reservist; may I call myself a “veteran combatant”?).
Note also the attempt to draw a boundary (drive a wedge?) between “Israeli soldiers and commanders” on one hand and “Israeli society” on the other. But, as I mentioned already, the majority of the “Israeli society” has served in the army; and most have served, at some point at least, in “the Territories”. How, exactly, is that large majority “forced to ignore what they have seen and done”??
In a democracy, minority opinions are legitimate; but pretending to represent the majority view is simply dishonest. Nor is that dishonesty deployed unknowingly – it’s deliberate. Since the group’s most rewarding targets are people who know little about IDF and “the Israeli society”, part of the BtS tactic is to cast as large a shadow as possible. Hence the term “veteran combatants”, rather than just ‘former soldiers’; hence the refusal to be interviewed together with other “veteran combatants”; and hence the pretence of speaking on behalf of a majority oppressed by some sort of ‘societal’ conspiracy.
But such dishonesty – however fundamental – is just the tip of a very large iceberg. It would take months and tonnes of ink to unravel the entire web of dangerous lies smuggled in among innocuous truths, the character-murdering innuendo, the subliminal rather than obvious deceit. I’m afraid that my donors, foreign or not (I have none) aren’t paying for all that time and ink. But let me at least point out a couple of the more insidious lies.
One of the most morally reprehensible parts of the group’s ‘method’ is the sweeping generalisation. It starts with an unverifiable ‘testimony’; it always ends with that one very shaky ‘data point’ being not just ‘enriched’ beyond recognition, but also declared – evidence be damned – as ‘the way Israel behaves’.
In October 2013, Iran’s Press TV channel broadcast a video starring Avner Gvaryahu. Press TV’s running commentary explained:
“Avner Gvaryahu, leader of a group called Breaking the Silence, was invited to the United Nations to speak about war crimes he had participated in and witnessed as an Israeli soldier.”
The video than shows Gvaryahu stating, in front of the UN audience:
“When I was a soldier in the West Bank in 2004-2007, the orders we got… any encounters with Palestinians holding a weapon… we shoot to kill. You can go and seek through our testimonies at different times and in different years… it was someone holding a weapon… sometimes it was enough for someone in a balcony to hold a binocular, or cell phone… or standing on a rooftop…”
Firstly, note the ‘smooth transition’ from the ‘personal testimony’ (“the orders we got…”) to generalised hearsay (“at different times and in different years…”). Few people listening to Avner’s words would have picked up that subtle shift. Yet there is a huge difference in the ‘quality of testimony’ between the two. As there is, of course, morally speaking, between shooting “Palestinians holding a weapon” and those “hold[ing] a binocular, or cell phone… or standing on a rooftop”.
In passing, let me mention that even the ‘personal’ part of that testimony sounds very much like a lie: in my circa 20 years of regular and reserve service (including during the intifadas) I have never heard such an order. Quite the opposite: we were instructed in IDF’s Open Fire Standard Operating Procedure – the gist of it is that live fire is permitted only when in real and immediate danger to life and limb. I remember that SOP well – it was drummed into us every time we went out on duty.
Avner Gvaryahu is not the only ‘silence breaker’ who uses sweeping generalisation. Let me give you another example.
I have already referred to the case of IDF soldier El’or Azaria. On March 24, 2016, in Hebron on the West Bank, two Palestinian men attacked and stabbed an Israeli soldier. Both attackers were shot by other troops; one of them apparently survived, though seriously wounded. Azaria arrived at the scene three minutes later, along with other soldiers present in the area. He proceeded to shoot the surviving Palestinian attacker, who was lying on the ground, and killed him. This scene (though not the preceding attack) was captured on camera by a Palestinian working for the BtS ‘sister organisation’ B’tselem – and the group promptly publicised it as yet another example of ‘Israeli crimes’.
Within ten minutes of the shooting, however, the ranking IDF officer on the scene had questioned Azaria and had reported the incident up the chain of command. Even before B’tselem’s video had been published, a decision was made to open a Military Police investigation. Azaria was soon indicted for manslaughter and is currently being tried in a military court. He pleaded ‘not guilty’ and claimed that the wounded attacker had suddenly moved, causing him to suspect that he might either detonate a suicide vest, or reach for the knife.
The incident has caused a great deal of public debate in Israel, with politicians and even high-ranking officers weighing in. Opinions are divided – in the sense that some tend to believe Azaria’s version of events, while others believe he is lying. What nobody actually claims is that it is permissible to shoot even a terrorist, once he is ‘hors de combat’.
