Breaking the Silence organizers started with a pile of photos and pangs of conscience about their combat service. Six years later, the group is still jolting the public with its testimonies from soldiers serving in the territories.
Esti Ahronovitz, 19 November 2010
Sunday, 10 A.M. This is the only time of day that you can find most of the staff of Breaking the Silence together – in Yehuda Shaul’s apartment in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, which is also their office. In a couple of hours they will disperse on their appointed rounds. Those present are: Yehuda Shaul, 27, the organization’s founder; Michael Menkin, 31, the director; Dana Golan, 27, CEO; Eran Efrati, 26, recruiter of soldiers who give testimony (the other recruiter, Avihai Stollar, 26, is on vacation in India ); and Eyal Kantz, 29, who is in charge of the organization’s educational activities, which include talks to groups and tours of Hebron. Also on hand are a few volunteers who are transcribing and editing testimonies on computers.
There are two desks in the living room, along with blue simulated-leather sofas and a coffee table holding a jumble of laptops, writing tools and snacks. Hanging on one wall are charts with weekly tour and lecture schedules; on the wall opposite are framed newspaper clippings and investigative reports based on testimonies collected by the organization.
Breaking the Silence came into the world six years ago in the form of an exhibition of photographs taken by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who served in Hebron during the second intifada. Yehuda Shaul will never forget his military service in that West Bank city, first as a soldier and later as a commanding officer, in the 51st Battalion of the Nahal paramilitary brigade (which combines army service and work in outlying communities ). After his demobilization he compiled photos taken by him and his buddies – routine still shots of daily life in Hebron – and showed them to the photographer Miki Kratsman. The exhibition took place in mid-2004 in the gallery of the Academy for Geographic Photography in Tel Aviv. It was entitled “Breaking the Silence.”
Shaul and his friends thus brought their Hebron into the Tel Aviv bubble, for the edification of people who didn’t know what was going on, for parents whose children were serving in the territories. Large crowds flocked to the gallery, where the newly discharged soldiers mingled with the visitors and explained the images, which reflected the reality of what they had experienced.
It might have all ended there, but Shaul and a few others decided to continue: Today, six years later, Breaking the Silence, which consists of six people on salary and another 15 volunteers, constitutes part of the public discourse in Israel. Since the exhibition, the organization has published five pamphlets of testimonies from soldiers who served in the territories, all of them describing infringements of the rights of the local population (including testimonies from Hebron, soldiers talking about the rules of engagement in the territories, testimonies of female soldiers and more ).
This documentation has generated public controversy and many investigative reports in the Israeli and world media. The record was probably broken last year. In July 2009, half a year after the end of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, Breaking the Silence published a pamphlet containing 54 testimonies from soldiers who took part in the operation. The subjects discussed included the controversial orders they received from their commanders – among them, “If you’re not sure, shoot to kill” and the “Johnny procedure,” a euphemism for what is also called the “neighbor procedure” or, simply, the use of human shields. According to one testimony, “Johnny” was the nickname soldiers from the Givati Brigade gave to Palestinians who were co-opted into the unit and sent into buildings in order to see if they were occupied, and thus served as physical buffers between the soldiers and possible danger. Such a procedure violates a 2005 ruling by the High Court of Justice.
The media storm was immediate. The IDF Spokesman, Avi Benayahu, carefully diverted the debate from the harsh content of the testimonies by pointing out that Breaking the Silence is not a nonprofit NGO, but rather a limited company which competes for donations from foreign institutions. MKs and columnists demanded that the anonymous soldiers who gave testimony come forward. The co-hosts of an Army Radio program, Irit Linur and Kobi Arieli, offered to work over the guys from Breaking the Silence. Linur added that the organization’s reports were filled with “all kinds of absurd allegations.” The Foreign Ministry pitched in, protesting to the governments of Holland and Britain over their funding for the organization. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the fray, declaring that he expected all foreign governments to stop aiding such groups. “There is no silence to break,” he fulminated. “What are they talking about?”
