Terra Incognita: In Hebron, whose silence needs breaking?

For those who have spent years in the West Bank, including Palestinian residents, activists, Jews, or researchers, Breaking the Silence's narrative seems small and narrow.

January 18, 2015 23:02

A soldier stands guard on a house in Hebron on June 18, during Operation Brother’s Keeper.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

For a decade, one organization has dominated the important niche of conducting guided tours of well-meaning Jewish and other groups who visit Israel and want to see the West Bank up close.

Many of them come away with a jaundiced, one-sided and meticulously crafted narrative. It is time to break that narrative, and demand visitors be exposed to a multiplicity of views about Palestinians, to the diversity of both their lives and those of Israelis.

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Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004. It describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military... and have taken [it] upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

It has a small staff of 14 and like most NGOs in Israel critical of the country’s activities over the Green Line, receives significant funding from foreign sources. NGO Monitor estimates that groups such as the Delegation of the EU to Israel gave NIS 400,000 in 2013, while the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tel Aviv gave NIS 148,000 in 2012 and Christian Aid gave NIS 67,000.

The organization is involved in multiple activities, such as publishing testimonies by former soldiers; conducting lectures, such as a well received discussion at Harvard in 2014; and hosting tours of the West Bank, primarily in the area of Hebron and the Hebron hills. It is the latter activity in particular it is important to shed some light on. The rest of this organization’s activities serve an important role, namely shedding light on the actions of the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza, and while it is important to illustrate the army’s effectiveness and work to protect human rights, a democratic society should always critique its armed forces and hold them to a high standard.

What first raised my eyebrows about the West Bank tours was the sheer number of stories that kept coming back about them. Reform rabbinical students, Jewish student groups from abroad, German student groups – for a huge number of groups visiting Israel that want to learn about “the conflict,” Breaking the Silence, often abbreviated at BtS, is the go-to source for a tour. They have come to dominate this niche primarily because of a paternalistic view, imbued with racism and orientalism, that sees Jewish Israeli voices as being the only ones who can “tell the story” of what takes place in the West Bank.

The irony is that ostensibly groups want to see Palestinians and understand “the occupation” and learn about “settlers” – but only feel comfortable doing it around what appear to be “people like us,” i.e mostly secular Jews who speak decent English.

Let’s shed light on what BtS tours do by taking a look at testimonials of those who have participated in them.

In 2010 one man recalls visiting with Scandinavian journalists. The tour began at Sussiya, a Beduin community that complains the IDF and Jewish community nearby have pushed them off the land. The participant recalls that the group met with members of the activist left-wing group Ta’ayush that “helps the Beduin... basically the narrative was that the Jewish settlers should be evicted.” The participant was grateful for the tour, but felt that had he not requested to speak with Jewish residents, he would not have been able to meet them.

Jacob, a businessman who took part in a Jewish-led tour of Hebron recently, said, “The only Palestinians I met on the tours was one guy in his private home that was harmed by settlers.”

A 2008 attendee recalled that the tour was “narcissistic” and concentrated mostly on BtS. The only Jewish resident they met was a boy who brought them water.

He recalled that the tour involved a passionate speech about the need to withdraw from the West Bank.

Would he have wanted to meet Palestinians? “Yes, but that didn’t seem feasible. Years later I took an Arab bus to Ramallah by myself.”

Another person who attended recalled traveling around the Hebron hills after a long bus ride and paying 10 NIS to attend, and feeling the ex-soldier tour guide didn’t know much. “He didn’t speak Arabic, I had to translate for the Arabs we met.” He felt that although the tour was balanced in its narrative, it was surprising no Israelis ever seemed to participate. “Why don’t they concentrate on the local public, if the mission is to break the silence?” Other participants agreed that BtS showed them the most extreme examples of abuses in the West Bank, but said they were deeply appreciative of the experience. Others were angry. One group that was involved in pro-Israel activity on their home campus felt that they received a narrative that was simply more of the anti-Israel story they got back home, saying, “We wanted our beliefs to be challenged, but they reinforced the propaganda.”

Another expert who went on multiple tours felt “they only give half the story, they don’t talk about what the soldiers go through, they don’t talk to Palestinians or the settlers unless I’ve asked to meet with them also.”

While there may surely be people who have had other experiences with Breaking the Silence than the type listed above, for those who have spent years in the West Bank, including Palestinian residents, activists, Jews, or researchers, the narrative of BtS seems small and narrow. BtS apparently concentrates on a small slice of the Palestinian experience – Hebron – and prioritizes only Jewish soldiers as tour guides; Palestinians are not really part of the picture. Why is this group the main go-to for those that want to learn the truth about life in the West Bank?

It is time for Jewish groups, whether the most liberal or the most right wing, to get a richer experience of Palestinian society and the West Bank. That means tours of Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem. It should include a tour of the Palestinian Christian village of Taybeh and the beer brewery there and the new wine they have just begun producing. They should visit the Samaritans on Mount Gerezim and see Rawabi, the new Palestinian city being developed. A visit to Al-Quds University or another Palestinian educational institution should be on the list. There is a historic house in Ramallah called the Dar Zahran Heritage building that illuminates Palestinian life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is important to also hear the complaints Palestinians have against the IDF and Jewish communities in the West Bank. So tours should take visitors through Kalandiya and the groups should wait in line at the cage-like turnstiles where they will feel the humiliation and dehumanization that Palestinians feel. There is nothing wrong with showing the whole story of the West Bank and Palestinians and going to see refugee camps, and confronting the graffiti there romanticizing “martyrs.” Hebron is a sliver of the West Bank and Breaking the Silence offers a narrative on that sliver that has a lot to do with the individual ex-soldiers’ own feelings of shame. That is an important narrative, but it is isn’t the only narrative.

There are cases of Palestinian coexistence with Jewish settlers, just as there are cases of extreme violence.

Don’t turn the Palestinians into the romantic orientalist image of “the simple Beduin”; there are Palestinians with PhDs who teach chemistry, there are Palestinian fashion designers hosting fashion shows. Let’s break the silence about them as well. Because a real tour of Palestinian society cannot only be in the hands of Jewish ex-soldiers; it must celebrate diversity and a multi-faceted society, as well as the rich and sometimes torturous story of what really takes place in the West Bank.

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