Friday, February 15, 2008


Breaking the Silence: What it means to be an occupier

A group of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers have undertaken to "break the silence" surrounding the occupation of Palestine. One of the group's co-founders, Yehuda Shaul, gave a talk this past weekend that was covered by C-Span.

Shaul describes himself as a 25-year-old observant Orthodox immigrant to Israel from North America now living in Jerusalem. He attended high school in an Israeli settlement and was drafted into the IDF at 18. He became a commander and remains an IDF reservist. He spent 14 months in Hebron, the second largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, as an enforcer of martial law upon the Palestinians.

As he was coming to the end of his active duty, he recalls that "some questions popped up" and says of the time he spent as an occupier that—

... you become more and more numb and think more and more about yourself. Later on you become a commander. It's even worse because you know that if you will start to think it's not only you, it's 50 soldiers behind you will start to think—and that's the worst thing that can happen to a soldier.

It's clear that Shaul has thought. He says of that time, "I found myself losing justification for 90% of what I took part in." After deciding to reveal what he saw and did, he and other soldiers formed the group "Breaking the Silence."

The method

Shaul says,

We decided to try to tell the small stories of reality behind the titles [headlines] through the eyes of a soldier....

The story is not the extreme cases. The story is not the nasty stuff. The story is the banal reality that allows these extreme cases to become a routine. This very, very bad stuff that we have done becomes logic to us.

Their primary vehicle has been to videotape and audiotape soldiers willing to remember and to speak.1

Perhaps his most poignant justification of the effort is this: "As time goes by we break more and more levels of silence in us." Though Shaul is not especially articulate, his sincerity and authenticity are compelling.

The role of occupier

In the question-and-answer session following his talk, Shaul makes clear that the focus of "Breaking the Silence" is not the deeds of soldiers at war but during an occupation. And his most essential insight is not into the suffering of the Palestinians but into the suffering of the occupiers and the corruption of the society responsible. Some members of the audience did not fail to note the parallels with the occupation of Iraq.

Shaul's talk is well worth watching if you're concerned for the Israelis and the Palestinians or for the Americans and Brits vis-à-vis the Iraqis. But my own interest was more selfish, since more and more of America is itself under occupation—or being prepared for occupation.

Some of us recognize that Native Americans have suffered an occupation, that the ghettos of minorities are under occupation, that the mobile home parks of poor whites are under occupation. But as the middle class has become more and more a "them" to the elites and to their burgeoning armies patroling the streets and prisons, so have the territories in which the middle class live and work come to be included in the occupied zones. And the behaviors typical of occupiers are more and more in evidence.

The "we's" live in gated communities and work in office towers protected by guards. Their administrators work in courthouses or other public buildings—even in academia—surrounded by guards. And the guards themselves are tacitly granted leeway to treat the populace as they please. The rest of us are under guard.

Watch Yehuda Shaul to see what that means, regardless of which side of the fence you're on.

Breaking the Silence has put together an exhibit currently being shown in Philadelphia at The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street, University City. It runs through February 24. The hours are M-Th 12-5, F 12-4, and Sun 10-5. It will subsequently be shown in Boston at Harvard University.

Related posts
Are they practicing for Iraq or for Toledo? (12/30/04)
Ohio may get its own Patriot Act (8/23/05)
More bad apples (2/14/08)



1To date the group has collected over five hundred interviews, some of which are online. In the videos the faces have been obscured and the voices disguised. The soldiers speak in Hebrew, but the videos are subtitled. [back]

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