Shaul has to date gathered 700 recordings of soldiers talking about their service in the territories. In a database they are listed under the letter “Z” followed by a serial number.
“There is a historic, archival dimension to this,” Shaul explains. “We have 2,500 hours of video and sound of soldiers describing what they did. I don’t think we really grasp the true value of what we have.”
The case for anonymity
11 A.M., Sakharov Prize discussion. Breaking the Silence is one of the contenders for this year’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, awarded by the European Parliament on the basis of nominations made by member groups. Dana Golan was set to fly to the Continent the next day to meet with EP delegates and make the case for Breaking the Silence. It’s time for a few last tips before the trip, and so the group gathers in the living room and reviews the text of a sharply worded letter to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. The two bodies still have an account to settle.
“A few days ago, an officer from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit called,” Golan reports, “and asked if we were about to publish anything soon. I told her that we are always about to publish something soon,” she smiles. “They are on alert.”
This year, the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada, the organization is producing a book containing 100 testimonies by soldiers who served in the territories during the uprising. Moreover, in contrast to the earlier reports, the text this time will be accompanied by photographs. Publication is set for December.
Michael Menkin is busy editing the last of the testimonies. “The book describes a policy,” he explains, “by which I mean the methods the army uses in the territories, and their consequences and implications. We are deconstructing the concepts of ‘demonstration of presence,’ ‘interdiction,’ ‘separation’ and ‘fabric of life.’ Demonstration of presence is one of the main tactics employed by the IDF these days: being there, breathing down their [the Palestinians’] necks. At some point in the interview, the speaker always says, ‘I’ll tell you how it works,’ and then explains what a checkpoint is and what it means to create a ‘feeling of being pursued’ – yes, there is such a task. It involves going around at night and making noise, throwing stun grenades and illumination flares near or inside houses. This has nothing to do with terrorists; its target is the civilian population.”
What’s the difference between your new report and the previous ones?
Menkin: “This time it’s not four people talking about a subject, it’s dozens. The official spokespersons of the state and the IDF will not be able to say ‘It’s not true’ or ‘This is an exceptional case.’ You have dozens of soldiers saying the same thing over a long period.”
Breaking the Silence maintains that the IDF violates human rights as a policy, that it’s not a matter of a few rotten apples, but the whole barrel. Former soldier Eden Abergil, for example, who recently posted photos of herself with bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners on her Facebook page, is not an isolated case. The organization has a collection of similar photographs.
“At first,” Shaul explains, “when we talked to 30-40 soldiers, the stories that interested us were about the soldier who stole a pita and the one who humiliated a Palestinian. Today, with 700 testimonies, we have a broad picture and we see phenomena – a policy. The outstanding example is the rules of engagement, which are issued orally. The story here is not the aberrant soldier, but the problematic order for opening fire. It’s far more systemic. People are murdered according to procedures. And these are orders and procedures that come from above and which make no distinction between good and bad people, between arms bearers and civilians.”
12 o’clock, noon, news. There’s a report on the radio about two Givati Brigade soldiers who are accused of asking a nine-year-old boy to open suspicious bags for them during Operation Cast Lead. The military court in Kastina convicted them of exceeding their authority and unbecoming behavior. Their army buddies came to the courtroom wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “We are all victims of Goldstone” – referring to the report compiled by Richard Goldstone for the United Nations about IDF conduct during Operation Cast Lead.
“Go to Ynet,” Menkin shouts from the living room to Shaul, who is in the study, referring to a website. “You can see the guys in the T-shirts there.”
“We have to talk to them,” Shaul shouts back. “We have to approach them.”
Do you believe they will talk to you, let alone give testimony?
Shaul: “Probably one or two will. We talked to people who used human shields in Operation Cast Lead and we know about commanders of units who issued orders to that effect. The fact that these guys are taking the blame for the whole army is the epitome of the ‘shin gimel syndrome'” – i.e., casting the blame on the “guard at the gate,” or lowest echelon in terms of responsibility. “We see this as a far deeper story. We don’t think the establishment should be creating scapegoats. We will try to find out which unit it is, whether we know guys from it. We will approach reporters who know them or we’ll contact their lawyers. We’ll call, introduce ourselves and see if there’s anyone we can work with.”
