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When the Hebrew University High School group arrived in Hebron on January 29, its bus was held up for an hour while police received assurances that the group would not meet with Breaking the Silence. The school was then permitted to conduct its tour without the organization — albeit with local resident Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader of the far-right Jewish National Front, talking over the teacher leading the tour to give his own narrative, uninvited.
Breaking the Silence, an organization of army veterans set up to “demand accountability regarding Israel’s military actions in the Occupied Territories perpetrated by us and in our name,” has been running tours of Hebron — open to adults — since 2004.
The tours, which take place several times a week, are a sore point for settlers. “I think that Breaking the Silence is an illegitimate organization because it tries to weaken the links between the youth and the most important sites for the Jewish people,” Daniella Weiss, former mayor of the West Bank settlement Kedumim, told the Forward when asked about the group. “No nation in the world would permit such violence against the narrative of the nation.”
Sometimes this kind of distaste for Breaking the Silence has led to violent attacks against tours; sometimes settlers managed to persuade the state to stop tours for short stints. But since a 2009 high court hearing in which a judge affirmed the veterans group’s right to conduct tours, they have run regularly, and with little interruption from settlers.
The Hebrew University High School tour apparently reopened the wound for settlers. “They bring their tours and say what they say, but with an Education Ministry tour it’s a contradiction,” said David Wilder, spokesman for the Committee of the Jewish Community of Hebron. “There, you can’t have people speaking against the security forces and the state.”
It is unclear where the decision to ban Breaking the Silence from the school tour originated. Both the police and the Education Ministry declined to comment. Wilder believes it was at the behest of the ministry after his community complained; School principal Gilad Amir said he believed it was a decision taken by police independent of the ministry. Whichever it was, some activists and politicians say the decision reflects an institutional bias toward settlers and against the left.
Zahava Gal-On, a Knesset member from the dovish party Meretz, argued in an interview with the Forward that the government had a responsibility to guarantee freedom of expression for Breaking the Silence. The fact that it did not attests to a “gradual absorption of settler positions into the government narrative and through to the curriculum,” she said, adding, “The mask has been taken off.”
Sarit Michaeli, press officer for the human rights organization B’Tselem, claimed that the incident highlights a situation whereby settlers enjoy high-level connections in politics and significant influence on the actions of local police who live among them. “Ultimately, it’s not just about violence and the threat of violence, but also about political power,” she said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org