Over the past several months, a number of Knesset bills have been introduced to protect the image and morale of the Israeli military. In April 2018, following a leaked video in which an Israeli soldier could be heard cheering as another soldier killed a Palestinian demonstrator in Gaza, Robert Ilatov of the Jewish Home party submitted a bill criminalizing the creation of photographic, video, or audio recordings of Israeli soldiers on active duty.
The legislation, which has yet to become law, would allow prison terms of up to ten years for anyone who films, photographs, or records soldiers “with the intention of undermining the spirit” of the IDF. The bill explicitly targets Israeli anti-occupation groups, such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which depend on soldiers’ testimonies, as well as surveillance of their activities, to document rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).
On July 17, 2018, the Knesset passed another piece of legislation designed to protect the Israeli army. The law, which was dubbed the “Breaking the Silence” bill, gives the Education Minister extensive powers to prohibit lectures and activities, organized by anti-occupation groups, from being held in public schools. As reported in The Times of Israel, After the bill’s passage, Neftali Bennett, the Education Minister who co-sponsored the bill with MK Shulamit Mualem-Rafaeli, said that the “situation in which organizations that seek to undermine the legitimacy of Israel and hound IDF soldiers can surreptitiously access Israel’s pupils — ended today.”
Breaking the Silence is an NGO founded by veteran Israeli combatants in 2004 to gather testimony from soldiers who have served in the oPt. As with the proposed legislation banning documentation of Israeli soldiers, the group is specifically being singled out by this recent law. It is being targeted for several reasons. First, Breaking the Silence’s objective is to expose the everyday realities of Israel’s immoral occupation. From the state’s perspective, these efforts to document crimes committed by Israeli soldiers erode public confidence in the Israeli military, interfere with military activity, and undermine the claim that the IDF is “the most moral [army] in the world.” Second, Breaking the Silence seeks to “galvanize international pressure” against the occupation by sharing information about the military’s practices with foreign entities and forums. Israeli officials, including supporters of the two bills, believe this places soldiers at risk of prosecution abroad and could lead to “political proceedings” in international fora against the Israeli state.
The larger, ongoing debate within Israeli society about Breaking the Silence is an interesting one. Indeed, the group enjoys backing from a wide range of Israeli citizens, parties, and MKs – many of whom are firm supporters of Zionism. MKs who voted against the July bill argued that Breaking the Silence provides a necessary public service, in exposing the realities of occupation and encouraging debate within the public. For these and other supporters, Breaking the Silence does not hurt, but rather bolsters the IDF’s image as a moral actor. After all, only the former members of the most morally upstanding army in the world would create a group like Breaking the Silence.
The organization may help the IDF in other ways as well. By shifting attention to individual conduct, and away from Israel and the IDF as a whole, Breaking the Silence helps shield Israel from criticism of its colonial project. Recent research by James Eastwood, a lecturer in politics at Queen Mary University of London, reinforces this possibility. Eastwood’s work demonstrates that the ethical posturing and confessional practices of groups, like Breaking the Silence, are less a restraint on military violence and more of a fundamental element of militarist practice.
During their pre-military training, future IDF soldiers are encouraged to see the failings of the army through an individualist lens. Organizations, like Breaking the Silence, are often invited to these trainings to reinforce this perspective. During these sessions, military students are taught to recognize human rights problems in the oPt as resulting from the ethical failings of individual soldiers, rather than as an “inevitable, structural and indeed constitutive part of occupation,” according to Eastwood.
The work of Breaking the Silence is, then, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group is airing Israel’s “dirty laundry” and placing the government in what could potentially be a legally and diplomatically compromising position. On the other hand, in helping bind Israeli military service to an ethic of self-improvement, Breaking the Silence’s practices provides soldiers with the opportunity to feel better about themselves while enforcing a colonial order.