Word of mouth – that’s the organization’s method. Most of those who give testimony to Breaking the Silence are demobilized soldiers, though a small minority did so while still serving. The activists simply call and introduce themselves.
Shaul: “After a soldier gives testimony, I ask him to open his mobile phone and give us the numbers of friends. Most of the soldiers I contact refuse to give testimony. What they usually say is, ‘Leave it, bro, that’s all behind me now, I’ve moved on.’ Sometimes there is a ‘no’ for political reasons. A conversation might last five minutes or two hours. But once they agree to meet, they will give testimony.”
People in the organization have an inside joke: When a soldier who meets with one of the members starts by saying, “Bro, I don’t have anything to tell” – it’s going to be an amazing tale.
Why do they give testimony?
Menkin: “Our critics say that they talk in order to clear their conscience. Everyone who has given testimony knows that it’s a lot better not to talk. When you delve into things, a lot of nasty actions come out. We are not an organization of psychologists. But we do have great respect for the people who come to talk. A person who gives testimony gives a great deal. First, he will confront himself and unpleasant things that he did. That is a tough, complex process. Some witnesses come to us two or three times and aren’t yet sure if they want to talk.”
Menkin himself is listed as Z-9. “Breaking the Silence came to me,” he relates. “I remember that I gave testimony in Yehuda’s previous apartment. I was sure that they would burst into tears when I spoke, because they had never heard such shocking things. But Yehuda sat opposite me and said, ‘So, and …?’
“That was a revelation for me,” he continues, “that my testimony didn’t unnerve anyone. When I left, I understood there were others who had also undergone the same experience. Suddenly I realized that my story was very much part of the system, and I was very interested to hear more … A very special understanding is formed when a former soldier interviews a soldier,” says Menkin, who joined the organization initially as a volunteer. “
Your credibility has been called into question because those who give testimony are anonymous, especially in regard to Operation Cast Lead.
“Most of the soldiers do not want to identify themselves because society really doesn’t want to listen. I am no longer anonymous, but when I gave testimony I didn’t want my family or friends to know. They were happy to listen to my army experiences, but not those that made me feel uncomfortable. We say to the public: You want names? You want to know who these people are? Then accept them when they describe events that are not so pleasant.
“After our last report, [IDF Spokesman] Benayahu said it was all lies, a jumble of accusations. I didn’t take it personally, but behind his ‘jumble of accusations’ are soldiers who gave testimony, and they took it personally.”
Shaul: “The IDF puts huge pressure on soldiers not to talk, especially the soldiers of Operation Cast Lead. We know about [commanders of] units who convened the soldiers and told them, ‘Now listen up: We will screw anyone who talks.’ There were guys with whom we set up a meeting but they didn’t show up. One of the things we understood from the start is that the testimonies have to be anonymous; we will not serve up conscripts on a silver platter and have them spend half a year in prison.”
In an interview earlier this year with Amos Harel in Haaretz, the military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, said that cooperation exists between the army and the B’Tselem human rights organization – that it helps in finding witnesses and in reaching the truth – but, he added, “I have a problem with Breaking the Silence, which does not help us reach the witnesses. That is a problematic path.”
Shaul: “I won’t have the army tell me that because I don’t publish names they cannot investigate. The IDF knows better than I do which units use human shields and phosphorous bombs.”
Breaking the Silence does not preach refusal to serve or tell people what to do. Still, Menkin has asked to be transferred to a rear unit in the reserves and is awaiting his new assignment, and Shaul does not do reserve duty.
Thursday, 9:30 A.M., Hebron. Menkin is on another routine tour; indeed, he is in Hebron a few times a week. In addition to collecting testimonies, the organization also engages in educational activity. This takes the form of organized tours to Hebron and to the southern Hebron hills, as well as talks to students at the university and high-school levels, and to people enrolled in pre-university preparatory courses. In 2009, some 1,500 people visited Hebron in this way and 1,300 toured the Hebron hills.
