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Breaking the Silence replies to its critics

Mikhael Manekin
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion) July 29, 2009

When Breaking the Silence released a collection of soldiers’ testimonies about their experiences in Gaza last week, we expected to receive criticism. Operation Cast Lead was considered a success by most Israelis, so there were some who probably found the testimonies distasteful.

Still, as veteran combat soldiers and Israeli citizens who care deeply about the future of our democracy and morality, we felt that discussing morally troubling issues regarding the operation was crucial. These issues include units fighting with lax to non-existent rules of engagement; the use of white phosphorus in urban, populated areas; the needless destruction of private property and more. We firmly believe that an open discussion of these issues is crucial for the future of our society. Unfortunately, some critics, including the military spokesperson, had other plans for how to channel a public discussion.

RATHER THAN discuss the issues raised in the soldiers’ testimonies, the media has largely rerouted the discourse toward questions of our organization’s funders and the anonymity of the soldiers – matters that have little to do with the carefully investigated content of the report. This all-too-obvious spin proves, yet again, that the military is unable to deal with the questions at hand, and prefers to use various tactics to lead the public away from a serious discussion of the content of the report. Responding to critics whose sole interest is to silence us does not seem important or necessary. If they refuse to respect the soldiers who fought for their security, and listen to their concerns about the country they defend, that is their own problem. Still, for the sake of those who have read the military’s claims and whose attentions were diverted to trivial issues since the report became public, we feel that we should settle any troubling matters.

FIRST TO the issue of funding: Breaking the Silence is a registered non-profit company which prides itself on transparency. In this spirit, our annual reports can be found online by all of those who are interested (oddly, it is hard to say the same for many of our critics). Indeed, many of our supporters are not from Israel, something which we have no moral or legal problem with, and I do not know of any organization on the Left or Right of the political spectrum which is funded differently.

Most of the criticism has taken issue with the anonymity of the soldiers who gave testimony. Obviously, we would prefer they all go on record. So why don’t they? Partly, it is due to military culture, which frowns upon those who speak about experiences outside their unit. In Operation Cast Lead, for example, the paratrooper brigade general urged his soldiers not to talk about the destruction they saw. After a few anonymous testimonies were leaked to the media a couple of months ago, other unit commanders told soldiers that those who talk will be reprimanded.

Soldiers indeed “got the message,” if not through the military itself, then through public figures in Israel. On a popular radio show last week, talk show hosts Irit Linor and Kobi Arielli said Breaking the Silence testifiers should be beaten and bruised by thugs. They called the soldiers – soldiers who are still in combat service no less – traitors and liars. They have yet to retract their threats. Ironically, people continue to ask, “what are these soldiers afraid of? Why don’t they step forward?”

I believe that that there is a way that these soldiers and perhaps many more, will speak openly. We must start listening to them. We must hear their stories. We must embrace our soldiers even when they say things we don’t want to hear. We owe them that. Read the collection of testimonies.You will find that they are much more nuanced and balanced than most of the public discourse around the incursion. You will find that we can learn a lot from their moral compasses. Within the testimonies you will read about several military orders that I believe we as Israelis should be ashamed of. But you will also find the statements of 26 soldiers that our country can be proud of.

Only when we listen to their stories will we be able to have a real discussion about our society’s moral standing.

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