The instructor was demonstrating on her own body so that we could understand. I remember the sudden clarity that came over me: I was going to teach shooting so that combat soldiers could kill people. Before, it felt like we had an faceless enemy. Seeing my instructor use her own body and muscles to show us the effects forced me to recognize that our targets are living, breathing humans. I raised my hand.
“This last bullet is outlawed by international law, so why are we learning about it?” I was trying to clarify if we need to know it because it may be used against our soldiers or because the soldiers we are instructing may one day use it. I never got an answer to that question. I did get stares from the officer and fellow soldiers, ones that implied “Why would you ever ask that?”
To all my friends, especially those who have defended Israel over the past few years without questioning some of its policy, I want to make something clear. The people they are talking about is me. I have worked at one of these organizations, and yes, I am working hard to defend the rights of Palestinians. I trained and worked as a shooting instructor for two years in the IDF, and I did so proudly. Yet I have questioned acts of the government and military from both my time in the army and since ending my service. According to Im Tirzu, my efforts to critique the government’s policy in order to make a more just society has made me a ‘foreign agent’. It is my voice they want to stifle.
There are many thousands of voices they want to silence.
Im Tirzu wants to make it so that credible organizations who promote human rights and transparency within Israeli politics and military will be outlawed. Needless to say, this move is not democratic.
The fact that Im Tirzu is calling for them to be outlawed is not in and of itself surprising, but the reaction of leading politicians is certainly worrisome. Instead of condemning the incitement, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon banned Breaking the Silence from Israel Defense Forces activities. Education Minister Naftali Bennet then followed suit by banning the group from Israeli schools. The bill that Im Tirzu encourages their followers to support is not hypothetical. It has been close to passing before, and still could become law.
That look I received in class over seven years ago has become a strong voice saying “serve your country, but don’t question what we may make you do.”
The soldiers of Breaking the Silence are average Israelis who joined the army after high school and went on to serve as combat soldiers. For many of them, the light-bulb moment I had, in which I realized that we kill and are killed, is one they experienced first-hand while serving in the Palestinian territories. Their own testimonies have a clear theme, that there is little or no room while in the army to question tactics, protocols, or unacceptable behavior. These soldiers are required to carry out military commands, and it is they who often have to deal with the backlash. Only after the act is done can they add another testimony to the already long list in hopes that it will cause the army to change its ways.
Unfortunately, politicians have made it clear that they don’t want to listen.
We send our soldiers into the territories, but we aren’t willing to hear what they say after they get back. These combat soldiers fight for us, kill for us, and sometimes die for us. Yet, if their message does not support the prevailing rhetoric, then their experiences are useless. It seems as though Yaalon and Bennet want soldiers to donate the use of their bodies, but would rather keep their mind and their conscience out of the equation.
“We are teaching others to kill. How do we move forward knowing that? What if a soldier I worked with hurts or kills someone innocent?” Expecting empathy, I instead received a shrug and a non-answer.
“We just all have to play our part. It’s up to us to defend the country.” There wasn’t room for “buts” or “what ifs” in this conversation. I learned that it’s better not to question, not to wonder if I am in any way contributing to acts that either hurt innocents or go against international law. I didn’t ask this question again, but I did go on to teach shooting to thousands of soldiers.
Now, as someone working in human rights, society’s response has only grown worse, demonstrating this week that there is no room in public education or in the military itself to give critique or to hold ourselves accountable. If my voice doesn’t express full support of Israeli policy, than there is no place for it in the prevailing discourse in Israeli society.
Those who have given testimonies to Breaking the Silence answered my questions. Yes, there are numerous times when we have hurt innocent people or that we acted against international and even Israeli law. This week though, I was also re-taught what I learned that day in class and later with my friend, that there is no room to ask this question.