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Plugging Our Ears Does Not Serve Israel

IDF vet says American Jewish establishment pays more attention to its feelings about Israel than to facts on the ground.

Sun, 04/27/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Oded Na'aman
Oded Na'aman

I was born in Israel. I served in the Army. Israel is the only home I know. You would think my speaking to students at Hillel would be welcomed. Yet my presentation to students at Washington University’s Hillel in St. Louis last month sparked a storm of controversy.

I had been invited by J Street U and was graciously hosted by Hillel at their beautiful new building. As a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli combat veterans that collects and publishes the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories, I was on campus to discuss the practices and principles of Israel’s military rule.

In the days leading to my visit, many in the Jewish community called for the event’s cancellation, claiming our sole goal was to “bash Israel.” Jacqueline Ulin Levey, executive director of St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, backed the event. She did, however, impose certain restrictions, asking that I not show any photographs or mention any testimonies besides my own. Hillel also flew in an Israel Fellow from Yale University to “balance” my talk by debriefing the students before and after.

Despite the constraints, the talk went well, with a long question and answer session. After the event, Lawrence Wittels, the chair of the school's Hillel board, congratulated me. 

But in the days following, the assault on Hillel and J Street U escalated. Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, subsequently wrote to members of the Hillel community defending the organization’s decision. “While we join with the majority of the community in deeply resenting the actions of the former IDF soldiers in Breaking the Silence, who come to college campuses in America to disparage the IDF,” Fingerhut wrote, “it is, regrettably, part of the broad tent of dialogue regarding Israel.” By housing the event within Hillel, he argued, the staff could control and mitigate an unfortunate debate.

I applaud Hillel’s work facilitating a broad dialogue within the American Jewish community. But Fingerhut and those whom his letter addressed, seem to be more concerned with their own feelings toward Israel — their “tent” — than with Israel. Mention of the actions of the IDF, the values to which Israel is committed, and concern for the well being of Israel’s residents, whether Israeli or Palestinian, are noticeably absent from Fingerhut’s letter.

I don’t doubt Fingerhut’s genuine concern for Israel. I am sure those who called for the event’s cancellation are also sincerely dedicated to my country.  But their concern does not protect Zionism. Rather, it threatens it. If Zionism is the dream of Jews to overcome a state of mere survival and forge our own destiny, then claiming that the occupation is necessary, that Israel “has no other choice,” is the betrayal of Zionism. Israel’s rule of force over a civilian population threatens our democratic integrity, moral character, and international standing –  in short, it threatens that future.

Israel is a strong and thriving country. We can take responsibility for our actions, hold our institutions and military accountable, acknowledge our mistakes, and correct them. We can forge our own future, but only by ending the occupation. 

Naturally, our claims are met with doubt. But we encourage critical debate based on evidence. We have testimony from over 950 soldiers about their service, many of them on film. Incidents we exposed have been confirmed by the Israeli media and we have been invited to speak at the United States Air Force Academy. Carmi Gillon, former head of the Shin Bet, has praised our work.

The testimonies portray a system of control and expropriation of land that is founded on the use of military force. Arbitrary violence is of the essence of military rule, which cannot rely on democratic legitimacy. As enforcers of Israel’s regime in the Occupied Territories, we know of “mock arrests,” random humiliating punishments; use of civilians as human shields; numerous checkpoints and barriers between and inside Palestinian villages and cities; “mappings;" curfews; beatings; attack dogs; and simple, constant, everyday chaos and panic

Some American Jews may argue that these methods of control are justified; they may defend Israel’s policies, as well as their financial and political support for these policies. But instead of gathering information and forming a position, too many focus on their own feelings, and the boundaries of their own conversation. Instead of an actual dialogue about our reality and future, they are content to have a conversation about the conversation about Israel. Rather than respond to what they hear, they argue over whether they should plug their ears. This may serve some staff and some donors of Hillel International, but it doesn’t serve Israel. It takes some chutzpah to claim that by silencing our voices you are protecting our own country from us.

Oded Na'aman served in the IDF between November 2000 and October 2003. Since 2005 he has been a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli veterans that collects soldiers' testimonies from the West Bank. Oded is currently pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at Harvard University.

breaking the silence, Carmi Gillon, Eric Fingerhut, Hillel, Occupied Territories, Oded Na'aman, Shin Bet

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Oded, Also as an IDF vet who served extensively in the West Bank, I have to disagree with what you are doing. As an Israeli who has served, even longer than you, I understand what you are saying, I understand your trauma. But you know you are wrong, and your aggression comes from a place that does not care for the Arabs living here. You dismiss and ignore the other side completely, the side that utilizes terror against civilians, all over Israel. Lets see if you are man enough to show the real picture, the full picture rather than rant due to a personal trauma that you find difficult to deal with.

