Breaking the silence in Israel and the US

Note: This post was first published in early June on my JPost blog.  I realized I had forgotten to cross-post it when I was catching up with some of Ben-Dror Yemini’s recent writings, which include an excellent article on the Israeli NGO “Breaking the Silence”(BtS) entitled “Breaking the truth: The mission to demonize Israel.” While Yemini emphasizes that “[e]very democratic country needs to be proud that entities critical of the state operate within it,” his verdict on BtS is devastating: “Hamas doesn’t need a propaganda department: it has Breaking the Silence.”

* * *

Last month [i.e. in May], the Israeli group “Breaking the Silence” (BtS) attracted much attention – including international media coverage – after it published damning anonymous testimony about the IDF’s conduct during the war against Hamas and other Gaza terrorist groups last summer. While BtS claims on its website that its goal is exposing alleged misconduct by the IDF in the Palestinian territories and “pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled,” the group publishes much of its material not only in Hebrew, but also in English. Unsurprisingly, there is a market for the kind of material BtS produces abroad, and members of the group are currently “in the midst of another international tour of Europe and the United States.” Indeed, according to NGO Monitor, “BtS has been part of at least 50 events in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa” in the past three years and the group’s work is, either directly or via third parties, “almost entirely funded by European governments.”

As Israeli journalist and author Matti Friedman noted in a critical response to the latest BtS publication:

“Breaking the Silence’s money is foreign, not Israeli, and the primary customers for its product are foreign, not Israeli. At its extensive English website, Jewish soldiers are presented for international consumption as a spectacle of moral failure, a spectacle paid for by Norwegians, French Catholics, and Germans. This being so, it is completely reasonable for Israelis to wonder what exactly this group is and which side it is on.”

An answer to Friedman’s last point can be found in an analysis of the latest BtS publication by the Times of Israel’s military correspondent Mitch Ginsburg who suggests that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that BtS wants to see “Israel’s ability to bring its military might to bear against Hamas […] drastically reduced.”

In addition to all this well-founded criticism of BtS’s methods, goals and modus operandi, IDF veterans – including soldiers who fought last year in Gaza – have challenged the latest anonymous BtS testimonies on social media.

Even though all this indicates that BtS is a fringe group whose methods and aims are viewed with suspicion by mainstream Israelis, the group has obviously well-connected supporters abroad. A recent Ha’aretz report highlights meetings between BtS representatives and “members of the White House National Security Council” as well as “senior officials” of the State Department’s human rights bureau. According to the report, these meetings were organized by Matt Duss of the Washington-based three-men Foundation for Middle East Peace, and Duss reportedly felt the meetings showed that BtS “has an open door to the administration.”

This is very interesting in view of the fact that there is actually an American organization that seems comparable to BtS – though it has apparently an incomparably harder time when it comes to attracting media attention or finding an “open door” to senior government officials. Like BtS, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) wants to give a voice to soldiers critical of what they experienced during their service. But unlike BtS, IVAW seems to get no major funding from European governments or NGOs, and when I was trying to research the media coverage of the group, I quickly came across complaints that even efforts to put on major events were met with “silence” by US mainstream media. Not much success with “breaking the silence” for IVAW, it seems.

One of the complaints that focuses on the failure of the New York Times (NYT) to cover a 2008 event put on by IVAW cites the NYT public editor’s explanation that the paper wasn’t really interested in covering “charges and counter-charges at home by organizations with strongly held political viewpoints about the war.” But apparently, the NYT has a different standard when it comes to covering charges against the IDF made by an organization like BtS, which obviously has “strongly held political viewpoints” about the wars Israel has to fight: BtS’s latest allegations were covered in an Associated Press report;  in 2007, the NYT published a report on a BtS event in Jerusalem that described BtS as “a group of former Israeli combat soldiers and some current reservists [who are] shocked at their own misconduct and that of others” and helpfully included a link to the group’s website; and a 2010 article entitled “Israeli Rights Groups View Themselves as Under Siege” counts BtS among Israel’s “most prominent human rights organizations.”

