Breaking the Silence

J Street U Rejected for Standing Behind IDF Soldiers

Criticism of Israel is not the same as demonization. To conflate the two is to pose a threat both to Israel and the Palestinians, writes Breaking the Silence's Oded Na'aman.

UCBerkeley’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) voted Wednesday to denymembership to J Street U. Apparently, the main reason is J StreetU’s relationship with Breaking the Silence, an organization ofwhich I am a member.

Breakingthe Silence is a group of Israeli combat veterans that collects,publishes, and analyzes soldiers’ testimonies in order to bring tolight the policies and principles of Israel’s military rule andexpose its grave moral consequences. Since 2004, over 1,000 soldiers have told us what they saw, did, and experienced during their service.More are being interviewed right now. We believe that thesetestimonies reveal information critical to understanding the risksIsrael is facing, the mistakes it is making, and the grave wrongs itis committing.

JSU President Daphna Torbati explained the decision to deny membership to J Street U by pointing to the bylaws of the Jewish Student Union, which stipulate that a member organization must not host speakers who demonize Israel. Torbati added that “a lot of people have said that they want the [JSU] to stay a place they feel comfortable saying they love Israel.” Finally, Torbati expressed her concern that the work of Breaking the Silence unfairly disparages Israeli soldiers.

First,if our testimonies are disparaging, it is not because they are beingvoiced but because of the reality to which they give voice. Silencingus does not change the truth of military occupation. We thereforerespectfully decline the emotional protection offered to us by theJewish Student Union and choose to speak our minds.

Second,the JSU’s professed disinterest in what 1,000 Israeli soldiers haveto say makes proclamations of love for Israel seem perplexing. Likeblind castigation, blind acclamation is done for its own sake and haslittle to do with the object of praise. Members of the JSU apparentlydo not want to know what happensin Israel; rather, they are concerned with what is saidabout Israel. The realIsrael, the one that is our home, seems to be none of their concern.We do not ask for the love of the JSU. We do not need theirprotection or concern. But we cannot remain speechless as they, whileshowing vague interest in our country, still claim to protect ourcountry from us and for our sake.

Third, the suggestion that we at Breaking the Silence “demonize” Israel conflates criticisms of Israel’s military rule with criticisms of Israel’s existence. This confusion is widespread these days. It is one of the greatest threats both to Israel and to the Palestinians, for it supports the Israeli occupation by entwining it with Israel’s continued existence, while eroding Israel’s legitimacy by tying it to an illegitimate occupation. The end of Israeli occupation is not only compatible with Israel’s continued existence; it is necessary for Israel’s existence.

Thosewho acquiesce to Israel’s occupation have given up the hope of adecent Jewish state in which the rule of law prevails. For us, thisis not an option. By silencing criticisms of Israel’s occupation,the “lovers” of Israel are destroying our country.

Finally,a blanket rejection of criticism of Israel denies Israel’sresponsibility for its choices and actions. This action effectivelydeclares that Jewish victimhood persists unabated, and that theZionist project is, therefore, a failure. Immunity to criticism isthe consolation prize of victims, but Israel is a powerful countrythat makes free choices, manages risks, and makes mistakes from whichit has the opportunity to learn. In criticizing Israel and holding itto its own values, we, the soldiers who broke the silence, are themanifestation of the Zionist dream. Thus, in its recent decision, theJewish Student Union expressed anti-Zionistsentiments.

Sinceits inception, J Street U has taken intense interest in facts aboutthe realIsrael. We welcome this interest and do our best to provide theinformation at our disposal. The JSU is free to revoke its professedconcern for Israel and deny membership to groups that take interestin it. Until that happens, we here at Breaking the Silence demandthat J Street U atBerkeley be made a member of the Jewish Student Union.