07 March 2008

07 March 2005 - Breaking the Silence?

One of the classic propaganda techniques is to show an image with an unrelated or distorting caption. (It’s an image like that in the New York Times that provoked HonestReporting.com to get started.) A traveling exhibition by the dissident soldiers of Breaking the Silence, which is at Harvard this week, relies on that propaganda technique to demonize the Israel Defense Force and the State of Israel as a whole.

The images themselves are really rather lame. You don’t see soldiers performing acts of brutality. Most of the snapshots are of racist graffiti. The most graphic images are of soldiers posing by the corpse of a dead Palestinian guerilla fighter in a Gaza hothouse. The captions identify the dead Palestinian as a “militant”—that familiar euphemism from the media dictionary of moral (or immoral) equivalence.

You see a few petty crimes—soldiers watching a football match inside a Palestinian living room they have commandeered, sending the family outside. But that’s as bad as it gets. The captions, filled with profanity, are used to make the images seem worse than they actually are. One image shows pedestrians walking along a street peacefully; the caption tells of a group of soldiers breaking up a funeral procession.

There is almost no mention in the entire exhibition of suicide bombing. There is a poster on the “historical background” which parrots the Palestinian narrative of the intifada—that it was Sharon’s fault. The organizers don’t want you to walk through on your own, lest you draw your own conclusions. So they supply a “tour guide,” a former IDF soldier who make sure you understand how awful the occupation is.

I asked our “tour guide” why the exhibition felt it necessary to supply captions that didn’t actually explain the images. He said it was necessary to provide “context.” OK, I said—then where is the context? Where’s an accurate timeline of historical events? Many of the images are from Hebron—where’s the information about the suicide bombing in the Hebron market? Well, you can’t include everything, he said.

An interesting exchange took place when our guide insisted that the occupation turned every soldier into a war criminal. OK, we responded, maybe you did some terrible things, but not every soldier did. He immediately became defensive. It wasn’t his fault he had mistreated Palestinians, he said. It was the occupation. The army turns you into a monster. You would have done the same, he said.

So this fellow believes in his country’s collective guilt, but not his own individual culpability. It’s a form of selling out, really, a sort of inverted show trial where these guys “confess” to everyone else’s sins. I found the whole thing ridiculous—most of all the fact that they felt it necessary to accompany visitors to the exhibition with a minder who made sure they didn’t have any undesirable thoughts.

If there is anything to praise about the whole affair, it is not the open-mindedness of the Harvard Hillel, which hosted the exhibit. (They had to, you see, otherwise they would have been part of “the Silence.”) No—it is the self-sacrifice of Hillel’s Orthodox congregation, which sacrificed its own prayer space so that the exhibition could be held in the Jewish community and not in one of the government buildings.


At 8:07 PM, Anonymous An Israeli said...


I was there when the exhibition opened, so I think that I can safely say that I had a completely different experience.

First, I don't understand what you mean by "dissident" IDF soldiers. Most (if not all) of the soldiers in breaking the silence have been honorably discharged after three years of service. I have no reason to believe that they are not fulfilling their reserve duty as well. If by dissident you mean they oppose the occupation, well then I suppose over 50% of Israelis who want to see an end to the occupation are dissidents too -Quite a strange conclusion.

Second, I didn't find the pictures or the narratives particulary suggestive. The pictures, as you write, are mostly benign. Since many more troubling pictures could have been displayed, I fail to see how they were even close to being the kind of propoganda you alluded to. As for the captions, well, they were written by the organizers and conveyed their personal experience. Why this is wrong I don't understand.

Third, the use of "tour guides" you referred to. True, two of the soldiers offered their explanations to the pictures. Again, I fail to see why this is wrong. First of all, many people chose to see the pictures on their own. Second, although there was a "subjective" element to the pictures, that is understandable, no? After all, the former soldiers are recounting THEIR experience as soldiers in the territories. You may want to quibble with them that other soldiers behave differently, which is true, but they are still talking about their experiences.

Fourth, your reference to the crimes the pictures depicted as "petty crimes" simply reveals your biased position. There is nothing "petty" in a group of soldiers commandeering civilian property for no reason other than watching a football match. This is the reality of the occupation, and say that this is petty is a complete misunderstanding of the reality the occupation has created.

Fifth, about the soldiers' personal responsiblity and your attempt to show that it is "their" fault for behaving the way that they did. I agree that there's an element of personal responsibility these soldiers must admit to. But I would not be so quick to dismiss the notion that the reality of the occupation and their role in it does not play a part. Becoming a soldier is a difficult process. Many times you cannot afford to act in an absolute moral way, and many times you cannot do so because you are a lowly soldier and have to obey commands. Disobeying is often not a real option. The reality of the occupation is thus intoduced to 18 year old kids who have little power to resist existing hierarchies of power. To expect them to do otherwise is to understand very little about military life.

I find your observation to be even more condescending, given that (to the best of my knowledge) you have not served a day in the military, let alone served in the territories. Passing judgment on these soldiers, who have risked their lives for their country, from the comfort of the Cambridge Hillel, is morally disturbing.

