One of the advantages that democracies have over non-democracies, is that in a democracy, citizens can criticize their government and start public discussions questioning its policies, challenging it to be be better. As Richard Price wrote in A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, “Our first concern as lovers of our country must be to enlighten it.” Sometimes, criticism is the greatest form of patriotism.
Breaking the Silence is an organization that challenges Israeli policy – and whether or not you agree with that policy, it’s essential for Israel’s continued existence as a democratic, free society that voices of opposition, such as Breaking the Silence, are allowed to flourish. What’s at stake is protecting the character of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state – the very project of Zionism itself.
There are many questions that can be asked of Breaking the Silence’s methods. It relies on soldier testimony, however, numerous psychological studies show that memories are often unreliable. Even if a memory is accurate, it may not provide an accurate depiction of a story, since it gives only one perspective, and a soldier may not know all the facts informing the military decisions being made. Perhaps there should be an organization dedicated to collecting soldier’s memories, both the good and the bad, which would attract a wider array of soldiers and show a more complete picture. But Breaking the Silence doesn’t pretend to be that type of organization. It is, to it’s credit, open about it’s agenda.
Breaking the Silence’s funding is a legitimate topic of conversation, however, the assertion that organizations receiving funding from a government may be pressured into doing that government’s will, but that organizations receiving private funding won’t be pressured into doing their private funders’ will, is strange. An organization that bows to funders’ demands will do so regardless of whether the donor is public or private, and foreign individuals, like foreign governments, have their own political agendas.
But instead of starting a public discussion about the merits and faults of Breaking the Silence – the type of discussion as essential to the fabric of democracy as Breaking the Silence itself – the right has chosen to paint Breaking the Silence as an evil pariah organization, and has now gone on to attack anyone who even remotely associated with the organization. It is sending the message that supporting Breaking the Silence’s existence means being a traitor to Israel – and a warning to politicians, that if they side with Breaking the Silence, they will be portrayed as such to the Israeli public.
The right’s message is extremely dangerous. Equating opposition with betrayal will stymy alternative voices, posing a threat to Israel’s democratic nature.
Yuval Diskin, former Shin Bet head, understands this. He released a statement about Breaking the Silence, saying, “I don’t like their activity abroad and the fact that they are not satisfied with the control and justice system in the State of Israel. But they provide another, important mirror to our actions. Even if they can make us angry, even if they are sometimes inaccurate or not doing their jobs correctly – their contribution is very important,”.
It would be nice if Netanyahu exhibited the same understanding, instead of making it a political priority to elicit a condemnation of Breaking the Silence from Herzog this week, when there are so many more important things on the agenda, like the continued threat of terror attacks faced by Israelis on a daily basis, or a recent government report indicating rising rates of poverty.
Even worse is the extreme right’s campaign of physical intimidation against Breaking the Silence. President Ruvi Rivlin appeared at a conference that also hosted Breaking the Silence, and even though his speech did not endorse Breaking the Silence (in fact, he defended the IDF), he now faces threats of violence. You don’t even have to agree with Breaking the Silence to be a target of the right’s anger – you just have to not actively boycott it.
The worst however, is from right-wing organization Im Tirzu, which released a video telling people that “Before a terrorist stabs ” them, they should remember that – at this point, the video both says and shows names of left-wing activists, along with pictures of their faces – are foreign agents who prevent terrorists from being properly apprehended by Israeli security forces and the IDF, implying that the activists in question are responsible for any attacks carried out by terrorists who would have been in Israeli custody were it not for them. Just in case the danger to Israeli lives posed by the activists wasn’t clear, the video ends by saying, “While we fight terror, they fight us”.
It’s hard to interpret this video as not challenging Israelis to take matters in their own hands and attack the foreign spies in their midst. However, Im Tirzu’s CEO explained that the organization would not be responsible for any violence resulting from the video. The CEO said, referring to one of the activists depicted, “X is an adult, and he knew what he was doing when he spoke out against IDF soldiers and called for legal action against the army….He is the one who spoke this way against Israeli society.”*
This statement is premised on the assumptions a) that Israel is the type of society where speaking out is likely to get you physically attacked b) that this state of affairs is so entrenched that it’s taken as a given by members of Israeli society c) that instead of trying to fix this, we should simply expect anyone considering criticizing the government or the army to take the risk of being beaten up into account before they decide to open their mouth.
The CEO did not explain what special knowledge Im Tirzu has that would enable them to deem Breaking the Silence a security threat, when the former head of the Shin Bet has not done so, and has in fact issued a message supporting Breaking the Silence’s existence.
The failure of mainstream right-wing political figures to properly condemn the video is extremely disturbing. Perhaps they are afraid that if they do so, they will be labeled as traitors of Israel, to the detriment of their political careers. Perhaps they are afraid that if they condemn this video today, next week, they may find themselves the target of a new video. This video would depict the leaders of the right, along with their names, reminding Israelis that next time they’re afraid of being stabbed, they should remember that these Israeli politicians, who claim to be right-wing, are in fact supporting the left-wing foreign agents among them (that the public is already aware of thanks to Im Tirzu’s work) – and that the public should take action, before it’s too late. A week later, all the parties we currently think of as right-wing would be labeled the new left, and everyone knows that the left-wing are traitors, and you can’t vote for them. But it would be too unkind to think the right wing politicians are only thinking of their careers – it’s more likely that their main fear is for their physical safety, and that of their families.
So let’s not kid ourselves. What’s at stake here isn’t Breaking the Silence. It’s free speech and the existence of Israel as we know it. The intimidation has already begun. There’s still time to stop it, before it’s too late – but in order for that to happen, the right wing must stand up to its extremists. It must break the silence.
*I removed the activist’s name from the quote, because apparently we now live in a society where divulging the names of left-wing activists might result in their physical harm.