New Israeli Heroes for Americans
By Susan Hoechstetter
I recently made a trip to Israel, hoping to shed some light on Israelis who, in these difficult times, are working both for peace and to achieve fair treatment and rights for Palestinians. The trip was motivated by my concern about the increasing number of American Jews, particularly on the left, who seem to be abandoning Israel out of justifiable concern over Israeli treatment of Palestinians. This disconnection, though, comes at just the time that our voices and support are needed to help influence Israeli policy.
Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is dividing the American left and disaffecting young Americans. My daughter is in college and hears a great deal about Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, but little, if anything, about the Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are working to change Israeli policies. I want her and other young Jews, by learning about this work, to see a way forward through supporting and possibly engaging in it, rather than abandon Israel entirely.
I was able to interview several Israeli NGO leaders working for peace and Palestinian rights, who provided their assessments of the current situation and what is needed to achieve change in Israel, described their organizations’ work, and shared their thoughts on how Americans, especially Jewish Americans, could contribute to their work. The first of those interviews, with Avner Gvaryahu, Executive Director of Breaking the Silence, is below.
Once, Israeli soldiers were almost universally admired by many American Jews. Perhaps these social justice and peace leaders will be our new Israeli heroes and heroines.
I learned from these interviews that:
- Palestinians and Israeli Jews who work together have forged deep, meaningful relationships: I admire how hard some Israeli Jews and Palestinians are working, often face-to-face, to attain peaceful and respectful coexistence. Yes, the numbers of people doing that are relatively small but they are inspired and not choosing the easy way out through accepting the current status quo of occupation and inequality. They are sometimes called traitors to Israel and the Jewish people, and are subject to attacks, but they remain committed to acting on their values and are energized by their incremental successes.
- Individual groups work differently from each other: There are more than a hundred groups working for peace and Palestinian rights in Israel and they take diverse approaches. Many are openly on the left politically while others try to reach a broader population with a more politically centrist approach. Some, like Breaking the Silence, focus on one thing. For them, it’s the occupation. Others cast a wider net. Some target specific population groups. For the most part, they do not work together as a coordinated movement.
- U.S. Jews are critical to Israel’s future: How Jews in America, and how the U.S. government, support and treat Israel matters a great deal. All of the leaders of the groups I spoke with urged American Jews to take actions to help promote peace and equality in Israel.
- Israel’s democracy is in danger: Speaking with these leaders often reminded me of the political and public-opinion struggles progressives face in the United States. While President Trump tries to weaken Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court, while both are constantly attacking nonprofit.
- U.S. donors on the right and left fund Israel differently: Some interviewees suggested that progressive American Jews are not as politically strategic in their funding in Israel as are right-leaning American funders, and that has influenced Israeli policy directions.
- BDS has limited effect and potential danger: BDS (the movement to Boycott, Divest from, and place Sanctions on Israel) is not having much of an impact in Israel. While there’s an understanding of the sentiments behind BDS, there is concern that the language BDS’ers employ can lead to questioning the right of Israel to exist.
“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life. Our work aims to bring an end to the occupation.” https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/
We’re in Breaking the Silence’s office in Ramat Gan, part of metropolitan Tel Aviv, where a few of their staff are sitting on beanbags working at their computers. Avner, who appears to be under 30, gets off a telephone call to greet me warmly.
This interview has been edited for brevity and grammar.
Susan Hoechstetter: Many American Jews, particularly on the left, hear about oppressive Israeli policies towards Palestinians and are under pressure to distance themselves from Israel. Tell us a little bit about yourself, the current atmosphere in Israel, and the work Breaking the Silence is doing to change those Israeli policies.
Avner Gvaryahu: It’s clear that we’re living through an earthquake in terms of American Jewry-Israel relations. It’s Trump; it’s Bibi. Some would call it an attack on liberal values across the world. I’m an Israeli, born and raised; a ninth generation Israeli from my Abba’s (Dad’s) side. My mom grew up in upstate New York. Her mom was Canadian; her parents were immigrants from the Ukraine. My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor who taught at Cornell University and is still doing well at 91.
I see myself as an Israeli patriot. The men and women of Breaking the Silence (BtS) have all served Israel and put their lives on the line for their country. And the work that I and my friends at BtS are doing is rooted in the belief that we have a responsibility to shed a light on this reality we are part of.
We’re in the midst of a catastrophe. The State of Israel has been occupying another people for the majority of its existence, intentionally denying basic rights to millions of people for years.
Since 2009, we’ve seen an increase in this idea that is being told to Israelis and the world – if you want to support Israel, you have to support the occupation. You hear this from cabinet ministers – you’re not allowed to differentiate between Israel and the occupied territories. You’re not allowed to label or boycott Israeli settlements.
