“Breaking the Silence” or silencing the critics?

Settlers in Hebron harass a cameraman from a Breaking the Silence tour of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, June 2008. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)


“Breaking the Silence” is a member of the Israeli human rights, peace and social justice community. The group’s only crime, so it seems, lies in its effort to offer an alternative ethical voice in a society that is arguably losing its way. Breaking the Silence provides a platform for soldiers to testify to acts of violence and other violations of Palestinian rights that they may have witnessed or taken part in during their service in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The group’s most recent report details soldier testimonies that raised serious concerns about Israeli military behavior during the war on Gaza, “Operation Cast Lead.” The publication is unique but it is only one example of many public statements, reports and legal advocacy in response to the prosecution of the war, which Israel consistently maintains was both moral and legal. Why then is the Israeli government waging a battle against this organization, trying to thwart its funding and, essentially, to shut it down?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the genealogy of the occupation. For 42 years Israel has argued its one acceptable and official truth: “Israel is not an occupier and it is not violating international law.” The problem is that this narrative has been accepted only by Israel, tolerated by the United States, and perpetuated by a broad spectrum of Israel’s “supporters,” largely in North America and Western Europe. In the aftermath of the war the Netanyahu government feels threatened by US President Barack Obama’s demands to halt one of Israel’s most visible violations of international law, settlement building. Part of the Israeli reaction is to try to manipulate discourse and impugn those who have exposed Israeli infractions over the years, choosing to begin with an organization that provides the public with direct insight into the behavior of soldiers. Ironically in its actions the government actually corroborates the group’s work and that of other organizations who report and represent the voices of the Palestinian abject Other, the torture victims, those evicted from their homes, denied access to their fields and those beaten by settlers with impunity.

As reported by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel has been inquiring into foreign funding of Breaking the Silence, asking what state would tolerate outside funding of opposition groups, implying that only in the “third-world” would this be acceptable. Reality, as always, is a bit different. In states that can at best be described as questionable democracies the status of civil society organizations is questioned. Their funding is scrutinized and even forbidden and these states, like Iran, for instance, often claim that democratic and human rights activity is an effort by outsiders to undermine their regimes. On the other hand, democratic states can live very comfortably with a vibrant, vociferous and critical civil society.

In Israel there are many organizations that struggle for human rights, economic justice, equality and peace largely funded by a variety of overseas sources, none of which are secret or used for illegal purposes. Therefore it is interesting that while Israeli governments have had no problem with an ongoing influx of foreign currency that contributes to or facilitates the illegal Israeli occupation activity: evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the illegal settlement enterprise, etc., it has grave problems with those who dare fund democratic opposition to the occupation and to human rights violations. For Jews and others in democratic societies outside of Israel this should be an especially vexing absurdity. But for years the Jewish communities of North America, for example, have supported Israeli policy at times without question, allowing Israel’s flawed vision of its actions to become hegemonic. Today there is a counter voice among Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel yet our legitimacy is questioned and our motives distorted by those whose core goal is to preserve the occupation. Recent efforts to gag opposition voices are evidence of this intolerable anti-democratic trend.

While it is true that many states do their best to close down non-governmental organizations who oppose state policy this list does not include proper democratic states. Israel needs to decide where it belongs.

Louis Frankenthaler resides in West Jerusalem and works for an Israeli human rights organization, The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.