Today Menkin is guiding a small group, less than 10 people, so no police permit is required. The participants signed up via the Internet, and include a couple about to enter the army, a Tel Aviv couple, a senior from a religious high school and two university students. The tour, which takes between two and three hours, includes the four Jewish settlers’ compounds, located on the streets above the Tomb of the Patriarchs: Avraham Avinu, Beit Romano, Beit Hadassah and Tel Rumeida.
As soon as we stepped out of the minibus, we began to understand why Hebron is considered the most complicated place in the West Bank. Shuhada Street, where the tour begins, was once a bustling market but is now abandoned and empty; the doors of the shops are welded shut, the walls are covered with graffiti. Other than an Israeli bus which passes by every 45 minutes, there is not a living soul here. In 1994, in the wake of Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Muslim worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the city was placed under curfew, and the street was closed and has not been reopened since.
We walk past a series of gutted and ruined buildings in what was the wholesale market and meat market. Past them is the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Amid the ruins a settler wearing athletic gear is doing Tai Chi. In March 2001, a Palestinian sniper perched high above, on Abu Sneina hill, shot and killed a Jewish infant, Shalhevet Pass, who was 10 months old, at this very spot. In response, the settlers ran amok in the market, looting, wrecking and burning buildings.
“You will not see Palestinians here,” Menkin says. “This place is like a film set, a ghost town. The principle of separation is being applied here. The IDF has created absolute separation between the Palestinians and the settlers. The Palestinians are prohibited from using most of the streets here.”
Palestinian residents thus have to go around, through the cemetery. Those who live in the buildings along the street access their homes via the roofs. There was a huge exodus of Palestinians, Menkin explains, in the wake of the closure of the shops, the collapse of commerce and the frequent IDF house searches. We are asked to ignore the settlers who are shouting at us. “Degenerates,” one of them screams at us.
A Nahal battalion is stationed next to Beit Romano. The unit will be leaving in two hours after spending the last six months here. The soldiers are milling around outside, visibly happy and excited to be leaving. Ear-splitting rock music blares from big loudspeakers and mingles cacophonously with the call of the muezzin.
At the top of the street, the group of soldiers guarding Tel Rumeida won’t let us enter. They’re afraid we might be attacked by settlers on the narrow street along which the settlers’ trailer homes and residential building are located. But after a long wait, during which Menkin talks to a more senior officer, we get the okay. In the past, settlers have thrown stones and eggs at such tours. These days the situation is somewhat calmer. “Our brethren,” Menkin calls them sarcastically.
Actually, the most intriguing aspect of the tour is Menkin himself. In outward appearance he could easily be taken for a settler, with checkered shirt not tucked into his jeans, a skullcap and a beard. The tour participants want to get to the bottom of this seeming contradiction and to understand what made a religious combat officer join Breaking the Silence.
“I was sent to Hebron as an officer toward the end of my service,” he says. “My soldiers and I took up positions on the roof of a building in which Palestinians lived. We spoke to them politely. When we left we even swept the stairs and they said thank you. I was very pleased with myself, for behaving all right. The penny dropped after I left Hebron: I had entered someone’s home in the middle of the night, armed. There were a few times when I saw children pee in their pants because of me, but I still thought I was really all right.
“On every tour I am asked what someone like me is doing in Breaking the Silence,” he tells me three days later in the office. “It’s connected with the shattering of stereotypes. The secular Tel Avivian conjures up a human rights activist in his own image – but that’s not correct.”
Menkin attended educational institutions of the religious-Zionist movement in Jerusalem. His mother, Rachel, teaches modern Jewish history, his father, Bezalel, is a professor of medieval Jewish philosophy.
“I grew up in a home with a very deep religious commitment,” he relates, “and also a very open home – a home of culture and books. It was an academic household, in which one asked historical and philosophical questions.”
He did his army service in southern Lebanon in the Golani infantry brigade. The second intifada erupted while he was in the midst of an officers’ course, and he was posted to Nablus as a platoon commander.
