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This past Sunday (December 13th, 2015) the first Haaretz Q conference took place at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Self-described as “an opportunity to ask and discuss the most pressing questions around Israel today and engage in a new Israeli American discussion about the future”, the conference began with keynote addresses by prominent politicians such as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Member of Knesset (MK) and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General Dr. Saeb Erekat. US President Barack Obama was also “in attendance”, addressing the star-struck audience via a short prerecorded welcoming address.
Greeted with the respect of a standing crowd of hundreds in the main hall at The Roosevelt, President Rivlin began his speech by stating that although he does not agree “to say the least” with Haaretz’s “very specific agenda” (which he later admitted was anti establishment, not just targeted at past and present right wing governments), he reads the paper every morning in order to understand points of view other than his own. Haaretz “is a beacon for a freedom of expression in Israel”, testimony to the country’s rich democratic culture, apparently. He then continued with a predictable circling-of-the-wagons-style defense of Israeli actions:
“Any other army in the world is not as moral as Tzahal (Hebrew for the IDF: Israel Defense Force), so does its commanders and so does its soldiers. For that we are very proud, very proud of them. And really owe them all our support and appreciation.”
These statements were an obvious slight at members of Breaking the silence who were sitting in the audience and were scheduled to participate in the conference proceedings. Breaking the Silence is the Israeli organization that collects testimonials from soldiers in the IDF on their activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). For Rivlin’s full speech see here.
In light of Rivlin’s rhetoric, it is puzzling to read an editorial published just several hours beforehand in the Daily Beast by Aluf Benn, Editor-in-chief of Haaretz, in which he describes Rivlin as “moderate” and a “former right winger”. Benn knows well that the President has always been a loyal member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party, and that he supports the illegal Jewish settlements in the OPT, so why the discount?
It is useful to view Benn’s statement within the context of the present Israeli political climate, in which Rivlin was harshly criticized for participating in HaaretzQ. In the current dangerous Israeli political desert, where the fascist group “Im Tirzu” incites against political activists and portrays them as foreign agents, even a drop of water is seen as an Oasis. There, Netanyahu’s opinions are at the center of the mainstream and Likud “doves” like Rivlin are considered “moderists” and even “leftists”, if only for displaying empathy toward Palestinian victims of Jewish terrorism. In such an environment, the consensus is that Israel has no partner for peace with Palestinians. A devout addict to popular opinion polls, Netanyahu has echoed these sentiments by officially giving up on pursuing Palestinian statehood, continuing his dangerous policy of managing the conflict.
Next onto the HaaretzQ podium, MK Tzipi Livni also weighed in on Breaking the Silence. She continued Rivlin’s vilification of the group and asserted that any claims of wrongdoings by Israeli soldiers should go through the “proper” army/state channels. These sanctimonious claims are disingenuous at best and are commonly used as a diversionary political tactic; instead of confronting the issues themselves that are desperately devoid from public discourse, politicians blame the messengers. Here in the United States many politicians have used similar claims when addressing the cases of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. For Livni’s full speech see here.
But how exactly is Breaking the Silence a threat to the state of Israel? Breaking the Silence is an organization that collects testimonials from IDF soldiers past and present with the purpose of initiating debate within Israeli society on the morality of certain decisions made by its political and military leaders and holding them accountable. Though these testimonials are anonymous, they are perfectly legal (they go through the required Israeli censorship apparatus) and have been shown to be incredibly accurate. Breaking the Silence’s report on operation “protective edge” in Gaza (summer of 2014) caused much controversy in Israel and abroad, outlining egregious violations of international law that may amount to war crimes committed by the IDF. Leader of Breaking the Silence Avner Gvaryahu says the testimonies indicate a “broad ethical failure” of the IDF (for a full interview see here). What is clear is that the negative attention that is directed toward Breaking the Silence is the result of the organization’s ability to shine a light on a fundamental lack of faith that many Israeli soldiers feel toward their decision makers. Breaking the Silence is constantly challenging Israel’s state of denial.
The soldiers at Breaking the Silence are not alone. It is typical for traumatic events such as wars or other violence to create chasms in peoples’ belief systems. In fact, war veterans are still some of the strongest voices in the American anti-war movement. In his excellent autobiography You can’t be neutral on a moving train, Howard Zinn describes his own profound loss of faith in the state after being beaten by New York City police officers at a demonstration at Times Square:
“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self- correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country- not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society- cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”
As guardians of the moral fabric of the state, whistleblowers such as Avner Gvaryahu in Israel and Edward Snowden in the United States are true patriots. Theirs is a critical patriotism that is composed of tough love when necessary, a patriotism that does not turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt decisions that may threaten the fundamental freedoms and rights within their society. In his own words Gvaryahu says:
“I see myself as an Israeli patriot, I am not willing to accept the fact that because our enemies act in immoral ways its ok for us to not ask ourselves any questions.”
Following the keynote sessions I attended a panel discussion at the Hudson Suite in The Roosevelt. It included Gvaryahu, Michael Sfard (human rights attorney and founder of Yesh Din), Carol Daniel Kasbari (conflict transformation specialist), Suhad Babaa (executive director at Just Vision) and was chaired by Gideon Levy, prominent Israeli journalist, author and outspoken critic of Israeli policies in the OPT. Infused with Levy’s disillusioned insight and sarcastic humor, the panelists discussed a range of topics that outlined a bankruptcy of Israeli society’s moral fabric, and potentially productive strategies moving foreword.
Amongst the crowd crammed in the room, I noticed a man with an impressive white mane in the row in front of mine. There sat, quietly and attentively, the true rock star of HaaretQ. It was not Rivlin, not Dr. Erekat, not even Obama, but the one and only Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock group Pink Floyd, and outspoken endorser of the Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. In a recent interview in Haaretz, Waters clarified that he endorses BDS as a means to protest against Israeli apartheid policies toward Palestinians, and harbors no hatred for Israel or Israelis. His stance on BDS, presence at HaaretzQ and apparent support for conscientious, progressive Israelis such as Gvaryahu is consistent with the sentiments echoed in his radical and epic creation “The Wall”, which questions the fabrics of modern society and is considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Like members of Breaking the Silence, Rogers and other critics of current Israeli policies against Palestinians are slowly breaking the Israeli wall of denial, one brick at a time.
All alone, or in two’s,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.
“Isn’t this where….”