Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Still Trying to Break the Silence

Yehuda Shaul is the primary agent (in Burke's terminology) in a recent report for Reuters filed by Bernd Debusmann. Here is one reason why we ought to know about him:

Burly, bearded and from an ultra-orthodox background, the 24-year-old Shaul was one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who shocked Israel in 2004 with an exhibition of photographs and video testimony on harassment and abuse of Palestinians.

The exhibition, which ran for weeks in Tel Aviv and was briefly on display at the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) spawned the tours of Hebron, where many of the soldiers in the group served during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising.

I actually saw these photographs in San Francisco, and I hope they were on display in other cities outside of Israel. Debusmann filed his report because Breaking the Silence now has a new project:

Disenchanted Israeli army veterans have turned into guides to one of the bleakest places on the West Bank, the Israeli-held part of Hebron, to highlight what they say is the ugly face of occupation most Israelis never see.

Over the past 20 months, former soldiers have led some 2,500 people, in small groups of around a dozen, mostly Israelis, on grim show-and-tell excursions meant to explain the brutalizing effect of daily routine in an occupied city.

Shaul explained the project to Debusmann as follows:

"The tours have two goals," said Shaul. "Show the effect the occupation has on the occupied AND on the occupiers, the way it disrupts Palestinian life and the way it erodes the moral values of Israeli soldiers.

"The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) blames excesses, when they come to light, on 'rotten apples'. But few soldiers end their West Bank tours with entirely clean hands. Israeli society prefers to keep silent about this."

This puts the Breaking the Silence group in the same camp as Yosef Lapid, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, who also happens to be a Holocaust survivor and who has chosen to focus on just how bad things are in Hebron. (I still find it ironic that I had to learn about Lapid from Al Jazeera and have yet to read about him in any other source.) What Debusmann fails to discuss, unfortunately, is the extent of the impact that Breaking the Silence has had on Israeli public opinion, perhaps because it is so rare that there is consensus about anything in Israeli public opinion!

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