Last month, on a below freezing day, I rode the Amtrak train from my home in Chicago to my childhood home of St. Louis. I was on my way to a Breaking the Silence event at Congregation B’nai Amoona.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of former soldiers who share testimonies of their army service in Israeli-occupied territories. I was going as a representative for my job – I am a development associate for the New Israel Fund, one of the co-sponsoring organizations – but I was also there to support B’nai Amoona as its members and others in the community heard stories from these former soldiers.
I grew up at B’nai Amoona. I attended Solomon Schechter Day School for nine years, was active in USY, but really as a kid, it felt like my whole life revolved around my synagogue. It’s where I learned about Judaism, community, leadership and Israel.
Which is why I was so disappointed that night. During the Breaking the Silence event, I saw my community break down. The disruptions, binary and polarized thinking, and attitudes I heard expressed that night made me feel like my community couldn’t see me.
When I was 18, I left St. Louis for the first time and spent the year in a mechina, a pre-army program, in Jaffa. I was the only American out of 44 participants, and my Israeli peers fascinated me.
So did my Israeli family with whom I spent a lot of time that year. My uncles, aunts and cousins were, and still are, involved in all kinds of progressive activism: religious pluralism advocacy, anti-occupation work, LGBTQ rights and more. They taught me that there is a committed and vocal progressive community in Israel fighting populism and injustice.
I fell in love with the culture, the language and the people that year. With my Israeli peers, I spent weekends in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Me’a Shearim, with a Bedouin family in the Negev and in settlements in Gush Etzion. I wanted to see, hear, smell and touch everything I could to learn about the tapestry of Israelis and Palestinians that make up this rich place. To gain a deeper understanding of the conflict, we went on a Breaking the Silence tour. For me, that tour was a turning point.
I vividly remember walking down an empty Shuhada Street, the main street in Hebron, seeing shuttered businesses and realizing that Palestinians were barred from walking down this street. But I could, because I was an American Jew. Hebron is a city of 200,000 Palestinians. This road once led through their central market. Now there was an Israel Defense Forces soldier on every corner. It felt like a militarized ghost town. I felt a deep sense of fear and despair.
The former soldier who was our guide said something that day that stuck with me:
“You may see yourself as a moral person, as someone who will go into the army and change the system from within, but when you enlist and you’re asked to do something immoral, you won’t have a choice and you’ll do it.”
I feared for my friends who would enlist only a few months later and what they might be asked to do.
Hannah Barg is a St. Louis native with a passion for education, radio and storytelling. Barg is based in Chicago, where she works as a develop…
So on the evening of Nov. 13, I walked into the event in St. Louis with trepidation. And what I witnessed that night broke my heart. I saw my friends and family listening in the audience, my childhood rabbi trying to calm the tense room, and I recognized a handful of the protestors. I watched as my friend Jacob, one of the former soldiers on the panel, held his composure as protestors screamed over him, calling him a liar and a traitor. During the Q&A portion of the evening, one protestor asked, “Why do you accept funding from terrorist organizations?” An Israeli woman next to me screamed “the New Israel Fund” as though it were a curse word.
It felt like a punch in the gut. That’s the organization that I work for. What’s more, so much of the New Israel Fund’s work connects Israeli activists like my family members to people like me in the United States. People who believe in democracy and its institutions want to see Israel live up to its founding principles of equality and justice for all. As Jacob put it when we spoke afterward, the experience was like watching a community collectively lose its mind.
Soldiers who break their silence often say that the purpose of sharing their testimony is to hold up a mirror to Israeli society and take a good hard look, and that when we do that, we may see ugliness. At the Breaking the Silence event that night, we also held up a mirror to our St. Louis Jewish community. And I saw ugliness and divisions there as well. But I firmly believe, as do my friends from mechina and Israeli relatives, that this mirror is the only way we can engage on this topic and move forward with making Israel a better and more just place.
I would love for my community to be able to talk openly about what the occupation does to Israelis and Palestinians. I would also love for them to be able to talk about the numerous social justice issues Israeli progressives fight for every day. But if the Breaking the Silence event proves anything, it is that we’re not there yet. What we can do is commit to some basic tenets of civil discourse, respect for our religious leaders and fellow community members. Because then, we will all be able to see each other.