William, you write: '...Israel is an apartheid state against the was Germany against them...neither is right...'
That is your OPINION, fine. Everyone has one. But it is not a fact and is not supported with facts. Have a nice day.

It is fact. We see it on television and the internet. You can continue to try and defend the occupation of the West Bank, but those outside of Israel and non-Jewish people that support Israel (at least I used to) don't have to. I stopped defending Israel's policies once I started to pay attention to what was really going on. This is by no means a defense of Palestinian terrorism, but being a veteran of 3 deployments to the desert and seeing what an occupation of a foreign force does to the people of the region changed my world view. And changed my political viewpoints and leanings also.

What "OCCUPATION"???? Exactly how many Jews are living in the West Bank and are occupying lands that belong to Arabs?
When the Arabs living in the West Bank start to act like a mature people, and accept Israel's right to exist and stop terroristic activities, and become peaceful neighbors, Israel will get the heck out fast, just like it tried to do in Gaza. And look where that has gotten them. This so called 'occupation' is nothing more than Israel's attempt to keep itself safe. Label it what it is: self preservation.

Why are all these negative responses signed "anonymous" ...truth is welcome (or should be) in heaven...Israel is an apartheid state against the was Germany against them...neither is right...

Williams, please read about the history of Israel and the Palestinians. You will eventually come to understand that Israel is no more an apartheid state against the Palestinians than the Vatican is an apartheid state against the Italians.

It seems there a several posters to this site, and the author of this article, who are committed to disparaging Israel for an assortment of alleged transgressions. That is very sad to me. Jews have been targets of unjust attacks for thousands of years. Articles like this one criticizing Israel, and some of the commentary, are nothing new and not very interesting. A small minority of Jews have been attacking other Jews throughout history. It is wrong and sad, but true. These people refuse to accept basic facts. 1) Jews have a right to live in their national homeland. It is called Israel. 2) Jews have a right to defend themselves in their land. 3) Israel is and has always been a democratic nation. 4) Arabs who wanted to live in peace with Jews in Israel have always been able to do so. 5) Arabs who continue to fight against the Jewish state are a problem, obviously. I believe Israel is handling the large-scale Arab opposition to the Jewish state very well. I don't believe any other nation in the world would handle it as well as has the Jewish state. The United States, for example, has never had a large segment of the population comparable to the Arabs, violently and hatefully try to destroy it.
The critics of Israel on this site are not serious because if given the choice between going to live in Israel and living in any other Moslem country, they would choose living in Israel - if they were sound of mind. Deep down, they know Israel is a great country and many other nations - not so much.

Israel has the right to exist, but its statehood is a relatively recent fabrication, hewn out of sand and the blood of Arabs, Jews and Brits.

thats not anti-semeiic...its just what happened. nothing lasts...nothing. israel and all the middle east will fade from the earth someday. so will islam disappear. so will judaism. so will human beings.

in the meantime, be honest about ones history.

I'd like to thank the commentators for their questions and criticisms (as well as defenses.)
Let me clarify a few things.
First, Breaking the Silence does not ask that you accept our view that the occupation should end simply because we're Israeli soldiers; we ask that you consider our view of what the occupation *is* because we're Israeli soldiers. Based on the description of our own actions, you may make up your own mind about whether the occupation is justified or not. 950 soldiers are telling you what they have done in Israel's name -- you can ignore us, but you can't ignore us AND claim you give a damn about Israel.
Second, soldiers' testimonies do not only depict isolated instances, they depict systematic features of military rule as well as the logic that underlies it. For instance, when intimidation of civilian population is the fundamental means of control, arbitrary violence ensues and the distinction between guilty and innocent is obliterated. You can see this in almost each and every testimony (see the links in the penultimate paragraph of my piece.) Breaking the Silence is not interested in a string of anecdotes, we are offering an account of how the occupation works.
Finally, as I said, I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to speak at Hillel, I only wish that members of the Jewish community focused on what I had to say rather than on the fact that I got a chance to say it.
Thanks again for your responses,

Oded, your insights and opinions are not shared by the vast majority of your fellow IDF veterans, or with the Israeli populace at large. Maybe 10% of Israeli Jews agree with your stances. Its like when an American news program invites a Palestinian and Israeli journalist onto a program, and the Israeli Journalist writes for Haaretz. It is not explained to the viewer that yes, this is an Israeli Journalist, but no, his opinions do not represent mainstream Israeli opinion.

