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Why do so many Israelis hate Breaking the Silence?

The organization of former Israeli soldiers is coming under attack from every direction these days — from the Israel’s president to the defense minister to the police. So what’s the deal?

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Breaking the Silence is a Jewish organization made up of former Israeli soldiers, most of whom served in combat roles. All they want to do is to tell Israeli society, which sent them to the occupied Palestinian territories, what they did there as soldiers. They do so through written and video testimonies collected form over 1,000 soldiers, all of which were approved by the IDF Censor before being published. That’s all.

They don’t support the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. They aren’t trying to have Israeli officers tried for war crimes (on the contrary: they believe that the political echelon, not the army, should be held responsible for the occupation). They do not justify any Palestinian violence. They don’t even call on Israelis to refuse to serve in the army, and many of them still do reserve duty every year. If anything, one could pretty easily criticize Breaking the Silence from the left side of the political map.

And yet, since Breaking the Silence was established it has been under constant attack from the Right in Israel — an attack that has grown louder over the past few months. In the latest chapter of the absurd campaign against the organization, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon banned Breaking the Silence from any and all IDF activities. Why? Because if the organization “really shared our values … they would work directly with the IDF, and wouldn’t tarnish our soldiers overseas.” Got that? Because they don’t speak to the army they are no longer allowed to speak to the army. Brilliant.

Israeli army officers speak to Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak as the army prevented a Breaking the Silence tour from proceeding through the occupied city of Hebron, April 4, 2014. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Israeli army officers speak to Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak as the army prevented a Breaking the Silence tour from proceeding through the occupied city of Hebron, April 4, 2014. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

But let’s take a look at the accusations against Breaking the Silence one by one:

The first claim, which in my mind is the most important and critical accusation to refute, is that Breaking the Silence is not credible. The organization’s critics come up with all sorts of reasons why the organization isn’t credible, but there is one rebuttal that is awfully difficult to refute: In the 11 years that Breaking the Silence has collected and published testimonies, there has not been one instance in which a serious error — not to mention a fabrication — has been found in their published testimonies.

This is no insignificant point — it needs to be the heart of the debate. An organization that publishes hundreds of testimonies, which works with more than 1,000 soldiers, which has dealt with very complicated subject matter for 11 years — and not a single fabricated published testimony has ever been found. No court of law in any land can boast of such a record. And that is despite a number of attempts to fool the organization by giving them false testimonies. Their researchers and fact-checkers seem to have a perfect record of catching fabrications before publication.

That astounding success is the result of the massive investment Breaking the Silence makes in every single testimony. As the organization’s director of research has written here in the past, every testimony given by a soldier or former soldier is fact-checked, and the background of the incident or testimony is verified along with the identity of the testifier him or herself (and that they are not an aspiring politician looking to make a name for himself). The entire testimony is then corroborated with any available information — both from other soldiers’ testimonies and open source information. Some of the most hair-raising testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence were never published because the organization could not independently corroborate them. Just imagine if journalists who published attack pieces on the organization applied their strict verification standards to their own work and the malicious things that are said about it.

An Israeli soldiers walk next to a tank in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

An Israeli soldiers walk next to a tank in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

The second claim is that they don’t hand over their testimonies for investigation by the army. I say: why hand them over? First of all, in its early years the organization did hand over its testimonies to the army. And what happened? They were paid a visit by the military police, which sought to investigate the very crimes they were testifying about, as if they were the guilty party and not their commanders or the army’s policies in the territories. So why hand over testimonies if all it means is that you will be investigated for testifying?

Add to that the fact that others who decided to air such criticisms from within the army did not have any greater success (like the story of the refuseniks from Israel’s hi-tech intelligence Unit 8200, who first complained directly to their commanders). And the fact that Israel Military Police investigations (which aren’t always even initiated in the first place) only rarely lead to indictments and convictions, as has been documented time and again in our special investigative series “License to Kill.”

But even if all that weren’t the case, there would still be no need for Breaking the Silence to hand over its testimonies for the army to investigate. The whole point of Breaking the Silence is that the military occupation in the territories is itself the problem, and that injustices are an inherent part of that situation, not exceptional incidents or the result of “bad apples.” So what exactly is the army supposed to investigate? Whether it has been ruling millions of people under a military regime for almost 50 years? Whether that military regime is responsible for inescapable systematic violations of human and civil rights? (By the way, when the army wants to, it knows how to use Breaking the Silence testimonies in order to advance its investigations.)

