I braced for an ugly fight. I was first told about a program at Congregation B’nai Amoona in which former soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces would expose horrible things about their experiences in Israel’s military. The group is called Breaking the Silence.
Then I heard that those who in some ways made the program possible were being called Jewish anti-Semites. I was also forewarned that there might be organized protests and shouting matches during the program. My message to our congregation was: If the IDF has committed crimes, we needed to hear about it so that it can be corrected. Torah teaches us to care about our Jewish family and defend ourselves against attacks, but it also routinely exposes our own sins. There is always pain when we expose our sins and, true, others may take advantage of it, but in the long run, it is better for us.
Then I read the Nov. 6 commentary by Galit Lev-Harir published in the Jewish Light, powerful and cogent, that some supporters of Breaking the Silence are enemies of Israel. She also reminded us that war creates murky situations. She argued that Breaking the Silence was, especially under the circumstances, a threat to Israel.
Nevertheless, I planned to attend, to hear for myself, and I encouraged others to do so, and then I would report what I had heard. (Let me note that after the presentations, due to interruptions from the audience, including someone who inexplicably called the speakers “liars” [in Hebrew], I decided to leave. Anything said later, I did not hear.)
Four former IDF soldiers represented Breaking the Silence to a crowd of more than 200, seniors and young men and women; some were Israelis. Three representatives were “lone soldiers” — as our son Ezra had been. Lone soldiers have no immediate family in Israel and are not obligated to serve, but they choose to make aliyah and defend Israel. They were American Jews — one from New York City, another from Columbus, Ohio, and a third, a woman, from Philadelphia; the fourth was an Israeli. Each fully served several years ago; each deserves our gratitude and praise for their special love of the land and of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
So I braced myself for their first-hand accounts. What I heard from them disappointed me and made me proud, but the reverse of what I had feared.
Two spoke about entering Palestinian homes in the territories, one as part of a mission immediately after three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered, another as part of training. Their unit, after entering (sometimes by breaking a door or a window) and meticulously searching the Palestinian home and interrogating the family, would occupy the home for several days. It was understandably traumatic for the innocent family, especially the children.
In a third story, the former soldier recounted how they arrested about a dozen Palestinians in their village. Located near a Jewish settlement, they had protested in weekly demonstrations because a road was closed and it imposed hardships on them.
The latter story seems like it was not handled well by the military decision-makers. But, given what I had heard and detailed in my opening, I expected to hear of soldiers being ordered to shoot innocent Palestinians, or wound them, or beat them. But none offered anything close to such testimony.
So I was disappointed; their stories did not match my expectations.
But I was pleased, too. If, under this situation, this is Israel’s crime, I hope they speak everywhere. The most moral armies of the world, in far less threatening situations, do far worse. Others, from soldiers to commanders, have murdered, raped and committed other crimes.
These young adults should be praised for, in addition to their voluntary service, having a soul for innocent Palestinians. But this war against Jewish Israel for more than 71 years, supported by a huge population whose regimes fund and glorify terrorism, forces many to suffer, innocent Jews and innocent Palestinians. The Palestinian-Arab-Islamic world has never accepted compromise but instead has celebrated the deaths of Jews. Their hatred of Jews as a nation, and in particular a Jewish nation in that area, is the root cause of misery.
Innocents are often casualties when misguided leadership takes them down the wrong path, and because human beings make human mistakes. This does not mean that we should ignore our responsibilities to others, including our enemies. Indeed, there are numerous documented accounts of Israel’s extraordinary humanity to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.
But nothing I heard in their presentations suggests that the IDF, the Israeli government or Israel itself deserves condemnation. No state or army is perfect, but from what I heard, none has been better than Israel.
Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation.