I was born in Israel. I served in the Army. Israel is the only home I know. You would think my speaking to students at Hillel would be welcomed. Yet my presentation to students at Washington University’s Hillel in St. Louis last month sparked a storm of controversy.
I had been invited by J Street U and was graciously hosted by Hillel at their beautiful new building. As a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli combat veterans that collects and publishes the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories, I was on campus to discuss the practices and principles of Israel’s military rule.
In the days leading to my visit, many in the Jewish community called for the event’s cancellation, claiming our sole goal was to “bash Israel.” Jacqueline Ulin Levey, executive director of St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, backed the event. She did, however, impose certain restrictions, asking that I not show any photographs or mention any testimonies besides my own. Hillel also flew in an Israel Fellow from Yale University to “balance” my talk by debriefing the students before and after.
Despite the constraints, the talk went well, with a long question and answer session. After the event, Lawrence Wittels, the chair of the school's Hillel board, congratulated me.
But in the days following, the assault on Hillel and J Street U escalated. Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, subsequently wrote to members of the Hillel community defending the organization’s decision. “While we join with the majority of the community in deeply resenting the actions of the former IDF soldiers in Breaking the Silence, who come to college campuses in America to disparage the IDF,” Fingerhut wrote, “it is, regrettably, part of the broad tent of dialogue regarding Israel.” By housing the event within Hillel, he argued, the staff could control and mitigate an unfortunate debate.
I applaud Hillel’s work facilitating a broad dialogue within the American Jewish community. But Fingerhut and those whom his letter addressed, seem to be more concerned with their own feelings toward Israel — their “tent” — than with Israel. Mention of the actions of the IDF, the values to which Israel is committed, and concern for the well being of Israel’s residents, whether Israeli or Palestinian, are noticeably absent from Fingerhut’s letter.
I don’t doubt Fingerhut’s genuine concern for Israel. I am sure those who called for the event’s cancellation are also sincerely dedicated to my country. But their concern does not protect Zionism. Rather, it threatens it. If Zionism is the dream of Jews to overcome a state of mere survival and forge our own destiny, then claiming that the occupation is necessary, that Israel “has no other choice,” is the betrayal of Zionism. Israel’s rule of force over a civilian population threatens our democratic integrity, moral character, and international standing – in short, it threatens that future.
Israel is a strong and thriving country. We can take responsibility for our actions, hold our institutions and military accountable, acknowledge our mistakes, and correct them. We can forge our own future, but only by ending the occupation.
Naturally, our claims are met with doubt. But we encourage critical debate based on evidence. We have testimony from over 950 soldiers about their service, many of them on film. Incidents we exposed have been confirmed by the Israeli media and we have been invited to speak at the United States Air Force Academy. Carmi Gillon, former head of the Shin Bet, has praised our work.
The testimonies portray a system of control and expropriation of land that is founded on the use of military force. Arbitrary violence is of the essence of military rule, which cannot rely on democratic legitimacy. As enforcers of Israel’s regime in the Occupied Territories, we know of “mock arrests,” random humiliating punishments; use of civilians as human shields; numerous checkpoints and barriers between and inside Palestinian villages and cities; “mappings;" curfews; beatings; attack dogs; and simple, constant, everyday chaos and panic.
Some American Jews may argue that these methods of control are justified; they may defend Israel’s policies, as well as their financial and political support for these policies. But instead of gathering information and forming a position, too many focus on their own feelings, and the boundaries of their own conversation. Instead of an actual dialogue about our reality and future, they are content to have a conversation about the conversation about Israel. Rather than respond to what they hear, they argue over whether they should plug their ears. This may serve some staff and some donors of Hillel International, but it doesn’t serve Israel. It takes some chutzpah to claim that by silencing our voices you are protecting our own country from us.
Oded Na'aman served in the IDF between November 2000 and October 2003. Since 2005 he has been a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli veterans that collects soldiers' testimonies from the West Bank. Oded is currently pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at Harvard University.