Whether Azaria is guilty of manslaughter or not boils down to whether he had reason to believe the attacker was still a threat – and that’s a matter for the court to establish. But a couple of facts are not disputed:
- Nobody ordered Azaria to open fire; he made the decision himself and acted before anyone could stop him.
- There was no attempt to cover up the deed – it was reported according to procedure.
But the facts above were not enough to stop Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak from turning the incident into an indictment not of El’or Azaria – but of the entire IDF, plus Israel’s political leadership and the Israeli society as a whole. The kind of en-masse accusation that can never be debated in court; the kind of collective indictment which, had it been uttered by an Israeli against Palestinians, would have been called ‘racist’ by Yuli Novak herself – first and foremost.
No doubt in order to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of occupation”, Ms. Novak (who, I can assure you, speaks excellent Hebrew) has proffered that all-encompassing accusation in an article she published in English, on a far-left portal.
There, she perorates:
“Azaria exposes, in his testimony, the untruthfulness in that Pavlovian reaction, and in his line of defense, he hits back. No, he accuses: ‘you are willful hypocrites, because this is far from an unusual occurrence. This is what we do there. This is how you have taught me to act. The violence, the light finger on the trigger, the disregard for human life, the use of force and the oppression – that is the policy, that is the worldview held by you and me, that is the reality being upheld over there in the West Bank. So if I am tried in court, you all are culpable.’
In this sense, Azaria joins those soldiers who have broken their silence. He places a mirror before us, the public, and lets us see our real face, the true face of the occupation. And in this respect he is correct: not only he should face trial, everyone should. We all should. All those who support the occupation, the hatred, the violence, the racism, and the settlements; not to mention all those who believe the occupation must be ended yet divert their gaze from the destruction it wreaks upon Israeli society.”
Note how the alleged testimony of one soldier indicted for manslaughter – and hence, in all likelihood, willing to say anything it takes to avoid conviction – is leveraged to lift a huge crimson brush and paint with it not just his hundreds of thousands of colleagues, but an entire people. The act of one soldier who (at worst) has unlawfully killed an attempted killer is elevated to the level of horrendous ‘national crime’.
Incidentally, note also the secondary quotation marks (from “you are willful hypocrites…” to “you all are culpable”); those quote marks are there in the original. Most reasonable people seeing quotation marks will conclude that this is exactly that: a quote, i.e. an exact rendition of Azaria’s words. But, although I have spent a couple of hours researching, I can find no other source quoting that passage. Nor is such argument consistent with Azaria’s line of defence, which – as mentioned – is actually based on his perception of threat from the wounded attacker. I twitted BtS to enquire whether that was an exact quote – but received no reply.
I did find, however, the Hebrew version of the article, published on the popular portal Walla about a fortnight before the English version. Interestingly, the Hebrew article omitted the quote marks. Why were they added in English? Did El’or Azaria actually say the words Ms Novak attributes to him? Or is this not a quote at all, but rather Yuli Novak’s interpretation of his testimony, words she puts in Azaria’s mouth to help her make her point? If the latter, then that would constitute yet another attempt at deceit. Perhaps Ms. Novak would care to elucidate the mystery, by providing the source of her quote?
Lies, damn lies and testimonies
But what about the elephant in the room – you’ll ask? What about the ‘soldiers’ testimonies’ that BtS collects and publishes? Everything else notwithstanding, do they not point to a problem?
Well, I’ve read those testimonies. I mean, I’ve read the actual text, not just the sensationalist titles, which often bear little resemblance to the story. What I read in those anonymous ‘testimonies’ is a lot of hearsay, a lot of innuendo, posturing, bluster, plenty of (generalised, of course) accusations of ‘criminal thinking’, ‘criminal speaking’ and ‘criminal attitude’, but few instances of actual, severe misconduct. Occasionally – very occasionally! – one finds an instance which (if true!) actually would constitute a crime and would deserve severe punishment. Of course, one finds things like that (and worse, much worse) in every army. Which doesn’t mean that they should be tolerated in IDF; and we wouldn’t – given a chance to investigate them. But of course, that chance is denied when anonymous ‘testimonies’ are used only to denigrate en-masse, rather than scrutinise and correct.
