The problem with Breaking the Silence

On Nov. 13, Congregation B’nai Amoona will host a program sponsored by J Street and the New Israel Fund with Breaking the Silence, known in Hebrew as “Shovrim Shtika.” There is much controversy as to whether or not mainstream Jewish organizations should allow Breaking the Silence (BtS) to speak in their facilities.

BtS was founded in 2004 by former soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who felt compelled to share testimonies about disturbing events that had occurred during their military service. Since then, BtS has grown to an organization with more than $2.4 million in revenue. According to annual reports, donations from foreign countries, including European governments, comprised almost 60 percent of total donations from 2012-2016. Additionally, BtS has received funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute and NDC, the Palestinian non-governmental organization that promotes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

BtS is active in promoting “war crimes” charges against Israel. These charges are often based on anonymous and unverifiable hearsay “testimonies” — thus, they cannot be investigated by the IDF. Former soldiers who speak for BtS primarily visit audiences outside Israel who know little to nothing about the conflict with the Palestinians. BtS presentations paint a biased picture of the IDF that gives little to no context regarding the situation in which IDF military operations occur. Typically, open discussion is not allowed after BtS presentations; all questions must be submitted on note cards, and BtS presenters pick and choose the questions to which they respond.

Anti-Israel campaigns that have been supported by BtS include a claim that Israeli settlers poisoned a Palestinian well in 2004. NGO Monitor reports that this allegation is completely unsubstantiated, and was never proven. It appears to be based on a single complaint from 2004, which was investigated by the Israeli police and was closed due to lack of evidence. Additionally, in September 2010, BtS members and anti-Israel activists Yonatan and Itamar Shapira, were on the “Jews for Justice for Palestinians” boat Irene, which sought to violate Israel’s security-based policies regarding naval traffic into Gaza. 

According to NGO Monitor, an Israeli watchdog group based in Jerusalem, Richard Boyd Barrett, a member of the Irish Parliament, cited BtS during an anti-Israel demonstration in Dublin in 2014: “[The state of Israel] was born in blood it was born in racism… it was born in apartheid…. there is no two sides. There is Israeli, terrorist, apartheid regime ruthlessly cruelly, murderously killing innocent civilians…we had former Israeli soldiers for Breaking the Silence, came in to us on the door last week, everybody should read their book so we understand that everything Israel does is absolutely, deliberately murderous, these were the people who’ve did it and they’ve documented how they were ordered to kill, to intimidate innocent people and they were told specifically by their commanders to attack innocent people.” 

Analysis by Israeli journalist Amos Harel in Haaretz in 2009 concluded that  “Breaking the Silence…has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a ‘human rights organization.’ Any organization whose website includes the claim by members to expose the ‘corruption which permeates the military system’ is not a neutral observer. The organization has a clear agenda: to expose the consequences of IDF troops serving in the West Bank and Gaza. This seems more of interest to its members than seeking justice for specific injustices.”

A group of former IDF soldiers have established a counter organization to BtS called “Reservists on Duty.” However, BtS members have refused to appear at joint panel discussions with Reservists on Duty.

When listening to former IDF soldiers talk about their experiences, it is imperative for audiences to understand that the IDF is conducting operations against a population in which it is frequently difficult to distinguish between terrorists and civilians. In Gaza, it is well documented that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields” and intentionally sends them into the line of fire, hoping that they get killed, in order to score a propaganda victory. This tactic has been the subject of study by many military experts, including British Army Col. (retired) Richard Kemp, former Commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan, and a world-renowned expert on security, intelligence, counter-terrorism and defense.

Kemp has repeatedly praised the IDF for taking extensive actions to safeguard civilian lives. Following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2014, the United Nations released the Goldstone Report, which falsely alleged that the IDF engaged in “war crimes” and which relied on testimonies from Breaking the Silence. In response, Kemp made a speech to the UN Human Rights Council, stating “During Operation Cast Lead, the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.” 

Sadly, civilian losses are part of most modern wars. Israel’s performance compares favorably to that of other Western states. The percentage of civilian casualties in Gaza in 2014 was 45 percent, compared to 76 percent in Iraq from 2003- 2007 and 57 percent in Afghanistan from 2001-2011 (source: JCPA, Gaza War Casualties). BtS’ approach is anti-Semitic in that it holds the IDF to a different standard than that of other armies in the world. If the IDF is guilty of war crimes, then so, too, are the armies of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Congregation B’nai Amoona, J Street and the New Israel Fund have the right to host whatever program they choose. However, I sincerely hope that people who attend the presentation on Nov. 13 will understand that the goal of the BtS organization is not to improve the situation for Palestinians, but rather simply to discredit Israel in the eyes of the world.

Galit Lev-Harir is a frequent contributor to the Light. Galit is the co-President of St. Louis Friends of Israel (SLFI), the St. Louis Council representative of the Israeli American Council (IAC), and the Treasurer of Shevet Keshet, the St. Louis troop of Friends of Israel Scouts – Tzofim. She and her husband, Elie Harir, are members of Congregation B’nai Amoona.