[Workshop reflection] Breaking the Silence: From the Outside Looking In

By Joyce Farley and Jacob Horton

It is rare to witness dissenting voices from within an active military.  The public in the United States is encouraged to honor our soldiers but seldom to question them.  It is equally as rare to hear American soldiers publicly questioning their military superiors regarding an ongoing operation.  In the October 7th Oral History Workshop at Butler Library Avner Gvaryahu, a member of Breaking the Silence (BTS), presented a book of collected oral histories from soldiers doing just that; questioning the ongoing military strategy of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as it continues to occupy the contested zones that tie Israel and Palestine together.

Gvaryahu is a former Israeli combat soldier and special operations paratrooper of three years.  In fact all of the BTS members, male and female, are military veterans who have committed to expressing their combat experiences in order to affect change in the greater Israeli system.  Breaking the Silence began in July 2004 as a photo exhibit built around the schism the soldiers felt between the idealism of their mission and the reality of what they did.  The project continued to grow, expanding into recorded accounts from the soldiers, online videos and publications.  After collecting more than 900 testimonies of soldiers, officers and even sergeants, BTS has published a book entitled Our Harsh Logic.  Gvaryahu is touring North America in support of the book throughout November.

In Our Harsh Logic BTS outlines patterns that they have come to recognize over the course of their decade long oral history project.  The stories in the book describe a ground-level occupation that is very different from the official mission.  BTS claims that after such a quantity of soldier accounts they are no longer seeing aberrant or even normative soldier behavior, but are describing IDF policy on a large scale.  

The IDF’s self-described mission is to maintain peace through four methods: (1) Prevention is the means to deter terrorism; shoot the suicide bomber before he or she can detonate. (2) Separation is the means of reducing tensions by separating the populations. (3) Maintaining the fabric of life is the means to avoid human rights violations by allowing Palestinians to live an undisturbed life. (4) Finally, daily peace is maintained by Israeli law enforcement.

The editors use the interviews to demonstrate how these four methods do not maintain a neutral coexistence, but in fact represent an ongoing means of occupation, control and even expansion of Israeli territory. Gvaryahu outlines them accordingly: (1) Prevention does more than deter, it allows room for targeted killings, revenge killings and creates a perpetual oppressive gaze. (2) Separation primarily serves to restrict Palestinian mobility and freedom via checkpoints and permits. (3) Because of the constant presence, the fabric of life policy means that Palestinians are not free to live their lives unhindered, but become dependent on the IDF for how their lives can safely be led. (4) Finally, the law enforcement is not an equal policy. It is governed by Israeli law, is designed by Israeli citizens with Israeli interests, thus any law is exclusive and one-sided instead of even-handed and fair.

“The problem is not in the soldiers, but the system,” says Gvaryahu.

Many that attended the lecture were struck by the bravery that it took Gvaryahu and his fellows at Breaking the Silence took to continue this project. While the audience was largely respectful during his presentation, the question and answer session began to mirror the combat zone he left years ago and escalated into camps of intense opposition. But, Gvaryahu’s relaxed attitude coupled with the neutral space of the Columbia University environment kept the exchanges from escalating into full-scale verbal war. Audience members lingered for over an hour after the event concluded, debating and discussing this difficult topic.

This is the type of emotion and power that oral history can evoke. It takes one from their comfort zone and places them in fatigues. Some truths are hidden from the media and outside of the history books. These are the truths that drive people within their individual lives to seek out the hidden stories and agendas. These are the truths that shape one person's understanding of the world that they live in—the "real" world.  These truths can drive us to do terrible things, but can also compel us to do amazing things. It is those truths, the secret ones, the personal ones that we can uncover using the oral history method, which is go to with an open mind, ask all of the questions and leave nothing to presumption. The world of the individual is always uncharted until someone begins to ask questions. BTS and other presenters in the Oral History Master of Arts Workshop series are already busy mapping those seas. It is a call for us to remember the power and potential of our field. Seek! Ask! Know! Inform!

Our thanks to Breaking The Silence for continuing in their work and for sharing it with us.