“That was a rough time. Six of the guys who were in the officers’ course with me were killed. We were very aggressive; there were no rules of engagement. We used up a four-month supply of non-lethal weapons in two or three weeks, and that was perfectly normal. If someone didn’t stand the way I told him to at a checkpoint, I threw a stun grenade at him. Not out of sadism, but because the checkpoint was supposed to be managed the right way and no messing around was allowed. At home – I had leave every 35 days – I didn’t say a word about any of that. Toward the end of my service the only thing I wanted was to get out of the country. I went to South America and spent a year there working with AIDS patients. I wanted to feel I was doing something else, maybe something good. When I got back, I tried to take an interest in current events, in politics, but I felt that those involved were not speaking my language.”
He went on his first tour of Hebron in 2005, together with his wife. “It was really strange for me – totally unconnected to anything else. It was a very sterile experience. In the bus, on the way back, things began to overwhelm me. Everything came back, all the things I had preferred not to think about. At home I had something like a panic attack. In many ways, that was what brought me to Breaking the Silence. I understood the power of it all for me. I was curious to return to the same area again, to go back to the same situation.”
Menkin’s parents were very understanding about his decision to join the organization. “It’s a supportive home,” he says. “My parents are also activists in their way – they go to demonstrations. Israeli society would say that they have moved left. For them the question of ‘territories – yes or no’ was part of a broader series of questions: What is a democratic society? What does it mean to be a citizen? What is the State of Israel? The questions they ask go beyond the issue of the settlements. They took a true, liberal direction.”
Do you feel comfortable with the fact that your ideology is also your job? You are not a [nonprofit] association – you make a living from what you do.
“That is only a problem in the realms of the left: when ideology becomes your ‘place of work.’ I notice that on the right, when work and activity are devoted to ideology, it’s considered respectable and professional. Breaking the Silence could as easily be managed inefficiently. But what we are doing has professional parameters. Part of the professionalism consists of being active on a daily basis. As a group we reached the understanding that we would do this not for two years, but for 20 years. It’s a business, in the positive sense of the term. I find it hard to accept the idea that humanitarian left-wing activity must necessarily be altruistic, that one has to suffer. I have activist friends and I have the greatest admiration for them. After they finish their working day they engage in their activity until late at night. Personally, as the father of a daughter and with another on the way, I cannot and would not want to live like that. Those boundaries are important for me.”
Is the organization’s activity in Hebron a type of “occupation tourism”?
“I don’t feel any danger that this will turn into occupation tourism. And by the way, it would be very easy to turn it into a real business. Occupation tourism exists when organizations exploit the situation for economic gain, which is not the case with us. We do not profit economically from the tours. People pay NIS 50 for the bus, and even that does not cover the cost. It’s hardly something that someone does for fun. We do not end the tour with baklava pastries and black coffee with cardamom.”
Yehuda Shaul, like Menkin, is also from Jerusalem and also from a religiously observant home. His father is from Canada, his mother was from the United States. When Shaul was four, his mother killed herself and his younger brother.
“That event shaped my life,” he says quietly. “When I was older, there was a period when I asked questions and received answers. She was in postpartum depression. My father remarried and had another seven children. He became increasingly Haredi. My older brother and I objected to the ultra-Orthodox orientation, we did not accept the transition.”
Shaul is a closed person with a few close friends, among them Menkin. “I was a very aggressive and violent boy,” he continues. “I caused a lot of trouble in the religious elementary school I went to in Jerusalem and at home. I got into fights and also took a stance against my father and my stepmother. I refused to go to a regular yeshiva, I wanted a high-school yeshiva.”
Shaul attended a high-school yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Naveh Michmash, but questions relating to religion continued to haunt him. “For a time in the yeshiva I was not religious. I did not remove my skullcap, but I did not observe Shabbat. At a certain stage my view of religion, of Judaism and of why we do certain things in life, changed. After all kinds of upheavals, I landed in a place that suited me, one that I agreed with and could live with.”
