Discussing the reality of Israel's military occupation has long been —and still is—a taboo among the Jewish American population. But Avner Gvaryahu, Jewish diaspora coordinator for Breaking the Silence, says this is slowly changing.
“I've been touring the U.S. since 2006, and I can see the attitudes towards us have changed,” notes Gvaryahu. In a sign of the changing times, the NGO was invited to speak this year at the Harvard Hillel, which formerly rejected them. “It’s a difficult conversation to have, but there’s an eagerness among the younger Jewish generations to talk about what's really happening on the ground,” said Gvaryahu.
Established by veteran IDF combatants in 2004, Breaking the Silence collects and publishes testimonies from soldiers who have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. More than 700 testimonies have been gathered so far; over a hundred of them collated into a book, Our Harsh Logic, published in English in 2012.
Over the past month, as part of the organization's nationwide book tour, Gvaryahu has been speaking in universities, synagogues, Hillel chapters and rabbinical schools across the country. Recently in New York, he described to a full classroom of NYU students how he behaved as a soldier, saying that incidents of abuse, intimidation and harassment were not the exception but the norm.
"I knew about soldiers in my unit who did these things, but I told myself they are just a few bad apples," he told the students. Only after hearing testimonies from other soldiers, "I realized the same things were happening throughout the system… It wasn't a few apples, the whole basket was rotten."
Raised in a religious-Zionist family in Rehovot, Gvaryahu joined the IDF as a paratrooper in 2004 and served as a sniper team sergeant in a special operations unit, mostly around the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin. His first face to face encounter with a Palestinian, he told the students, occurred when his unit invaded a family’s home as part of a “Straw Widow” – a procedure in which soldiers take over a strategically-located private residence for military purposes.
“We stormed the house in the middle of the night, arrested the head of the family, locked the rest of the family in another room.” This was a routine procedure, he explained, one that he would repeat many times during his service. This particular one stuck in his memory, though, because after six hours in the house a Red Cross representative came knocking on the door. Gvaryahu’s commander ordered him to release the family and leave immediately. Later, questioning his sergeant, he discovered that the operation’s entire purpose was to give the unit some practice: a so-called “Fake Straw Widow.”
When you have almost unchecked power over an entire population, Gvaryahu suggested, it’s a slippery slope to corruption. “If you're ordered to take over people’s houses, sometimes five-to-six houses in a row—won’t you eventually sit on the sofa, instead of on the floor?” he asked. “And if you're already sitting on the sofa, won’t you put your feet up on the table? If you're already doing all that, what’s the big deal about turning on the TV, or taking a shower?”
When Gvaryahu noted that Straw Widow operations were often timed to coincide with big soccer games, so soldiers could watch the match on the Palestinians’ TV sets, one Hillel representative let out an outraged hiss. “This I just can’t believe,” she whispered.
Denial and disbelief are common reactions, Gvaryahu commented later. He recounted a 2012 event at Harvard in which a Jewish audience member stood up and declared he simply cannot accept the soldiers’ testimonies as truth, since he had never heard of such things in the mainstream media.
“And he’s right,” Gvaryahu points out. “Where could he have heard about this? Any time something like this is said by Palestinians, it’s shut up. Any time it’s said by non-Jews, it’s shut up. But we are Israeli soldiers, who were proud of our country and went to military service in order to protect our families and our communities, and these are the things we did. This is the truth, and the first thing you have to do is deal with it. It’s difficult to deal with difficult realities.”
Still, Gvaryahu maintains that most audiences “don’t try to push us away. On the contrary: the most common question I get is ‘What can we do about this?’”