The BtS database includes a total of 590 ‘testimonies’, covering 17 years: from 1997 to 2014. The current IDF headcount is circa 620,000 (175,000 regular troops and 445,000 reservists). Tens of thousands of young men and women join the army every year, while others leave and become ‘ex-soldiers’. Even assuming that all testimonies are genuine (which one has to take on trust, as BtS refuses to produce any verifiable evidence), 590 is a minuscule sample. But is it even a random (let alone representative) sample?
To figure that out, one should ask: why are all testimonies negative? Why do they all (100% of them, as far as I can see) paint a negative – and only negative – picture. How likely is it that hundreds of thousands of people – conscripted from all walks of life, from widely dissimilar social strata, encompassing a broad spectrum of ideological and political views, etc., had nothing positive to say about how they and their colleagues behaved in the army? How likely is it that they all seem to agree with Breaking the Silence? Let me tell you: extremely unlikely! Look at the huge spectrum of opinions one finds in the Israeli media and in the country’s political discourse. Look at the number of political parties. Finally, look at Israelis’ voting patterns.
So how come that all the testimonies Breaking the Silence publishes appear to support Breaking the Silence views? Let me put it bluntly: it looks like the ‘testimonies’ (if indeed they are real!) are cherry-picked. It looks like they are carefully selected. Were the BtS ‘interviewees’ pre-selected? How? By which criteria? Are ‘testimonies’ post-selected? How and why?
In the recent J-TV interview, Avner Gvaryahu appears to claim no foul-play:
“It’s silly to think that we have to… err… get specific kind of testimony in order to do our work – we just have to listen to the soldiers…”
Well, I’m an ex-soldier, just like the BtS interviewees allegedly are. May I testify? Will BtS ‘listen’ to me, will it publish my testimony? Or is mine the ‘wrong type’ of testimony, i.e. not the type their donors are willing to pay for?
I’m afraid that Avner’s version is contradicted by several testimonies by former soldiers who were approached by BtS. For instance, that of Josh Levitan (I have selected this testimony because the UK-born Josh delivered it in English). Mr. Levitan, who has served during the latest conflagration in Gaza (2014), remembers how he was later approached by a Breaking the Silence activist:
“He wanted to hear that I’ve done something wrong, or maybe there was something that I’ve seen or done, or been part of – that I wasn’t happy about… you know, something that I feel like I shouldn’t have done and perhaps the reason I’ve done it, maybe not because of… through my own choice, maybe I feel I was forced into, something that I didn’t choose to do.”
Josh felt that he was being tricked into saying something he did not actually believe, which is why he ended his testimony with a warning to other soldiers that might fall victim to BtS tactics.
Nevertheless, ex-soldier Joshua Levitan was interviewed by Breaking the Silence. His testimony was that he did nothing wrong – nor was he ordered to. But if you look for Josh’s testimony among the 590 that BtS has published (including in their latest report entitled ‘This is how we fought in Gaza’)… well, you’re looking in vain. Breaking the Silence has obviously decided that Josh’s testimony told the ‘wrong story’ – so they did not include it in the report. How many other such testimonies were discarded because they did not fit the ‘desired narrative’? This is not honest research, but (at best) cherry-picking data points that support a pre-determined conclusion. Unsurprising: the five (government-funded) ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’ that paid BtS big money for this report are all ultra-critical of Israel. Had the research led to the conclusion that the vast majority of IDF soldiers agree with Josh – this would have been the last report they ordered from BtS.
Listen to [which] soldiers?
But let us come back to Avner Gvaryahu’s J-TV interview. He went on to claim:
“… And if you guys, back in the UK, or my government back in Israel would just listen to the soldiers… we believe we could move forward…”
Sounds grand – but it’s just cheap demagoguery.
In Israel, soldiers (and most of us are or have been soldiers) put their life on the line every time they don the IDF uniform. They deserve to be heard. The problem is, Avner’s words are just more deceit aimed at creating the impression that most soldiers agree with him. We don’t. If we did, he wouldn’t have to travel abroad to find naïve supporters.
Why would a government (most of whose members have themselves been soldiers) “listen to [a fringe minority of ex-]soldiers”, rather than to the will of the electorate – as governments are supposed to do in parliamentary democracies?
And why would “you guys, back in the UK […] listen to [a tiny minority of ‘specially selected’ former] soldiers”, rather than to the majority of Israelis – who also happen to be ex-soldiers?
Do “listen to the soldiers”, by all means! Just don’t ignore us. Our story may be less newsworthy – you won’t read it in The Guardian. We are less visible: not paid to ‘break the silence’, we have to earn our bread ‘by the sweat of our brow’. We are the silent majority; don’t let them break us!