He now wears a black leather skullcap. “It’s a skullcap that is not identified [with any particular stream],” he explains. “I don’t fall into any category: I am not Haredi and I am not necessarily national-religious. It’s mostly new immigrants who wear this skullcap.”
Shaul stresses that he has uprooted every aspect of faith from his religious practice: “In a certain sense I am very much a follower of [the late Prof. Yeshayahu] Leibowitz. I discovered Leibowitz in the period between high school and the army. One of my most vivid memories from that period is the ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ prayer on Yom Kippur at the yeshiva. The cantor cries out, ‘Who shall live and who shall die,’ and I just want to give him the phone number of the nearest psychiatric hospital. Does he really feel that there is a god who at this moment is judging him? It’s not logical. So I left the synagogue. Nowadays I observe the Torah precepts. I am no tzaddik, but I try.”
Did the change extend also to your political views?
Shaul: “I grew up as a right-winger, but not of the classic type; the dimension of nationalism was not part of my education. Part of my adolescent rebellion was related to thoughts about religion and politics. Toward the end of high school I crossed the political lines. I think it’s legitimate that if we have the right of self-determination, then others do, too. I read a lot and I hiked a lot. Before the army I walked the Israel Trail. I was looking for myself. I wanted to enter the army knowing who I was and what I was.”
After pondering the matter, he joined the 51st Battalion of the Nahal Brigade. Hebron hit him with all its force. He remembers the first time he was posted on the roof of a school there, with a machine gun.
“There you are, with what looks like a million houses opposite you. At first you’re afraid to pull the trigger, but then you get used to it,” he says. “You just wait for dark to fall and for them to start shooting. Action, really cool. A real computer game.”
He remembers the Jewish residents’ daily provocations against the Palestinians; the one settler dubbed the “red-haired maniac,” who went out every night to vandalize Palestinian shops and kept the soldiers up all night, as they followed his trail; the welding shut of the shops; the medical clinic that soldiers defaced, by smearing feces on the walls; and the two bound Palestinians for whom the unit decided to hold a birthday party (half the unit wrote songs for them and the other half tried to feed the blindfolded prisoners schnitzel ). There was also a barefoot, lean boy of 11 whom soldiers handcuffed and hurled on to the top of their armored personnel carrier in a frenzy of shouting.
“So I ask them [the other soldiers], ‘What’s this carnival about? What do you think you’re doing?’ And they answer, ‘Shut up, leftie.’ And my superior officer, who is supposed to teach me how to be a good commander in the IDF, asks me, ‘Do you pity him?'” Yes, Shaul did pity the boy.
“I don’t talk about these subjects in the Shabbat-eve meal with the family,” he says. “It’s a bombshell. The only one who came to see the exhibition [of photographs] was my father. It was during the second week. I was on the other side of the gallery, with a group. After about 10 minutes, he shouts to me, ‘Yehuda, is this what you did?’ He was listening with earphones to the testimony of R., a soldier who related how his unit dispersed Palestinians who were holding a funeral. I replied, sarcastically, ‘Not only at funerals, also at weddings.’ He left without saying another word.
“A week later, the Military Police arrived with warrants, confiscated things and started an investigation [of Breaking the Silence]. I went straight from the interrogation to my sister’s bat mitzvah. As soon as I arrived, my father took me aside and said, ‘Yehuda, I want you to know that I understand why you are doing what you are doing.’ That was all. For a few years we didn’t talk about it again. In the last year and a half a small ‘opening’ has appeared. Suddenly he asks, ‘What are these tours you are doing in Hebron?’ I am very careful about what I say or do not say.”
