(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett this week proposed a bill to bar from Israel’s schools an organization that collects controversial anonymous testimonies from soldiers regarding their service in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, AKA the West Bank.
Breaking the Silence has tried to stimulate public debate by taking upon itself to be the moral conscience of Israeli society, a role a vast majority of Israelis do not grant it to even a minimal degree.
Founded in 2004 by veterans who served in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, Breaking the Silence focuses on alleged crimes by IDF soldiers, which it claims to have documented in testimony by more than 1,000 fellow combatants.
In addition to speaking at various public venues, including high schools, the organization offers guided tours in the Hebron region.
Breaking the Silence has aroused a great deal of controversy, but our education minister feels that such controversy should not be a subject for discussion in our schools.
While many politicians from both the Right and Left have denounced Breaking the Silence as being an organization that “attacks soldiers,” it is important to note the response of the IDF’s top soldier.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot in February instructed his officers to meet with members of the veterans group and examine its claims. He told an academic conference in Herzliya that the Military Advocate General should follow up on testimonies by discharged soldiers who claim to have either committed or witnessed acts that might constitute a violation of the laws of war.
Nevertheless, we agree that there is a difference between the IDF meeting with the group and the group being allowed into our nation’s schools. The IDF has a responsibility to investigate itself and to pursue relevant information with all available tools, including by meeting with organizations that might be controversial and political, like Breaking the Silence or B’Tselem.
Last December, Bennett issued a policy directive that organizations he says incite against the IDF, such as Breaking the Silence, are not to be allowed in schools. Since the memorandum was not legally binding, during the past month three high school principals allowed Breaking the Silence members to speak to their students. The principals were reprimanded, and the proposed bill is the result.
Proposed by members of Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party, it has won the support of coalition members Kulanu and the Likud, as well as MKs from the opposition Yesh Atid Party.
“The education system invests a huge amount in advancing principles like contributing to the state, and no group that attacks Israel from home or abroad will stop that,” Bennett said in a statement. Breaking the Silence has since become the focus of efforts to restrict other left-wing groups accused of undermining Israel’s legitimacy by lobbying in international forums.
Breaking the Silence defends itself by countering that “those who are damaging IDF soldiers are the ones who are turning the army from one that protects Israel to one that protects illegal outposts,” referring to Bayit Yehudi’s efforts to pass a law to retroactively legalize West Bank settlements.
While there should be no question whether an “anti-Israel organization” should have unrestricted access to young minds seeking to clarify moral values, the issue is not black and white. Students should be taught to be critical thinkers by exposing them to the different sides to conflicts. They should debate issues and learn how to judge other views.
Nevertheless, even in a democracy like Israel, which safeguards freedom of speech, there are limits that need to be placed on that value, especially when it comes to schools .
“Think what happens to a student who hears these stories a moment before enlisting in the IDF, what this does to his motivation and willingness to contribute,” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said when explaining his support for the bill. We agree.
In March, Channel 2 reported that Breaking the Silence worked to place people in classified units in the IDF in order to gather information that it could use in its activities against “the occupation.” It also reported that “activists from the organization interviewed fellow IDF veterans on issues related to military secrets, and not human rights.”
It seems that Breaking the Silence has crossed the line between presenting an alternative viewpoint to exploiting what could have been a noble end with illegitimate means.
As such, it does not deserve to be heard by a captive student audience.