While I respect opinions other than Oded's I have to disagree with the writer who said that only 10% of Israelis agree with him. I don't live in Israel but visit there often and have many friends and family there. I don't know in percentage, and it's clear to me that religious and other right-wing believers disagree, I think that there are plenty of Israelis like myself that love Israel but don't agree with its policies in the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians. If you don't want to be called names, don't do it yourself. Smaolanim are not any more traders than you are. They love Israel but the love the pure Israel, which understands the value of every human being and the right of all people for self determination.

Can you truly speak for the "vast majority" of veterans? How you taken an opinion poll?

I'm not sure what his problem is with the talk. He got to talk. His claim "Rather than respond to what they hear, they argue over whether they should plug their ears." Isn't so. He spoke. Is his problem that they invited the other side to respond? Who is stifling dialogue? I dare say that, as an Israeli, in my experience, this seems to often be a tactic of the left in Israeli politics.

He served for 3 years and is now at Harvard. Doesn't really make him an expert on anything. What happened in the intervening period? Was he in the U.S.? Did he serve in reserves or is his very authoritative understanding of 1. the security situation, 2. Zionism, and 3. what is going on in the West Bank based on basic service from over a decade ago? His organization represents a fringe of left wing political groups. (950 former soldiers do not represent Israel or the entire defense establishment. )

I praise Hillel for both sponsoring his talk and bringing in a representative of the mainstream Israeli position. He should be happy he got to say his piece and not begrudge others for saying theirs.

His point was that the official response of HIllel totally misses his point. He would ike American Jews to pay more attention to the reality on the ground rather than to their feelings about Israel. The larger idea is that if more people understood what is actually going on in the territories, the injustices would end.

Na'aman writes, 'It takes some chutzpah to claim that by silencing our voices you are protecting our own country from us.' Actually, Hillel leadership gave him the forum you asked for. He was NOT silenced.
Mr. Na'aman seems oblivious to the fact that many Arabs living in Israel, and outside, would quickly use violence against Jews if they could. That's why there are two armed soldiers on every street corner in Jerusalem. That's not military coercion of the Palestinians. That is reminding them to obey the laws, like everyone has to do in every civilized country. Naivete of how the world works is not a policy and does not make anyone a good person.

As a student who has grown up with a rich and wonderful education on ISrael and Judaism, you're comment is dumbfounding. It completely ignores that in the WEST BANK, not just Jerusalem, there are are military personel who are not there to "enforce laws", they are there to enforce occupation. Shooting at civilians who are protesting peacefully is not an act of "maintaing law". Neither is the IDF protection of settlers an act of law enforcement. I urge you to watch 5 Broken Cameras, read books from the other side, and at least attempt to gain an understanding of the Palestinian narrative. To deny somebody's suffering with such ignorance is a main cause of injustice.

There are not in fact "two armed soldiers on every street corner in Jerusalem." So, to quote a wise person, "naivete of how the world works is not a policy."

Thank you for setting the record straight - there are not in fact two armed soldiers on every corner in Jerusalem or any other city in Israel. And as for some of the other remarks, rather than try and refute every remark Oded tries to make and and discredit what he has to say, why not listen to him and engage him in a dialogue? In fact a good deal of the Israeli public, whether they publicly identify with the 'left' or not (and which is a meaningless label used by some people to cloud uncomfortable facts), have indeed served in the territories, know the truth about what goes on there and know that what happened there 10 years ago, is still going on - and has been going on for more than 10 years. The reasons for our stalemate are complicated, but at least honor our soldiers with respect enough to listen to what they have to say. All four of my own children served in the IDF and while we aren't paid up members of Break the Silence, we wholely support their efforts to engage the public in a discourse that is long overdue.

Discourse is good, if it's accurate. No doubt your convictions are sincere, but I wonder how much history you know about this conflict. Simple way to summarize it all: no doubt the Palestinians suffer because they are a people that only want to kill Jews and Israelis. When the Palestinians put down their arms, they will quickly find that they do not suffer, and instead are greeted as neighbors.

This topic needs to be debated on its merits. Parading an IDF veteran, as if to say "I was born in Israel, and served in the Army, so I have more rights than others with similar opinions", is disingenuous.

He is not saying this. He simply states the fact that he was born in Israel and served in the army. Those are facts. What you interpreted, is your own.

I think the point of saying that is to avoid unnecessary criticism, and allow the audience to understand that he comes from the same place but has DIFFERENT opinions in regards to the reactionary rightist groups and people.

I'm glad he spoke and find it disturbing that criticism of the occupation has to be sandwiched in between apologists and supporters of said occupation. I have never heard the opposite happen.

chaos and panic