Is an informed discourse still possible in Israel today?

Many Israelis view Breaking the Silence as a litmus test for patriotism or treason. But what is the phenomenon of “breaking the silence”?

Ben Gurion University (photo credit: WWW.PIKIWIKI.ORG.IL)
Ben Gurion University
(photo credit: WWW.PIKIWIKI.ORG.IL)
Over the past few days Ben-Gurion University’s campus has been in the midst of a fury over a conference called “Whistle Blowers over Time in History, and Today.” Our clear motivation in organizing this conference was not to conduct a hearing in favor or against the Breaking the Silence NGO, but rather to evoke a multifaceted discussion which focuses on the manifestations of whistle-blowing throughout history in various cultures. We strongly believed that we could use our academic expertise in tackling complex issues to examine this phenomenon, which in the current Israeli discourse is so controversial it blocks any possibility for a meaningful dialogue. We are convinced that looking deep into the issue of “breaking the silence” is the only option to create true listening followed by a much desired discussion and acceptance of multiple attitudes.
Many Israelis view Breaking the Silence as a litmus test for patriotism or treason. But what is the phenomenon of “breaking the silence”? What are its most prominent historical occurrences? What are the dilemmas posed by this type of criticism to societies which are in the midst of extreme situations of internal strife and external conflicts? It is clear to us that the answers to these questions are complex.
But it is equally clear to us that only the awareness of their complexity can allow an exchange of ideas. Historical hindsight reveals that although many of the episodes aroused by whistle blowers were at the center of heated controversy as they occurred, today they are perceived in a totally different light.
This in turn allows for in-depth discussion and a more complex understanding of such phenomena in the present.
The alternative to this type of in-depth discussion is a black and white confrontational pattern that not only blurs the issue but threatens the very legitimacy of such a discussion. We are alarmed by the possibility that the mere attempt to conduct an informed dialogue about controversial issues will become impossible. We hear that many of our colleagues, from the Left and Right, share this anxiety.
We believe Israeli society is already on a slippery slope toward a situation in which only a few will dare to speak out against inflammatory speech. Like most societies, Israel is not flawless, and should not be weary of opinions which challenge its self-image. The first step for change is always an acknowledgment that there is a problem. It’s the brave that look in the mirror.
To achieve our goal of an informed discussion the conference includes four sessions. Three deal with historical events of “breaking the silence” in various societies and periods. The fourth and final session is devoted to the activity of the NGO Breaking the Silence. Based on the historical perspective of the first three sessions we hope that it will be easier to conduct a more balanced discussion of the “here and now.” Needless to say, but in view of the heated discussion we stress the fact that the four respondents in the panel represent a wide spectrum of political opinions.
Even before the conference takes place (it is due to take place Monday, May 30, 2016), many public responses were quite disappointing.
It was clear that the conference evoked an automatic emotional suspicion regarding any attempt to conduct a complex discussion regarding the organization and what it stands for. It was argued that this very discussion gives voice and legitimacy to an organization defined as “anti-Zionist.” Although the participants in the first three sessions do not represent a unified political stand, and the only criterion for choosing them was academic expertise, it was argued that most belong to the radical Left. For that purpose “incriminating evidence” was cited from the Internet. Those participants who did not fit the anti-patriotic mold were presented as being a kind of fig leaf. Even the titles of the three historical sessions: “The Role of Intellectuals,” “Dilemmas of Conformity” and “Keepers of the Gate,” were interpreted as politically biased.
However this was not the only reaction; there were also those who, despite being critical of the program, recognized that there was a real opportunity here for an incisive, yet not belligerent, discussion.
The most significant support came from those who thought that the importance of the seminar lay in its attempt to turn the tide of intolerance and suspicion toward anyone who represents a different and “unpatriotic” point of view. In order to enhance such a change, people from Left and Right must join forces in battling stigmas and divisions between so-called “patriots” and so-called “traitors.” Such divisions may today threaten others, but tomorrow may be pointed at us. We are proud of our initiative to hold this symposium and are proud of all those who together with us share a vision of a society that does not label, but rather embraces an open and courageous discussion on any emotionally sensitive and loaded issue.
Prof. Ofer Shiff is a member of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism at and Prof. Hanna Yablonka a member of the Jewish History Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.