The third grievance is that the organization’s testimonies are published anonymously. First of all, there are plenty of testimonies that are not anonymous, with names and faces and all that jazz. And regarding the anonymous ones: in a society that is so quick to pounce on anybody who levies the slightest criticism against the army, in an army that is quick to investigate anybody who gives their own testimony, and the weight of the guilt many of them surely feel for their deeds, where most of those testifying probably don’t want their friends and family to know what they’ve done — you can begin to understand why.

The fourth claim is that Breaking the Silence is funded by foreign countries. Yeah? So what? Seriously. If we’ve already established that testimonies the organization publishes are verified as true, then what does it matter whether a foreign country helps fund their publication? Because those countries have their own agendas? So what? Every country has an agenda and interests. Every organization, every institution and every individual person has an agenda. What’s wrong with having an agenda? It’s the testimonies themselves that deserve to be debated, not who paid the book binder and the graphic designer who created the cover art.

The fifth — and central — claim against Breaking the Silence, is that they also operate overseas. A large part of this accusation is just absurd, mostly because it is most often flung at the organization when it holds events in Israel — like when they give lectures to Israeli soldiers.

So no, they’re not just an outward-facing organization. Most of Breaking the Silence’s activities are held in Israel. The soldiers served in the Israeli army, it is here that they are interviewed by the media, it is here that they organize tours of the occupied territories every month, it is here that they give lectures (which are sometimes shut down by authorities), and it is here that they read testimonies in the streets. And yes, they travel overseas now and again, partly because they feel — and rightfully so — that nobody’s really listening to them here. And that’s legitimate.

So why does the Israeli Right have such a hard time dealing with Breaking the Silence? For all of the reasons laid out here. Because they are soldiers. Because they are speaking the truth, and go to great lengths to ensure that their testimonies are accurate. Because they take great pains to explain that this is a systemic problem and not just a few bad apples. Because they invest massive amounts of time and money in reaching out to Israeli society in order to show it just how ugly military occupation is.

For all of those reasons, because the Right doesn’t have an answer to them, the right wing in Israel blows smoke and slings mud at them. All in order to stop people from hearing what they have to say. Except it’s important to hear what they have to say. Take a tour with Breaking the Silence. It’s worth your while.

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Renato

      Simple. They are liars. Who don’t even try to use the legal means to submit their complaints.

      Reply to Comment
      • Winston Wolfe

        If you claim they are liars then you must have some concrete and verifiable information that contradicts what they say. Not just your wish that what they say is inaccurate. So please give an example of a false testimony and then give us the real story. We’ll wait for it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava

          What a stupid question to ask, Winston Wolfe, (Lol..)?

          Are you not aware that ALL the allegations of “war crimes” brought forward by Bts (a) are ANONYMOUS. (b) ALL the ALLEGATIONS lack all forms of details of WHERE and WHEN the alleged incidents occurred! (c) witnesses are either not available or their identities are withheld! Etc. Consequently, were the report intended to prompt the IDF to investigate individual allegations, Breaking the Silence has made this impossible.

          Meanwhile the Bts’ allegations smear honorable soldiers who gave their lives to protect innocent Israelis with blood-libels and the worst forms of crimes, while Bts itself is being financed by among others, the PLO!

          Is the above too difficult for Winston Wolfe to understand? Perhaps Winston wolfe can give examples of testimonies that according to him are TRUE and I will show him why his claim is FALSE. Perhaps BEN can help Winston Wolfe in answering the question?

          We are waiting, Winston Wolfe…..

          Reply to Comment
          • susy

            No, many are not anonymous. They are hated because they speak the truth. Occupation is 24/7 violence.

            Reply to Comment
          • Todd

            Hey Merk, This is not ben. you dont want to face the truth of what your law breaking state of israel does. you like to hide behind the veil of circumstance and blind trust of your rulers. you would endlessly debate and ask for concrete evidence instead of doing a little research to learn for your self you are being lied to and you put your heart 100% behind these lies because if you come to realize you are living this lie, and have to contemplate living in this world as it really is, in reality, your head would explode because it is 180 degrees different from the fabrication you beleive in.

