REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Picture worth thousands of complicated words

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Picture worth thousands of complicated words

Breaking the Silence photos remind me that my Zionism includes recognition of Palestinian oppression

Avner Gvaryahu served in the Israel Defense Forces and is now U.S. diaspora programming coordinator for Breaking the Silence, a group comprised of IDF veterans who want to expose the realities of “the occupation” in the disputed territories.
Avner Gvaryahu served in the Israel Defense Forces and is now U.S. diaspora programming coordinator for Breaking the Silence, a group comprised of IDF veterans who want to expose the realities of “the occupation” in the disputed territories.

On my first two visits to Israel in 1969 and 1975, I fell in love with the country’s strong sense of community and that special feeling of being a Jew in a Jewish country. I also remember idealizing the soldiers, and feeling awed at my ulpan teacher’s decision to forgo his doctorate in philosophy to make a life in agriculture on a kibbutz. 

Even at my most reverential, though, I was always aware of a tragic underside of the narrative — two peoples struggling for one land.

This week I read a 1949 novella, “Khirbet Khizeh” by S. Yizhar, which captures this struggle through the perspective of a young Israeli soldier after the War of Independence. Familiar to most Israelis, the book is about one of those unspeakables that smudge the “perfection” that many Jews perceive of Israel:  what happens when soldiers expel Palestinians from their homes. Rather than drawing a picture of the brave Israeli soldier who courageously fights against Israel’s enemies, Yizhar lets us experience the evictions through the eyes of a sensitive narrator tormented by what he is required to do.

For me, Yizhar’s work, apparently based on his own experience during the war, raised complexities that haunt Israel to this day, almost 70 years after the novella was written, issues that most people do not want to talk about. Yes, the Jews need their own country, but yes, there are others who consider Palestine their land and their home, and Israeli soldiers have to reconcile those two realities.

Just as at Israel’s birth in 1948, diverse realities and perspectives are no easier to reconcile. But some soldiers who have served in the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza feel compelled to share their experiences. Through the organization Breaking the Silence, they have submitted testimonies, videos, and photos about their experiences to convey what they perceive as the destructiveness of what many refer to as “the occupation.”

“We want to pick up a mirror to the Israeli public, and the reflection has to be as accurate as it can — this is what [it] costs to maintain this reality; not only barging into homes, but arbitrary arrests, searches, checkpoints, total control of Palestinian lives,” said Avner Gvaryahu, U.S. diaspora programming coordinator for Breaking the Silence, who was in Princeton this week for a photo exhibit done in partnership with J Street. Gvaryahu said that there are consequences to 50 years of these Israeli policies: “Aggression, violence, animosity, and fear. In order to maintain a military occupation, there is no way to do it without using force.”  

I visited Breaking the Silence’s May 2-3 exhibition, mounted at the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding, on the same day I completed Yizhar’s novella and noticed the similarities: Both displayed the traumas of soldiers forced to exert power over the enemy.

Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL) declined to host the exhibition on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, as they were concerned about the sensitivities of people who may have lost friends or family in Israel’s wars, even though CJL hosted a talk with Gvaryahu more than a year ago. This week he joined the CJL Yom Ha’Atzmaut barbecue because the day is one of celebration for him, too. “I was joyful, happy I have a state, happy there are people outside of Israel that support it, and think the State of Israel is important,” he said.

Still, Gvaryahu told me that the celebration alone was insufficient; people needed to have a “complex approach” to Israel. 

“The way to do that is to celebrate, enjoy, admire, but don’t look away when challenges are brought forward,” he said. “Learning and talking about the occupation does not question Israel’s legitimacy — it strengthens Israel’s legitimacy.”

Gvaryahu spoke about his initiation into what it meant to be an occupier. In an early mission called a “straw widow” that involved taking over a Palestinian house and using it as a military post, he said, “I found myself barging into some family’s home and putting the entire family under control of the soldiers. That started waking me up to this reality of what the occupation actually looked like.”

To my mind, Gvaryahu is sharing with Israelis an alternate view of reality, that of soldiers who have to employ the tools of an occupier. He feels they need that information to form a more nuanced view of what the occupation means. But many who demonize Breaking the Silence claim the group is unpatriotic and undermines the state.

Having experienced myself how well-meaning American Jews not only do not want to acknowledge the possibility of diverse perspectives on Israel, but will do whatever they can to keep all speech about Israel within the bounds of “accepted discourse,” I found myself supporting Gvaryahu’s effort to share his reality. Truth is viewed through the perspectives and experiences of individuals, and the only way to flesh out an understanding of complex realities, in my opinion, is to listen critically and analytically to all sides. 

For me, the lesson is to hear different takes, not to quash views I disagree with regarding Israel, and politics in general. But we also have to be careful not to over-idealize the Jewish state. 

Gvaryahu talked about how narrow understandings of Israel have negatively affected young American Jews who learn about Israel in their religious schools, day schools, and camps. “They feel they were lied to. They were given this perfect picture of Israel, and Israel is a complex place,” he said.

“Part of the responsibility of people who care about Israel is to ensure that there is a marketplace of ideas. Me and Ido [a fellow soldier who was mounting the Princeton exhibit with him] represent 1,200 Israelis who have put their lives and limbs to the country. What we are asking for is don’t silence us.”

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