By Barbara Green
Special to WJW
Four young American Jews who volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces to protect Israel recently talked about their experiences to a Washington audience at Temple Sinai. I was one of those who heard these former soldiers, all of whom had served in the occupied territories, or West Bank. They gave eloquent testimony to how emotionally costly it is to maintain control over millions of people and how this control is unavoidably violent and inevitably painful, leaving lasting emotional scars.
Of the four, three had served as lone soldiers, meaning their families did not live in Israel, and they were on their own. After finishing their service, each came to realize that what they had been asked to do as soldiers was not only immoral, but in fact harmful to Israel and its security. Breaking the Silence, of which they are all members, brought them to Washington to tell their stories.
What they told the audience was difficult for us to hear: They argued that much of what they were doing was not protecting Israeli security. That their mission in the territories was to “make their presence felt,” as more than one put it, so that the Palestinian population would continue to “keep their heads down.” They viewed every Palestinian as “a potential threat.”
In this context, it is unsurprising that Benzi Sanders, who grew up in New York City and voluntarily enlisted in the IDF, faced a scenario in April in which he said he watched his commanding officer grab and throw on the floor a 15-year-old Palestinian boy “who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt” and had been identified as “suspicious.”
“He was sent by his dad to buy cigarettes apparently,” Sanders told us. “These are day-to-day things that we are sent to do by our government in order to protect Israelis that are living within a population that is considered to be hostile.”
I am a supporter of Breaking the Silence, and a member of the New Israel Fund’s International Council, which has supported Breaking the Silence for many years. In my mind, the young people like Sanders who testified at Temple Sinai are heroes, and I hope fervently their message cuts through the silence.
But not everyone feels this way. Many ask why former soldiers need to air the Israeli army’s “dirty laundry” before an American Jewish audience which probably knows nothing of it. Better that these community members be in the dark than possibly sully Israel’s name in public, they would say.
This argument falls flat for me. First, because after Sanders told that story, he said that he broke his silence for the same reason that he joined the IDF: “Because I love my country and I love my people. And the best thing we can do for it is to end the occupation,” he said. These kids are patriots. They are trying to make Israel a better place. And we should listen to them.
Second, we must realize that Israel and American Jews are bound up in a shared future — “intrinsically connected” as Becca Strober, originally from Philadelphia and one of the former soldiers, said.
They are right. American Jews are asked to support efforts to shield Israel from criticism at the United Nations, to support military aid to Israel and oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and to send our best and brightest on Birthright trips, J Street’s Let My People Know trips or the New Israel Funds global activism or social justice fellowships — or to make aliyah.
Because we’re so intertwined, we’re also responsible — for the occupation, for the debasement of the IDF’s mission and especially for these young people.
They have broken their silence, and so should we. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Silence becomes cowardice when the occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” We in the American Jewish community become bystanders, even accomplices, to the violence of Israeli policy in the West Bank. We cannot be silent.
Barbara Green is a member of Temple Micah, which cosponsored the Breaking the Silence program with The New Israel Fund, Temple Sinai, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Temple Rodef Shalom and Tifereth Israel Congregation.