Hillel Chapters Break New Ground by Hosting 'Breaking the Silence'

There’s been an important, wonderful development on the Israel/Palestine front that typically has gotten no attention: Hillel societies at American universities have helped sponsor the tour of the Israeli army veterans’ group, Breaking the Silence. I find this association as startling as that other great development of 2006: when the LRB published Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby.

What am I talking about? What is Breaking the Silence?

I met Yehuda Shaul last summer in Hebron. Raised Orthodox in Jerusalem, Shaul was a sergeant in the IDF serving in the Occupied Territories when he woke up one morning a couple of years ago and realized he did not recognize the person in the mirror. Everything he had been told was right and wrong as a boy had gotten blended into nothing. He had done hideous things that would make his parents and friends vomit if they knew about them, and he had curtained off these actions and been numbed to it all. He began talking to other soldiers and formed an organization, Breaking the Silence, to describe what Israeli society was forcing its youth to do for the occupation. He read history and came to the awareness that all military occupations become corrupt in exactly the ways that Israel’s is: humiliating the occupied, depriving them of human rights, let alone civil and democratic freedoms.

Shaul is this week wrapping up a five-week tour of the U.S. notable for the unbelievable photos he shows, taken by IDF soldiers, that document abuses. For instance, pictures taken by Israeli soldiers of other soldiers treating handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainees as mannequins to do monkeyshines with.

The amazing development is that some of Shaul’s college events have been sponsored by Hillel chapters, the on-campus Jewish organization. (This according to Tammy Shapiro, who heads the Union of Progressive Zionists, which also sponsored portions of Shaul’s tour.) At some universities, the Hillel chapter declined to sponsor Shaul; and he was sponsored there by Palestinian groups. But (Shapiro notes,) at the U. of Wisconsin, the Hillel staff and leaders had a special meeting with Shaul, to hear what he had to say. At Columbia, a largely-Jewish group called Pro-Israel Progressives, which is related to the College Democrats, sponsored Shaul.

I find this amazing because it shows the discourse really is changing. And who is changing it? Youth. Shaul hasn’t met with any congressmen; Lantos and Pelosi already know what to think of the occupation—no problem—so they won’t meet with him. But these American campus organizations are tired of their role as cheerleaders for Israel. They understand that there is truth in the progressive understanding that occupation is crushing Israel’s soul. Can American Jewish youth break the logjam on the Israel lobby? Well they can help.

Israeli progressives will lead us, as they feel greater freedom to discuss these matters. Here I would point to the comments of two other members of Breaking the Silence who visited the U.S. a year ago. “My commanding officer told me that public opinion in the U.S. is the most powerful weapon that Israel has,” said Noam Chayut. “Public opinion here enables us to do many things that in my opinion are bringing us to our social destruction.” To which his friend Avichai Sharon chimed in: “It’s about time you know what you are enabling.”

Their insight recalls a statement by the black South African poet Dennis Brutus. When he was in prison under apartheid, a jailer said to him, “The African National Congress will never win, you know why—because the U.S. is on our side.” (Thanks to James North, author of Freedom Rising, for that.) The Israelis have placed a similar wager on our endless support for their injustices. They have been enabled so far by a stiffnecked, fearful and obedient Jewish leadership here. What a beautiful thing if it is idealistic Jewish youth that at last brings down this moral house of cards.