Critics of the State of Israel are often faulted for failing to appreciate the dangers that country faces and for ignoring the burdens that those who risk their lives to defend it bear. But even Israel’s staunchest backers would likely hesitate before leveling these charges at the men and women whose photographs and video testimonials were recently on display at The Rotunda, an arts center on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibit, which on March 1 will open at the Harvard University Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, catalogs the daily routine of life in the West Bank city of Hebron, as seen through the eyes of Israeli soldiers who’ve been dispatched to serve in an occupation now in its forty-first year.
The soldiers are members of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli combat veterans who, upon being discharged from the army, decided to bear witness to the moral cost that the politically incendiary occupation has entailed. To judge by the montage of images in their exhibit, the toll has been as internally corrosive as it has been externally damaging. Some of what’s in the photos–the rubble and garbage cluttering the streets, the settlers strolling around in yarmulkes and guns, the racist graffiti (“Arabs Out”) scrawled in Hebrew on Palestinian shops–will be familiar to anyone who’s been to the West Bank. And some of what’s not in them may strike some viewers as exculpatory: there are no blood-splattered walls, no mangled corpses, no children cowering in fear as tanks roll by.
But it is precisely the banality of the images, the sense they convey that what’s being documented is numbingly routine, that ought to unsettle anyone who claims to care about Israel. In several pictures, we see soldiers standing watch over Palestinians with their arms tied behind their backs and blindfolds over their eyes. As the blasé expressions on the soldiers’ faces (and the accompanying testimonials) make clear, these are not terrorists but “dry outs” being taught a lesson for transgressions as mundane as violating a curfew or walking down a street where only settlers are allowed. In another photo, a soldier on a couch smiles as a soccer game flickers on the television behind him. The house was raided and its Palestinian inhabitants evacuated, the caption informs us, not for strategic reasons but simply because it had a TV and the World Cup was on.
In other pictures, soldiers who look no older than college freshmen are shown posing next to their blindfolded captives with preening smiles on their faces. The glint of elation in their eyes calls to mind the celebratory thumbs-up flashed by Lynndie England and Charles Graner at Abu Ghraib, where, as Luc Sante has observed, the Americans in charge “felt free to parade their triumph and glee not because they were psychopaths but because the thought of censure probably never crossed their minds.” In the West Bank, too, the opportunity to wield unchecked power over a faceless enemy with no rights proved, for some, intoxicating. “I thought I was immune…. Suddenly, I noticed that I’m getting addicted to controlling people,” one soldier confesses. “I remember doing it with such a smile,” another recalls.
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It is not hatred but the toxic blend of apathy and condescension in an environment where an unbridgeable wall separates “us” and “them” that fuels such conduct, the testimonials in the exhibit suggest. “He is not a dog, he is not some animal, you don’t think of him as inferior, he simply doesn’t exist,” a soldier explains, beneath a photo of a blindfolded Palestinian youth propped up on a chair. In another photo, we see a boy on a rooftop tending to some pigeons, unaware that, as the horizontal and vertical lines crisscrossing the image indicate, he’s standing in the crosshairs of a sniper’s scope held by a soldier who presumably snapped the picture (and who, the thought can’t help but occur, could at any moment pull the trigger of his gun).
Breaking the Silence was formed in 2004. The first exhibit the group held, in Tel Aviv, caused a stir, drawing over 7,000 spectators. The organization has never made its presence felt outside Israel until now, for which The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, Americans for Peace Now and several other progressive organizations co- sponsoring the new exhibit can be thanked. More likely, of course, they’ll be castigated for handing a platform to a group with an “anti- Israel” agenda. But Breaking the Silence has no agenda, other than, in the words of the group’s founder, Yehuda Shaul, “to tell the truth.” Some of its members are leftists; others are not. Shaul is an orthodox Jew who grew up in a right-wing household. When he enlisted in the Israeli army, politics was the furthest thing from his mind, he told me recently at a coffee shop across the street from The Rotunda. “I thought of myself as a good guy,” he said. Soon after his battalion was deployed to Hebron, he found himself being ordered to fire live ammunition into residential neighborhoods and to board up all the Palestinian houses on certain streets. Eventually, his sense of moral clarity began to fade. The difference between good and bad, right and wrong, was “thrown into a blender,” he said.
This is, of course, a feeling some American soldiers these days may share. As it happens, a group of Iraq War veterans held an event at Penn the same week the exhibit of photos was there. Arnon Degani, another member of Breaking the Silence who made the trip from Israel, went, and chatted with a soldier. “It’s very similar,” he said of the abuses and injustices they discussed. “He described bullying children. I remember doing that.” To be sure, not everyone reacts the same way when hearing about such things. Earlier, I’d overheard Degani engage in a heated argument with two Israelis who’d seen a sign for the Breaking the Silence exhibit and strolled in. When he asked them what they thought of it, they said it made them proud, since nothing in it approached the level of violence at Abu Ghraib. Degani was astonished. When I mentioned the exchange to Yehuda Shaul, he flipped on his laptop to show me some photos that had been left out of the exhibit, including several of soldiers standing over Palestinian corpses. The exhibit features no graphic violence not because it never occurs but because the goal was to capture the less sensational but arguably more insidious daily reality, he said. That some might not see it as insidious was “proof of how the occupation has corrupted Israeli society. If this is what we’ve been doing for forty years, these banal things can be digested–it’s not so bad.”
When I asked why they’d gone to such lengths to bring their exhibit to America, both Shaul and Degani said they want Israel’s biggest supporters to realize that, as in Iraq, abuses in the occupied territories don’t occur because of “a few bad apples.” To underscore the point, Degani motioned me toward the final set of photos in the exhibit, a wall covered with portraits of soldiers who’d engaged in the acts the other panels document. There was not a trace of menace in their faces, which glowed with youthful idealism. “They are poster-children for the army,” Degani said, his eyes downcast, “but they are caught up in a horrible reality.”