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joel -
I visited the exhibition on opening night. The introductory remarks emphasized that the objective of the exhibit was to share soldiers' personal stories. This is why there was no timeline, nor a full description of the occupation of the West Bank. The speakers openly accounted for the possibility that one could still conclude that the occupation was justified after viewing the exhibition. However, any justification of the occupation should consider the occupation's impact on both the everyday lives of Palestinians and on the Israeli soldiers who participate. Perhaps this does not trump other aspects, such as the suicide bombings that you mention, but any argument that ignores the full effect of the occupation is a weak one.

It naturally follows, then, that the focus on the personal experiences of soldiers involved in the occupation should include tour guides, whose presence you criticize. Having a tour guide who was one such soldier is ideal: not only do you learn another, deeper personal story, but you have someone with whom you can have a dialogue - an opportunity that I see you took advantage of.
An exhibition focusing on personal experiences should also include photos and quotations. When you argue that the captions and the photos were mismatched, you assume your conclusion - you have already determined that nothing malicious could be underlying those photos.

Finally, I found your comment that not every soldier abused his or her position to be beside the point. To consider an extreme example, I am sure that we would both agree that 80% of soldiers committing atrocities would be unacceptable, given Israel's commitments to human rights. But even then, it would be true that not every soldier had done terrible things.

At 5:44 AM, Blogger Joel said...

"an Israeli" says:

"Passing judgment on these soldiers, who have risked their lives for their country, from the comfort of the Cambridge Hillel, is morally disturbing."

Well, then, why have an exhibition in the first place? The whole point is to get people to pass judgment, is it not? That's exactly the problem with the whole endeavor.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Joel said...

I would also add this:

Every time I write about Breaking the Silence, I get a bunch of hand-wringing responses from people who are obviously B.t.S. activists or sympathizers. The people behind this exhibition are as defensive about their aims and actions as any reflexive defender of Israel--perhaps more so.

Our "tour guide" asked us what we thought of what he did in the territories. We were interrupted before I could answer, but I wanted to say: "You served your country honorable. And now you are betraying it dishonorably."

I just received an e-mail from the campus pro-Palestinian group--the same group that invites Finkelstein, Chomsky and the like--advertising B.t.S. at Hillel. It's clear that B.t.S. is providing cheap fodder for Israel-haters. If they would break their own silence about terror, perhaps the exhibition might be worth something. Unfortunately there is no room for such complexities in the world of the יפי נפש, those "beautiful souls" who take their exquisite moral posturing so seriously.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger conefor4200 said...

The Breaking of the Silence Israeli soldiers are a good start, but needs some fine tuning.

With their morality, they should assist the Palestinians to build a civil Palestinian society.

They must demand to end the armed Palestinian resistance, which is incorrect if carried out by local forces, but worse if they are proxis for outside allies.

The Palestinian people have been mislead by false revolutionaries, Arafat types, and sacrificed mindlessly.

Just like in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, the oppressed ordinary people must be helped to live in a civil and safe society.

The ridiculous leaders of the Palestinians and Iranians plot mafia style against all efforts for a civil society, and ordinary people suffer.

Iran's suffering is well documented www.abfiran.org

At 11:55 PM, Anonymous An Israeli said...


I made six arguments, out of which you responded to the last, and even there you didn't really address the argument.

To your point I would say that, yes, the exhibition was meant for us to pass judgment. But passing judgment is first of all understanding the complex situation in which these soldiers find themselves in. When I wrote "pass judgment" I meant "informed judgment". The way you wrote the post suggests that you fail to grasp that reality, or even acknowledge its existence.

Sure, we can pass judgment on these soldiers. And I personally think that we must. But there's more to the story than that. These soldiers are ultimately just pawns in a machinery much larger than them, and failing to recognize that makes your argument a weak one.

I didn't understand your point about the soldiers betraying their country. What exactly is their betrayal here? Them exercising their free speech rights? Them speaking out about their personal experience? Them being criticial of their government and opposed to the occupation? Please explain.

Last, it'd be great if you responded to the substantive arguments instead of attacking the person who's making them, like by calling him a "yafe nefesh". Just to set the record straight: I am not a BTS activist or a sympathizer. In fact, this was the first time I went to one of their events, and I only briefly read about them before.

You say that BTS persons are "yafe nefesh", and don't have room for moral complexities (since you think I'm the same as them, I'll assume you think I'm a "yafe nefesh" too). However, it seems that the opposite is true. My comments are about trying to make you realize that the situation IS complex. You are the one who keeps trying to paint a picture with two colors.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Mike said...

I find the name of this group the most disturbing aspect of their campaign. How self-important are they that they believe they are single handedly breaking the silence. Abuses by Israeli soldiers in the territories are common knowledge around the world. Numerous human rights groups document them on a daily basis. If you read Gideon Levi or Amira Haas in Haaretz, then none of this should be new to you. What they doing is not special or brave.

I attended a presentation by this group in Johannesburg last year. What surprised me was how cagy they are about their objectives. In South Africa when people like Helen Suzman exposed Apartheid brutality (not that I am comparing the 2 situations), she was very honest that her objective was to get those absurd laws repealed. But these people will not admit what their objective is? I wish they would just be honest and say they oppose the occupation. I mean as your speaker explained 50% of Israelis feel the same way.

I think that if they had to be honest about their motives then they would have to admit that Palestinian rejectionism also has some responsibility for the horrible mess that exists in the that part of the Middle East.


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