Soldiers expose the underside of occupation during N. American tour
Harvard law professor hails ‘new mission’ of two ‘Breaking the Silence’ activists, compares them to Vietnam whistle-blowers.
BOSTON – In an oak-paneled Harvard Law School hall, two former Israeli combat soldiers turned anti-occupation activists listened as a prominent professor compared their role to those of American soldiers of another era, the “Winter Investigation Soldiers” who spoke out against atrocities they saw or took part in during the Vietnam War.
“That you too were foot soldiers is part of what gives such moral gravity to this project,” said Janet Halley, a Harvard law professor, as she introduced the two young men, Avner Gvaryahu and Dotan Greenvald, members of Breaking the Silence, veterans who served in combat units of the Israeli army who have now taken on a new mission: to expose the Israeli public to the ugly underside of what their service as soldiers in the Israeli army interacting with Palestinians looks like, in hopes of sparking a public debate and change.
The pair were speaking towards the end of the East Coast leg of a North American tour to promote the group’s book of soldier testimonies, “Our Harsh Logic,” a plainspoken but often harrowing recounting of their experiences as soldiers. A West Coast tour starts next week.
A review of the book in the New York Review of Books described the testimonies as “painful, and shameful, to read. It is also, incidentally, eloquent testimony to the remarkable freedom of speech that is, for now at least, still the norm inside Israel.”
Testimonials include passages depicting scenes of soldiers going out at night to provoke responses from Palestinians. “There were arrests, there were all kind of arrests. But the high point of the night was drawing fire, creating a situation where they fired at us,” reported a former soldier from the Golani Brigade who recounted the instructions of his commander: “I want bodies full of bullets.”
In the hushed Harvard Law School hall, Greenvald and Gvaryahu tried to bring the testimonials’ message to life – that the “widespread notion in Israeli society that the control of the territories is intended exclusively for the security of Israeli citizens” does not match what they saw on the ground, which in their eyes is more about exerting power through disrupting the day-to-day life of Palestinians.
Greenvald, 30, a soft-spoken former army sniper described coming of age in which he called “the bloody 1990s” and the second intifada of the early 2000s. The week of his bar-mitzvah there were three major suicide bombings in little more than a week, and by the time he was drafted, he said, “army service felt like a mission.”
Based in Hebron, he had his first encounter with one of the army’s primary goals in Palestinian populated areas: “to make our presence felt.”
What does that mean? He detailed a common routine for the audience: “Banging on doors, waking everyone up. And I was shocked to see that the Palestinians were not surprised. They were used to this routine. We would search the houses for weapons, for anything. But [for the most part] we were there to wake them up in the middle of the night. Mission accomplished.”
“Everyone gets used to it, so you get used to it,” said Greenvald, noting not just the midnight searches but the stun grenades and mock arrests.
Except that, Greenvald, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, and his fellow soldiers in his unit began to speak to each other about what they saw and what they were doing, he said, and asking themselves questions like, “How are we defending our country by being in Hebron?”
Greenvald, today a Ph.D. student in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, pulled out the small black box he made while in the army and decorated with a picture of Che Guevera to protect his mini-disc player. It was on that player that he began recording what would become the group’s first testimonies.
“We just spoke to each other,” he said. “And we realized those stories must be told. So we gathered testimonies and pictures … and for the first time we realized there was power in those testimonies.”
Synagogues, HIllel chapters, rabbinical schools
As he spoke one of those photos flashed on a large screen behind him: a picture of young Palestinian boys lined up against a low concrete wall while other boys, with sticks in hand, play the role of Israeli soldiers searching them.
“In the name of prevention, we are doing the opposite,” said Gvaryahu.
Today their goal of telling other Israelis about what was happening on the ground – in their name – has made them one of Israel’s leading human rights groups, with ten booklets published and 500 events held a year, including their signature tours of Hebron. On the tours they take visitors, Israelis and tourists alike, through Jewish conclaves of settlement in the city as well as to nearby Palestinian homes.
Spreading that message to Diaspora Jews has also become part of their mission. During their American tour there are talks at synagogues, Hillel chapters and rabbinical schools.
Gvaryahu, 28, who handles Diaspora outreach for the organization, described frustration with Jews abroad who are often champions of human rights in their own countries, but tend to check those views at the Green Line.
“But I think that the conversation is beginning to shift, it’s starting to move,” he said. “It has to be part of the discussion. It’s not easy. But it’s not easy to break something.”