Breaking the Silence, the organization of former Israeli soldiers who speak about their experiences serving in the occupied Palestinian Territories, has recently come under heavy attack from right-wing forces in Israel’s government and society. As a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian activist and student, I have found it deeply frustrating to see brave soldiers denigrated and persecuted as “traitors” simply for feeling compelled to tell the truth about what they did and saw in the service of their country, and for insisting that there is a better way.
I first met with Breaking the Silence this past summer, when I went on a J Street U-hosted Ta Shema trip to Hebron, one of the most divided and violent places in the occupied West Bank. Ta Shema (meaning “come and listen”) trips are designed to educate American undergraduate students on the challenges and opportunities facing Israelis and Palestinians who work for democracy, social justice and a two-state solution. I had no idea what to expect. I had been told that one could feel the tension just by being in Hebron.
Sitting on a small patch of grass, surrounded by Palestinian homes with iron bars over the windows, we heard from Nadav, a former Israeli soldier in his late twenties, now working with Breaking the Silence. Nadav explained to us that he and his friends had hoped that they could defend their country, while upholding their moral standards and those of the IDF. Nadav hoped that he could do his duty, while never losing track of a strong sense of what is right.
Having served as an Israeli sniper, Nadav told us about his experience carrying out an operation known as the “straw widow,” which is used to take out a terrorist threat in an urban area. The operation requires the soldiers to take over the home of a family they know to be innocent, and to hold them captive in order to use the home as a base of operations from which to take out a local terrorist threat. These operations may last anywhere from 12 hours to a couple weeks. It was during these operations, Nadav recounted to us, that he and his fellow soldiers slowly began to cross their own moral red lines.
Looking back on his time in the IDF, Nadav found himself disturbed by the activities in which he had participated. While he set out to help make Israelis safer, Nadav felt that he had instead unfairly infringed on the lives of others, harming Palestinians and bringing Israel no closer to the long-term security it craves.
Despite how disturbing this story was, I was able to identify deeply with Nadav’s experience. He brought home to me the challenge that faces many young Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank, as they are called upon to serve their country by enforcing an occupation that runs counter to the basic principles of Israeli democracy.
Rather than feeling anger toward Nadav or toward the IDF in general, I understood in that moment that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has devastating consequences not just for the Palestinians who experience oppression and inequality, but for the soldiers acting as an occupying force, and for the families who have to send their children into such a compromising and untenable position.
This is the vital service that Breaking the Silence provides for Israelis, for visitors to Israel, and for countless students on college campuses across the country. They are sometimes accused of “airing Israel’s dirty laundry” by discussing their experiences honestly, even when they include ugly stories of what it means to be an occupying army. But the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a secret. On campus, students already hear a great deal of criticism of Israel and of the IDF — some of it unfair and inaccurate. Breaking the Silence counters these kinds of attacks by presenting a complex, nuanced and honest picture that does not shy away from discussing the failures and flaws of both sides.
In campus environments where hostility to and suspicion of Israel and the IDF run high, men and women like Nadav show skeptics that Israeli soldiers are not monsters, but complex human beings. They show that there are Israelis committed to helping their society understand the truth about the conflict and its costs, and committed to working toward positive change.
Is it traitorous to forge an honest dialogue and engagement with the actions of the military in order to raise it to the highest standard? Is it traitorous to attempt to hold Israel accountable to upholding the very values it instilled in its young men and women when they were growing up? That isn’t betraying Israel — it’s fighting for it.
By working on behalf of a secure, democratic and just Israel, Breaking the Silence is pro-Israel in the truest and most effective sense. They inspire me in my own pro-Israel advocacy. A nation continuously striving to improve itself and its moral character is truly a cause worth believing in and working for. The men and women of Breaking the Silence are the best representatives of that cause. They deserve the unequivocal support of pro-Israel Americans.
Justin Vogel is a junior at Princeton University and is the J Street U Regional Co-Chair of the Mid-Atlantic region.