Breaking the Silence has been making waves in the media about IDF activity in the territories for the past six years. The publication of its first two pamphlets was accompanied by press investigations based on the testimonies collected by the organization. One of the important articles – which led to Military Police investigations – appeared in November 2004 in the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth. That article also dealt with the fact that some combat soldiers have their pictures taken with bound or dead Palestinians, abuse them or keep slain terrorists’ body parts. In June 2005, an article by Amos Harel in Haaretz described the problematic behavior of Israeli soldiers in the territories. The story included a soldier’s testimony about an army physician who, after pronouncing a Palestinian dead, took out a scalpel and gave a group of medics an anatomy lesson. The daily Maariv later published testimonies by soldiers from a commando unit belonging to the engineering corps and from the Paratroops who stated that after the attack on the Ein Ariq checkpoint in February 2002, in which six soldiers were killed, they assassinated 15 Palestinian policemen. In September 2005, testimonies were published describing the lethal consequences of rules of engagement that were transmitted orally and unsystematically to soldiers.
So you became content providers for the media.
Shaul: “We are getting across what the Israeli media have not been able to convey: the story from the field, the reality. Months before the publication of a pamphlet we start to work with the media, and arrange meetings between reporters and soldiers who are willing to talk to them. By now we are experienced in how to create the splash. If you forgo the strategy of maintaining a daily presence in the media, but still want to make waves – you want each wave to be as high as possible.”
Shaul is discomfited when asked whether Breaking the Silence works with PR people. “There is a constant tension here,” he explains. “On the one hand, we perceived ourselves as activists who do not like laundry detergent, but on the other hand we make use of contemptible PR work in our activity. We also flinch from this. Our relations with PR agents fluctuate. We use them for a few months and then decide it’s enough. Then we try again and are uneasy.”
After the first wave of articles the organization came to a bitter conclusion about the world of the press.
“Right after the first media peak we grasped how the thing works and how cynical it [media coverage] is,” says Shaul. “I have to admit it’s hard for us to get the message across in an article: Our message goes a little beyond just a headline and a sub-headline. Let me give you an example. We received information about a notice that was posted in a Border Police base in Jerusalem, in which the command echelon asks the unit to preserve its image in the wake of a number of problematic events. In one case, three Border Policemen in the Jerusalem area had sex in a jeep with a Palestinian woman who wanted to cross a checkpoint. We called a lot of reporters, but none of them got back to us. In the end, only the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir ran the story.”
At the same time, an internal crisis in the group erupted: In 2006, the organization held a series of discussions about closing shop.
“At the time we were a group of 15, all of whom, except for me, were volunteers. Many people left in favor of studies or in order to hold down a job. At the same time, the question arose of how much we were talking about what’s happening and how much about what had already happened. In short, we asked ourselves if we were still relevant.”
In the following months, the organization decided, in addition to collecting testimonies, to develop the educational aspect of their work with tours and appearances before various groups. In April 2008, Breaking the Silence published a collection of testimonies from soldiers who served in Hebron between 2005 and 2007, which again drew media attention. The documentary program “Fact” on Channel 2 broadcast an item about soldiers from the Kfir Brigade (which serves only in the West Bank ).
“That somehow persuaded us that we were still relevant,” Shaul says, “that if we created the right ‘wrapping,’ we would succeed.”
The next goal was to publish testimonies by female soldiers. The material was compiled and edited, but budgetary problems forced Breaking the Silence to delay publication until early 2009. Then Operation Cast Lead was launched in Gaza at the end of 2008.
“We decided not to publish the pamphlet of testimonies by women but to get to work on Operation Cast Lead immediately,” Shaul explains. “We brought back Dotan Greenvald, who had worked with us but had gone to the United States. We issued an ’emergency call-up’ order for him and got him a flight back for a one-month stay. We split up into two teams and started to collect testimonies.”
How did you react to the media boom?
“In the first days, we were in shock from what was happening, from the way things blew up, from the political implications. We were afraid we had become the enemies of the people. But as time passed, things took on a different perspective. Today we are pleased and we understand the political significance of our publication.”
The big bucks
Sunday morning. Shaul sits down on the sofa and polishes off an ice cream cone. Menkin is hunched over the computer. Damp T-shirts are hanging out to dry throughout the apartment/office. In another few hours Menkin will leave again for Hebron with a group. Shaul’s task is equally important: to babysit for Menkin’s daughter. “Don’t forget the strawberry pudding,” Menkin instructs him.