[Update: a NYT editorial of June 23, 2015 on “War Crimes and the Gaza War” again cited BtS in support of a UN report accusing Israel of serious violations and possible war crimes]

 When it comes to ‘open doors’ in Washington, America’s own IVAW again seems to have a harder time than Israel’s BtS. According to one relevant report I could find from 2008, there was “a packed public hearing on Capitol Hill” organized by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but the report also notes that even “politicians who have consistently criticized the [Iraq] war” regarded IVAW as “a politically risky ally,” and one IVAW representative confirmed that the group is “generally viewed as too radical for most politicians.” Maybe Matt Duss, who so helpfully opened important doors for BtS, could also be of assistance to IVAW?

Unsurprisingly, IVAW shares BtS’s criticism of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the group has also condemned last year’s Gaza war.

IVAW on Gaza

But for some reason, denouncing Israel’s military clearly attracts more funding and publicity than denouncing the US military. This also seems to be reflected on social media: currently, IVAW’s Facebook page has 26,472 “Likes”, while the BtS Hebrew Facebook page has 39,538 “Likes” and its English Facebook page has 173,918 “Likes” – despite the fact that both groups were founded just a few months apart in 2004 and that American military campaigns in the intervening decade have obviously affected many millions more than Israeli military campaigns.

Last but perhaps not least, some questions: is it conceivable that any American organization of military veterans would collect anonymous testimony from active soldiers, would accept foreign funding for their work, and would travel the world to present their publications, including to foreign government officials, while retaining any credibility at home? And another question: when BtS representatives recently met with Obama administration officials, did they wonder if these officials would be equally interested in anonymous testimony collected from US soldiers?

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Update:

In the current debate about Breaking the Silence, a number of additional interesting pieces have been published; a recent post at the Tower links to some of them. The arguably most noteworthy article comes from Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit. While his newspaper went all out defending BtS, Shavit used his column to not only offer some mild criticism of the organization, but also to recount two instances when he broke his silence about abuses he observed as a young IDF recruit and later as a reservist.

In the first instance, back in the late 1970s (i.e. long before Shavit became a well-known commentator), Shavit recounts that he wrote “a touching letter to the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff” and was very surprised when “it was brought to his attention and he ordered an investigation.”

In the early 1990s, Shavit wrote an article about abuses he had seen during his reserve service in a detention center in Gaza during the first intifada. As he explains:

“the establishment’s response in that case was also surprising. Although I was not a well-known journalist, then-Justice Minister Dan Meridor summoned me and asked to know exactly what went on in the facility. Then-State Prosecutor Dorit Beinisch made use of what I had written to change protocols and influence the interrogation methods of the Shin Bet Security Service. The text that I had written out of heartbreak made it possible for decent and courageous officials to make some real changes.”

9 responses to “Breaking the silence in Israel and the US

  1. Excellent.
    I’d add: that most BtS commentary does not amount to a military investigation or combat analysis; it is more like an ‘opinion’. An opinion, which is libellous is an offence and in the context of war it is a form of incitement. incitement is criminal. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Minister Shaked to investigate offenders and bring to justice inciters.

  2. Excellent analysis, Petra! The comparison with IVAW is compelling.

  3. The piece narrowly avoided the “liar liar pants on fire” defence. It strikes me that actually examining what these IDF soldiers say would be the most important thing- to determine if there is any truth to their allegations.

    • There are suitable channels for reporting violations, and a military judiciary system in operation. If these soldiers have something valid to report, there are those who can be informed.

      This ‘extra system’ called BtS is there not there because the first system is not in operation; BtS is there because a minority of people do not find the official system ‘sufficient’. This is personal opinion, not valid knowledge, or a legally binding position. It is superfluous and in fact illegal, because it seeks to override the official system.

      Is there an equivalent secondary system in operation ‘on the other side’, or in any other army in the world? If not why not? Are the Israelis therefore super moral because of BtS- as they have a double monitoring system?

    • I agree with melancholy’s comment. In addition, there is actually no way to examine the claims of BtS, as their “testimony” is anonymous and usually also without the necessary context that would make it possible to identify where & when the alleged abuse happened.

  4. peterthehungarian

    Ari Shavit in the Ha’aretz: Why I Broke My Silence

  5. Pingback: Breaking the Silence | Israel | The New York Times

  6. Pingback: “O wad some power…” Fisking Michael Sfard | Augean Stables

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