            These soldiers are giving you concrete evidence, but it turns your world upside down, that’s why you dont want it talked about. When people tell the truth it is nothing but good. Nation states that rule by fabrication of disinformation are bad, and should be disbanded.

            Reply to Comment
        • Ron Temis

          You claim that none of the testimonies have been found to be inaccurate. How can they be investigated or fact checked when they are anonymous? I was a combat soldier in the IDF and I read thorough many “testimonies” and for many of them you get a sense that the person giving this information wasn’t even there.

          Hundreds of IDF soldiers and Officers have given evidence calling them liars and refuting their lies. In fact, BTS is being sued right as we speak and rightfully so.

          They lie. They claim that there motivation is to identify soldiers inappropriate actions, but in reality its not about that all, but a POLITICAL aim to subvert the democratic process in Israel and use outside money and pressure to force actions in Israel against the Israeli voters. What does it tell you that more than 50% of Israelis say that BTS should be declared outside the law?

          Why does BTS have to go to Germany, a country that murdered a third of our people to tell them what they want to hear “Yes, you were right, Jews are in fact evil”

          BTS says basically that all Israeli soldiers which is basically all of us are war criminals, except for them of course. This organization is a disgrace and it’s members traitors.

          BTS has spoke at BDS events including in South Africa, one of the worst anti-Semitic groups within that organization.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Is this sarcasm? If you meant it as a serious response to this article it’s simply funny. No, it’s one part sadness, one part funny.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lauren

      I continue to support Breaking the Silence and have much admiration for those first solders who broke the silence with their initial photography exhibition and of course, for those soldiers who continue to speak up and listen to their conscience.

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        Yes BEN alias Eva, alias Lauren alias “Israel” alias Eliza, alias Richard Flantz alias etc. you say every day, week, month and year that you support Yehuda Shaul and Breaking the silence. We know that. Why repeat the same thing over and over again, BEN?

        Reply to Comment
    3. Shai

      As an Israeli and a strong supporter of “Breaking the Silence”, I agree with the writer that the central claim is the “operate overseas” claim. As such it is disappointing to see that this claim has received very little attention by the writer who has identified it as the central claim.
      I understand the frustration of the organization with Israeli reaction (ranging from apathy to full-blown hate) towards their goal, and the need to get some sympathy which they fulfill by lecturing overseas, but really, I think it would be better to stop this.
      I myself am quite annoyed by the oversea lectures, and could not find any justification for them except for the hardworking people in the organization getting some sympathy oversea, which is totally offset by the rage this causes in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        “As an Israeli and a strong supporter of “Breaking the Silence”,

        Oh “Israeli”, Pls. could you share with us the reasons why you are “a strong supporter” of Bts that goes around the world accusing IDF-soldiers of war crimes and crimes against humanity – WITHOUT evidence and denying the IDF the opportunity to investigate their accusations by withholding crucial information from the IDF, such as the names of witnesses (if they exist at all), when and where the alleged incidents took place, while being funded by, among others, the PLO!? What kind of an “Israeli” LoL….. are you?

        Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Ata lo yechol lhagid li sum davar beivrit, Shai.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak, who served as an Air Force officer: “The Israeli occupation that we see as immensely damaging to Israel, is maintained and supported abroad. Millions of dollars, mostly tax money, are invested in telling the world ‘if you’re for Israel you’re for the occupation. We bring to this debate an Israeli, patriotic voice that says ‘we love Israel, but the occupation harms it.’ It’s critical that the world knows there are Israeli soldiers who think the state’s future depends on ending the occupation.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        Ms. Yuli Novak is a draft-dodger / a refusenik, moron!

        Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Achiya Schatz, a former combatant in the Duvdevan special operations unit:

      “People are silenced and gagged in Israel. Anyone who opposes the occupation is seen as a traitor. When the settlers’ Yesha Council speaks abroad how come nobody criticizes it? It’s sheer hypocrisy. The attempt to divert the debate to [our activity] abroad is government spin. Obviously Breaking the Silence statements raise objection. When you see the unpleasant sight in the mirror we put up, your first instinct is to look aside. Israel’s problem is the occupation. What makes Israel look bad is that for 48 years we’ve been ruling another nation and not showing any sign that we mean to change it – not soldiers telling what the occupation looks like. No Breaking the Silence testimony has ever been refuted.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        You, BEN, continue to spread lies like the cancer you are. This is not about freedom of speech, but rather about malicious slander and libels. I assume you know the difference. Yes, Yesha Council speaks abroad, but so do all leftist organizations. Yesha Council slanders no one! You claim that you are an American. You also claim that you are from “Britain”. One wonders why you are on Jewish websites EVERY SINGLE day fixating on- and obsessing about Jews and Israel and ranting and raging about Israeli internal affairs that are NONE of your business, while not knowing what goes on in your own countries! What kind of a psycho are you, BEN?

        Breaking the silence uses FABRICATED stories of war crimes to smear Israel and honorable soldiers who put their lives on the line for their fellow citizens. But we know you do not care about truth and justice. Whatever demonizes Jews and the Jewish State is good excellent good news for you and your anti-Semitic ilk.

        ALL of the claims of war crimes brought forward by breaking the silence has been shown to be false. If you disagree, pls. provide us with “testimony/testimonies of war crimes” publicized by breaking the silence that YOU think is/are true and I will show you why it/they is/are false, slanderous and libelous:

        Pls. present your case, Bruce BEN “Israel” Gould.

        We are waiting….

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Achiya Schatz, a former combatant in the Duvdevan special operations unit, is so much more credible than you that it invites mirth just to make the comparison.

          Reply to Comment
          • Merkava

            Meanwhile,

            You still have not answered my question.

            QUESTION

            Pls. provide us any “testimony of war crimes” documented by BTS that YOU think is true, and I will demonstrate to you that you are WRONG. Let’s put your idiotic claims to the test, shall we? Get on with it now, BEN.

            Young American Jews are waiting to hear your case and legal arguments, moron.

            We are still waiting…..

            Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      TO ALL: I recommend if you have not yet that you listen to Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence speak:

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JxHE4KrLvj0

      It’s worth the whole hour and 38 minutes. If you want the quick take home message go to minute 21:00. Watch 21:00-25:00. Israel tells itself and others it’s playing defense but it’s really playing offense. It always says it’s on the way out but it’s really always on the way in. Before 21:00 he describes BtS’s purpose: to show Israelis: “This is what we in the military really do in your name.” From 25:00 on he describes what he means by “offense.” He describes how the idea of “prevention,” for example, expands to include every offensive (in both meanings of the term) action you can think of. And the idea of “separation” and how it becomes ruthlessly limitless. And on and on. If you start watching him speak you will want to listen to the end. Watch this video! It will open your eyes. It will open your eyes to the hollowness of every argument you hear about why the occupation can’t end.

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        Obviously you are running away from me, but I won’t let you off the hook. The LIES and SLANDERS of Jehudah Shaul/Bts are only exciting to blind and mentally imbalanced anti-Semites like you who hunger daily for anti-Jew redmeat to satisfy their deficient emotional needs. In his entire screed, Jehuda Shaul makes STATEMENTS OF FACTS he himself never witnessed and claims for which he NEVER provided a single EVIDENCE to back up. We will take them one-by-one, debate them one-by-one and expose you for the small minded dunce you are.

        Case 1
        Jehuda Shaul claimed in your video that the IDF assassinates people it can arrest (a) in order to “leave greater impact on the board” and (b) “just for revenge”. He claims that “in the peak of the second intifada there were a couple of revenge attacks that the Israeli army carried out. For example, if I am not mistaken, it was in February 19..2…2002….there was an attack on Idf-checkpoint near Ramallah in a Palestinian village…; six engineer soldiers were killed. The following night three different special forces unit were sent to revenge. The Orders were very clear: 2:00 O’clock at night, Palestinian police checkpoints, anyone at the checkpoint is doomed to die, uniform, not uniform, doesn’t matter, armed not armed….at the end of the evening 15 Palestinian policeman are killed” (…).

