Steven Erlanger today writes a fine portrait of a Breaking the Silence event in Israel. The group has compiled 400 oral histories of IDF soldiers morally troubled by their Occupation duties. The most telling portion of the article comes near the end when Erlanger records a note of discord from an audience member who lashes out at the Breaking the Silence speaker:
While criticism of the army is quite acceptable in Israel’s democracy, and not just on the left, Breaking the Silence left some raw feelings here.
At the recent talk and discussion session, one man stood and said Mr. Manekin and his friends were hurting Israel, especially its image abroad, in order to salve their own consciences. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Tall and dignified, about 45, the man said that he, too, had served in the West Bank, “and I’m proud of what I did there to defend Israelis.”
It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints to keep them cowed, he said, his voice shaking a little, “because we are so few there, and they are so many.”
Then he said: “These people are not like us! They come up to our faces and they lie to us!”
These are certainly telling words, though not in the way the speaker meant them. They tell us how when you become the occupier you become lonely and frightened and learn how to justify to yourself the oppression you invoke on others.
The next portion of the article chronicles the response of retired Hebrew University professor Uri Simon to the speaker. The reason Simon is so important to this post concerns a little anecdote from my past.
When I was 17 in 1968, I attended a wonderful Camp Ramah summer seminar at which I enjoyed an independent study course with Rabbi Joe Lukinsky on the Israeli-Arab conflict. He helped me choose the books. I read them. I wrote a paper about the Brit Shalom movement founded by Judah Magnes, Martin Buber and Ernst Simon. I’d never studied this conflict before in such depth. It was my first introduction to an issue that would occupy the rest of my life.
After writing the paper, Joe encouraged me in that wonderful way he has, to send it to Uri Simon, Ernst Simon’s son, who was then a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University (later of Bar Ilan). I did send it to him and he replied in that nice, kindly way the humane professors do when they’re really thinking: “this kid has a lot to learn,” but don’t want to let on to their true feelings. I remember Simon felt I was being uncharitable in comparing Israel’s Occupation to apartheid South Africa. But he said so in the nicest way possible. Only a 17 year old can write with such certitude on such issues.
Lukinsky and I studied again together when I spent my junior year abroad at the University in 1972-73. He encouraged me to look Prof. Simon up and I never did. How foolish of me. I regret it even more when I read the wonderful prophetic wisdom from him here:
That was enough for Uriel Simon, 77 years old, a professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University and a noted religious dove.
“As for liars,” Mr. Simon said, then paused. “My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!” he said.
As for the Palestinians, he said: “Of course they lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint! We lied at checkpoints, too.”
Everyone is afraid of mirrors, Mr. Simon said, readjusting the knitted skullcap on his nimbus of white hair. “We hate the mirror. We don’t want to look at ourselves. We don’t like photographs of us — we say, ‘Oh, that’s not a very good likeness.’ We want to be much nicer than we are. But here there are also prophets who are mirrors, who are not afraid of kings and generals. The prophet says, ‘You are ugly,’ and we don’t want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear.”
Later, Mr. Simon tried to describe the ambivalence and even confusion, as he saw it, in the room.
The army is central to Israel, and the problems so complicated, he said. At the beginning of the summer war, as in the beginning of any war, including the war in Iraq, “there’s a euphoria that derives from an almost irrational belief in power and force, that the sword can cut through all the slow processes.” It is more enthralling if, like Israel, “you have so much power that you can’t use, and suddenly you can.”
But the euphoria is always short-lived, he said, because no army is as efficient as advertised, and power rarely delivers the clean outcome it seems to promise.
“We bomb southern Lebanon like mad, and still they continue to send missiles at us,” he said.
The frustration is even more intense “for a people like Israel forced to live on its sword, for who will save this little state?” he asked. “The United Nations? The good will of America? We’d be overrun 10 times before America awakes, even if it wants to awake. So every 10-year-old knows the sheer importance of the Israeli Army, and the more you need it the more you expect from it.”
At the end of the evening, Mr. Simon said, he went to talk to the tall man who had been so upset. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe me, but I agree with 90 percent of what you said.’ ” Mr. Simon laughed softly. “It just showed how confused he was.”
Prof. Simon, what a wonderful life you have lived. What a wonderful example you have set. May the Lord bless and keep you (Yevarechecha v’yishmarecha).