Shaul says he has a list of 80 demobilized soldiers who want to give testimony. The main problem is the budget: Calling, arranging, traveling, interviewing, transcribing, editing – every step costs money. Most of the institutions that donate to the organization earmark funds for its educational activity: the talks with students and other groups. This year, the budget of Breaking the Silence hit an all-time high of NIS 3 million. (The donations continue to increase year by year; four years ago, the budget was $700,000. ) The major donors are the New Israel Fund and the Moriah Foundation (both groups fund organizations that promote human rights ), the Spanish Foreign Ministry, the British embassy, the European Union and the ICCO, an interfaith alliance. This year Breaking the Silence also received $10,000 from the intake of Leonard Cohen’s concert in Israel, which was distributed among human rights groups. The Dutch embassy also chipped in, to the tune of 20,000 euros.
“Last year,” Shaul relates, “we had a private donor from England. He gave $50,000 after going on the Hebron tour. Michael [Menkin] earned his keep.”
The media brouhaha over the donations to the organization seems only to have helped.
Asked how much the staff earns, Shaul says, “At first there were only people who didn’t have much else to occupy them – not people with families and kids. Our salary then was NIS 3,800 a month.”
Says Menkin, still hunched over the computer: “[Shaul] says that as though we were earning heaven knows how much.”
Shaul: “Our salary now is NIS 6,500.”
Menkin: “You get it? Now we’ve become bourgeois.”
Two weeks ago there was news that Breaking the Silence will not receive the 2010 Sakharov Prize, but the organization was honored to be on the shortlist of three, which also included the Ethiopian politician Birtukan Mideksa and the Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who won the prize.
Strengthening our soldiers
The organization Bein Hakavanot (In the Crosshairs) was established half a year ago by Aryeh Arbus, 22, in order to represent soldiers’ rights and to counteract left-wing groups which in his view are weakening the IDF.
The formative event for Arbus took place last March, when a group of soldiers from the Kfir Brigade, in which he was serving, went on a morning run in Hebron and accidentally entered a Palestinian area, where they were attacked by dozens of people.
“About 40-50 Palestinians assaulted them, hit them, knocked them down, removed their shoes and sent them back wounded and barefoot to the base,” Arbus says. “The soldiers had one rifle with them, which they could have fired, at least into the air, in order to stop the attack, but they didn’t. The debriefing we did showed they were afraid to use the weapon: It was passed from hand to hand, because they were afraid of legal repercussions.
“Afterward,” he continues, “we discovered that this unit had experienced dozens of incidents in which they were forbidden to respond. They endured stones, burning tires and assaults, but the policy was not to respond.”
Are you saying the behavior of the IDF stems from the legal and social pressure that is brought to bear by groups such as Breaking the Silence and others?
Arbus: “The army is in a very confused place these days. The IDF is suffering from a tough offensive both in Israel and internationally, which is caused by the activity of these organizations. They are funded by foreign governments and, like Breaking the Silence, cause societal weakness and paralysis. The army is in a state of shock because of these organizations, and the orders that are issued in the wake of their activity get stricter and upset the balance that is needed.”
Arbus himself made the headlines as one of the soldiers who in December 2009 held up protest signs declaring that his unit would not evacuate a West Bank settlement. In the wake of this event he served time in a military prison, was barred from serving in combat units and a few months later was discharged. Along with his activity in Bein Hakavanot he is now a law student at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono.
In practice, Arbus and a small number of others visit checkpoints and listen to the soldiers. “We give the soldiers support at the simplest level, from one fighter to another, a pat on the shoulder, and we ask that they come to us with every legal problem that arises.”
The organization has a small “think team” consisting of legal experts and army officers, though Arbus declines to give their names. So far, the group has carried out two investigations, one about the Kfir Brigade incident and the other about a case in which two soldiers were accused of using a human shield in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
The results of the investigations were published in pamphlet form and distributed to officers in the field. Funding for that work, Arbus says, came from private backers, most of them army officers.