        QUESTIONS
        1. What is the evidence that three special forces unit were sent to “REVENGE”? Perhaps Jehuda Shaul is a “soothsayer” that can read the minds of other men? Perhaps the only EVIDENCE Jehuda Shaul has is his conjecture and malice?
        2. Jehuda Shau claims: “the Orders were very clear”. (a) Who specifically gave the Orders and (b) to whom specifically? Surely, if Jehuda Shaul claims that “Orders” were given, he must who gave the Orders and to whom, or, perhaps, Jehuda Shaul’s claims are based – again – on conjecture and malice?
        3. Jehuda Shau claims that “the Orders were very clear: 2:00 O’clock at night, Palestinian police checkpoints, anyone at the checkpoint is doomed to die, uniform, not uniform, doesn’t matter, armed not armed….at the end of the evening 15 Palestinian policeman are killed”. What is the EVIDENCE for that claim? Perhaps, Jehuda Shaul’s claims are based – again – on conjecture and malice?

        Pls. answer ONLY the questions.

        We are waiting……

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava

          Seems BEN is on the run – again.

          Hey, BEN, keep sending those emails AGAIN to the moderators weeping and begging them to ban me. But when they do ban me AGAIN, I will be back AGAIN and you will be the first to notice it – as USUAL.

          Poor little old BEN.

          Reply to Comment
    7. IDF - most humane army in the world

      they don’t necessarily lie, but they embellish. I read a testimony where a soldier discussed the “occupation” and how their tank unit drove on roads and entered “Palestinian” territories as a means of intimidating the populace. I was in a tank unit on the Lebanese border and we were always moving the tanks around, driving on Israeli security roads, etc. in order to show an appearance of force. Why would we need to show force when we live next to such peaceful individuals? Because Hezbollah and terrorist organizations are sitting amongst the so called peaceful populace and are just waiting to exploit a weak point in our defences. Before the second lebanon war when soldiers were ambushed on the northern border (goldwasser and regev) it turns out Hezbollah was sitting there and setting up in the forests for months. Had the soldiers actually done patrols, they would’ve had a better chance of identifying this threat. But instead Israel decided not to cross the border with patrols and to trust that the UN was policing the border. Probably the political and humane thing to do. What happened in the end – WAR and lots of dead people. “If you want peace, prepare for war.” This is a well known quote and holds true today. The history of the world is rooted in conflict. There is no peace. WHat would peace look like anyways? The IDF uses force, we fight wars, we defend our country. Yes, atrocities occur. Its war. The real question is who started the war? Who agreed to 2 states back in 1948? Who refused to acccept the UN partition and decided instead to try and kill every JEW in Israel. WHo is still trying to kill every Jew in Israel and who is trying to negotiate for peace? How many Jewish organizations are there that promote dialogue and coexistence with Arabs? At least half a dozen. How many Arab organization promote coexistence with Jews. None. Screw these soldiers. They are a bunch of whining bastards. You don’t want to go to war, then don’t join a combat unit just because you want to take a gun home on the weekends and show all your friends how cool you are. People will say but Israel forces these soldiers to join combat units. Great. But with a little effort these soldiers can get out of these units. SOme might go to military prison and have a mark on their records, but I have never had anyone ask me about my military service when I applied for jobs. SO they won’t work in the defense sector. Oh well. good riddance. Everyone has a choice. I choose to side with ISrael and the IDF because there is no other home for the Jewish people. ANti-semitism is rampant and when the shit hits the fan, no one but Israel will be looking out for the Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    8. The recurring mistake in my opinion, regarding the Middle East conflict, is to think that the situation is due solely to one party. I firmly believe that both parties are responsible for the current situation and that denying that fact is unnecessary extending the time toward both parties assuming their own responsibilities in order to establish a long lasting state of peace.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Ben

      It seems to me they should have the right to speak. Disagree if you like. But just as anyone has the right to speak so should thye. To want otherwise is dictatorship and tyranny.

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        No one is denying them the right to speak, moron.

        Bts libels others without evidence, but does not want the libeled to speak out, disagree with them and defend themselves. Bts is the one denying others the right to speak.

        Got that, moron?

        BTW

        You have not answered the questions above. You are still on the run, you little creepy coward!

        Reply to Comment
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