Breaking Breaking the Silence’s silence

Anonymity is actually a big theme in the Jewish tradition, although (perhaps ironically, perhaps appropriately) it is seldom given the recognition it deserves.

Maimonides championed the virtues of giving to charity anonymously. In all the writings of the Vilna Gaon, he would never provide identifying details of those with whom he disagreed. Batei din and some contemporary Israeli courts use the placeholder name ‘Ploni Almoni’ (the Jewish cousin of Joe Bloggs and PJS) to anonymise parties in legal proceedings, rather than naming controversial rulings after traceable individuals. And the Book of Exodus goes into great detail about the evils of slavery in Egypt without once naming any of the Pharaohs involved.

Present-day Israel is currently having a big debate about the role of anonymity. For many years, the NGO Breaking the Silence has collected and published witness statements from soldiers in the Israel Defence Force, documenting – if they are to be believed – human rights abuses and other unacceptable practices. All of this takes place under strict conditions of anonymity.

At the moment, Breaking the Silence is defending itself in court against the Israeli government, which insists that it reveal the names of its witnesses. If BTS is, ultimately, forced to disclose its sources, it will never have soldiers’ confidence again and will find it very difficult to persuade anyone to provide testimony in future.

The Israeli government has two arguments. Firstly (and entirely reasonably) it points out that it is very difficult for it to prosecute war criminals if nobody is prepared to testify against them in open court.

But of course BTS and its sources know this. Their aim is not to have individuals prosecuted. Their aim is to demonstrate the overall effect on Israeli military ethics of being an occupying power, and highlighting a profusion of incidents of unethical behaviour does just that. They are interested in ending the vicious system, not pursuing individual wrongdoers who are small cogs caught up in it.

The Israeli government’s second argument is that BTS testimony, so long as it is anonymous, is inherently unreliable.

Now here’s an idea: if you think it’s unreliable, don’t believe it. That’s your choice. Sing your song and go your way. Everyone, at some point in their life, will have to assess the credibility of evidence, and everyone is entitled to use whatever criteria they want.

If the Attorney-General of Israel doesn’t trust statements of anonymous witnesses, that’s up to him.

Personally, I think the absolute anonymity of BTS testimony does indeed reduce the weight I can attach to it. That is partly because there is no opportunity for verification (‘How do I know this really was written by a serving soldier?’). Even parties who give anonymous evidence in court – such as intelligence officers – at least have their identities independently verified by the judge.

It is partly because there is no opportunity for clarification, and – and I suspect this is the Israeli government’s main concern – partly because if a person does not have the courage and confidence to put their name to their words, there may be a reason for that.

On the other hand, there are reasons why anonymity might not significantly dilute the credibility of BTS’s publications. One obviously has to think about why a person might desire anonymity.

They may simply be a timid person who does not want the police and media intrusion into their life which publicity would bring. Right-wing NGOs already engage in minute analysis and (attempted?) rebuttal of BTS testimonies. That is absolutely their right in a democracy, but I can quite understand why a soldier might decide that they cannot face the wave of bile which would inevitably come their way if they put their name to their statement.

And/ or, they may fear the consequences of disclosure. That fear may be instinctive and hard to justify rationally, but that is no reason for dismissing it as a factor. Human beings’ fears are not always rational; that does not mean they are inevitably a liar. One can also readily imagine some justifiable fears, such as relations within their military unit breaking down.

The analysis I just engaged in was about assessing the weight of the evidence. But the legal action against BTS is not about contributing to this important public debate: it is about stamping it out altogether. The Israeli government would like to put BTS out of business, because BTS – in the politicians’ view – tells lies.

But the fact is, a democracy in which the government decides what are lies and what is truth is no democracy. Virtually every other democracy on the planet has laws stopping the state from bringing libel proceedings. In Britain it’s called the Derbyshire principle; in Australia, it’s Ringland; and in Canada Montague. The thinking is that, even if someone is defaming the government, so what? A state is big enough to cope with a few untruths. The right to speak out is more sacred.

So if BTS sources are only happy to speak out under conditions of anonymity – following in the footsteps of Ploni Almoni and the author of the Book of Exodus – so be it. Israel wanted to be a state. Let it behave like one and take allegations of wrongdoing on the chin.

And if all else fails, it can always disbelieve those allegations if it chooses.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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