The flip side are the growing voices that say if you want to oppose occupation, then you have to question Israel’s right to exist. You’ll hear that on the farther left [in the U.S. and especially in Europe]. The danger is that two ideas are feeding into each other, that the reaction [to Israeli policies] is not only questioning the occupation, but the entire state. What we’re trying to bring forward is the notion that you have to separate.
Israel from the occupation. We have to put a spotlight on what’s happening here, not to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist but, yes, to delegitimize Israel’s right to occupy.
SH: How important is the BDS movement?
AG: So, BDS is not the bogeyman people make it out to be. Our real problem is the occupation. If you don’t want BDS, stop the occupation. That’s the answer. The balloon called BDS will deflate once you stop controlling other people by force.
Israel is not facing any threat of annihilation, but we are facing a direct threat of turning into an apartheid state. We have government officials calling for that. And BDS is a legitimate approach to this political reality in the view of many progressive Americans, who say: “I will choose to not buy a product made in a place that is occupied by military rule and (in some cases) on someone else’s [private] land.” Now do I buy into each and every point in the BDS platform? No. I’m an Israeli. I believe in my right to self-determination and I think there’s too much of an agnostic approach in the BDS movement about Israel’s right to exist. But at the end of the day, the biggest threat to our existence is the occupation. Is there anti-Semitism on the left? For sure. Is some of the criticism of the occupation actually anti-Semitism? Yes, definitely. There’s anti-Semitism on the left like there is anti-Semitism on the right, and I’d say much more on the right, but we have to ask ourselves what is the vision that we’re looking for.
The conflict is two-sided, with both people having their history in this land, and I don’t see a way to end the conflict without having Israelis and Palestinians sit and talk and think about their joint future. Unlike the conflict, the occupation is a one-sided Israeli project. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other players, other responsibility. It’s not belittling Palestinian terrorism, but it’s saying that Israel is choosing to maintain the occupation and it’s in Israel‘s power to end it. Breaking the Silence is not a massive team; we’re about 20 people altogether, putting on about 500 educational events a year. When I think about where we’re putting our energy, it’s here in the Israeli public because we’re the public that decides to maintain the occupation and we have a responsibility to know and the agency to change it.
SH: What do you think American Jews can do to help?
AG: Even though I think Israel has the power to end occupation, I don’t think that that’s something we can do alone. I entered houses as a paratrooper in Nablus and Jenin — operations that are called Straw Widows, basically taking over private Palestinian houses and using them as a military post — it’s similar to actions addressed by the American Third Amendment. As a military force we’re barging into homes, arresting the head of the family, usually handcuffing and blindfolding him for hours – six hours, 12 hours, 24. The people I arrested and the children that peed in their pants out of fear just at the sight of me are not Israelis. They can’t vote. They are Palestinians under military rule.
So the military occupation is not only an internal Israeli issue. And that means there’s also an importance for voices from around the world to speak up. Obviously, there’s involvement of different countries. I walked around for three years with an M-16 that said on it “Colt, property of the USA government.” So, I think that means there’s a responsibility for Americans.
There’s also a responsibility for American Jews. The American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, similar to many others, has built partnerships with the most radical rightwing elements in Israeli society. He was president of American Friends of Beth El Institutions supporting a major settlement. There’s a building bearing his name on private Palestinian land. If you walk around Hebron, you’ll find Friends of Hebron, or the Hebron Fund. You’ll find evangelical organizations that funnel money into settlements. So when I think about how I can effect change, I look around at who is preventing change. That’s mostly the Israeli public and government, but it’s wider than that. If there are Jews on Long Island helping to build settlements through financial donations, then we need their anti-occupation counterparts on Long Island to question that and to find a way to support Israel’s right to exist, but not to occupy.
You [American Jews] and we [Israel] should develop a little bit of chutzpah from our rightwing counterparts. David Friedman says he supports building the occupied territories. He says “this is what I believe in. I’m donating. I’m fundraising. I’m promoting.” We have to think – how do we create a Friends of Susiya? Local American Jewish communities can say “we’re learning about what’s happening in Palestinian Susiya; we’re connected to the community. If there’s a demolition, we’ll make our voices heard. If we understand that it’s in Israel’s interest for Palestinians to stay on their land and for Palestinians to be independent, then that’s a natural next step.” There can be tzedakah boxes in synagogues around the U.S. supporting Palestinian communities. It’s a leap. It’s not easy.
But if we recognize that we’re moving towards annexation, and if people that care deeply about Israel don’t want Israel to be an apartheid state, then that’s a basic step.
SH: Are mainstream American Jewish institutions supporting the occupation? And what should American progressives do about it?
AG: Undoubtedly; it’s been documented. In some cases directly, and in some cases indirectly. Truah did a report about that. Also, Forward did a piece about money going through some Federations to the notorious ‘Canary Mission’ organization. But it’s deeper than “follow the money.” It’s a sentiment. The sentiment is – “We won’t ask what’s being done in our name.” That’s not right. Some groups have been raising their voices for many years. But not nearly enough of the people in the mainstream whose own values are being violated.
SH: It does sound like a leap for American Jews to take some of the actions you suggest.
AG: Everything has to be a leap. You need chutzpah so yes, it’s not easy. Even though the majority of American Jews are progressive and a majority probably support a two-state solution, they are still playing within the boundaries of what the Israeli government and the very conservative Jewish American “mainstream” institutions allow them.
You’re starting to see the shift with the young generation in the United States who don’t subscribe to indefinite Israeli control over millions of people. In that sense you have it much easier than we do. With Trump, you may not always feel that, but I think that the majority of mainstream Jewish Americans understand the idea of the two-state solution. In that sense we’re drifting further apart – American Jewry and Israelis. Part of what we have to do is build bridges and think collectively. There has to be a strategy of continuing to pound home this very, very simple message: “Your support for Israel means opposing the occupation.” Of course they’ll call you traitors and use scare tactics, and they’ll try to delegitimize you, but it doesn’t matter. In the end that voice is winning with young progressives in the U.S., and most young Jews there are progressive.
SH: What about those in the U.S. who say we don’t live there so we can’t decide how Israelis should live their lives?
AG: So how can someone who doesn’t live here but agrees with the settlement movement tell me how to live my life? I mean, the settlement in Hebron has 750 Israeli settlers living there, guarded by 650 soldiers every single moment in the middle of a city of 200,000 Palestinians. That’s supported by tax-deductible organizations like the Hebron Fund. Which means your government and your tax money is helping them.
SH: You have said young people in Israel are not questioning the occupation like young people in the U.S. Is that because of the government-controlled education they receive, or because of security concerns?
AG: It’s probably all of the above. There’s been a decline of ideas on the Israeli Left since the mid ‘90s. You can go back to the Rabin assassination, but even more so after the Second Intifada, so some of it is definitely a reaction to Palestinian violence. But I’d say the core of it is the fact that we as a people have been controlling another people now for 52 years. The majority of Israelis don’t know anything else, and if it’s not broken why fix it?
SH: Is Breaking the Silence succeeding?
AG: Our job is to end the occupation; the occupation is stronger than ever, so in that sense we’re a complete failure. Does that mean I’m pessimistic and don’t believe there’s hope? No, but we’re talking about maybe 15% of Israeli Jews that define themselves as left-leaning. So we’re a minority voice. Many Israelis are liberal on many issues, but when it comes to the occupation, they accept the status quo. No one talks about ending the occupation. Even Labor is scared to be seen as left-leaning. And Meretz is small. And when the political opposition is weak, then the only opposition to the occupation is the civil society organizations. We don’t have a healthy political system here because it’s willing to succumb to anti-democratic norms in order to maintain our rule over the Palestinians. The hard-core right, the settler right, which is even to the right of Likud, has already said openly “we’re going to support Netanyahu despite the corruption allegations against him, because we know he’s the only one that will allow us to maintain the occupation, and maybe even annex [West Bank territory].”
There’s been a systematic attempt to silence civil society organizations, both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza. [Note: Avner pulls up the attacks on BtS and on him personally on his laptop.] This is done by rightwing organizations with close ties to the Israeli government. Take the NGO Monitor, for instance, which monitors leftwing organizations, and works in the international arena to delegitimize them and their foreign donors. Then there’s Im Tirtzu, which is the NGO Monitor without the suit and tie. These groups didn’t have much power until 2009 [when Netanyahu again became Prime Minister]. There have been physical attacks on our members on college campuses, bullying, people getting threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. This has been a fundamental attempt by the Right to cripple civil society, a serious effort to delegitimize voices critical of the occupation.
SH: So why aren’t you pessimistic?
AG: My generation grew up after Rabin’s assassination. I didn’t have the euphoria of “peace is around the corner.” So I didn’t start my activism with a lot of hope. But I think that in this moment there is an opportunity to educate ourselves and to build a community that is against occupation, that is thinking together with Palestinian-Israelis, and that is not afraid to imagine a day that the occupation ends. But it will take us a while to get there and we can do it only with real support for that voice from world Jewry, and especially American Jewry.
SH: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
AG: The testimonies of Breaking the Silence are a very important way to understand what’s happening on the ground. I encourage people to read them on our website. The next time you or your friends are here with your synagogue, your family, make sure to come on a tour with BtS. Sit down and meet Palestinians. Make sure you are knowledgeable about the issue. We are the people of the book. We can’t be afraid of knowledge. The Jewish community has always drawn enrichment from each other. If you read the Talmud and the Gemara – you had people living here in Jerusalem and people living in Iraq, and they argued and talked and disagreed. That’s the Jewish tradition.
SH: Thank you for your time and your heroic work.
Sue Hoechstetter lives in Washington, DC where she writes about advocacy, social justice, Israel, and other topics