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Inside the Jewish halfway house of awareness, with ‘Breaking the Silence’

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Dana Golan, the director of Breaking the Silence, is on a three-week tour of the U.S. Tonight she will be at the Columbia University Hillel. Yesterday she gave her talk at NYU, in a beautiful space called the Kevorkian Center. Lovely Middle East tile work. The room was crowded with about 75 people. There were only a few hasbara types there, smoldering. The rest of the crowd was young, and, I’m guessing, mostly Jewish.

Golan was there to introduce the booklet of women’s testimonies, and she told her own story. She was an education officer in Hebron nine years ago, at 18. She asked to go out on a weapons search one night so as to know what was happening in the occupied territories, and the “drill” that was familiar to everyone but her, including the Palestinians, unfolded. A house was entered at 2 in the morning. The father came to the door. The women and children stood in the corner. Everything was turned upside down in a search for weapons. Her hope that they would somehow put everything back in the drawers was fantasy.

It was time for the women to be searched. Golan and another woman went into a separate room and one by one the Palestinian women were led in. The Israelis made the women strip “almost naked– to me naked was too much." Golan searched the women in a way that she had only seen from movies, not being an expert. The other woman said that sometimes they put on gloves and did an interior body search. Golan said to herself that she would never do that, even if the woman had a bomb inside her. All was justified in the name of Israeli security. "It was the first time I was ashamed of wearing the uniform." Presumably there have been many such times since.

The women on Golan’s video were just as moving. One education officer reported to command that soldiers were stealing beads and Korans when they raided Palestinians; for “squealing,” a “herem” or excommunication was ordered, she was frozen for four months and men spat as she went by. Another was responsible for conveying an officer’s report in Gaza after an incident in which a boy was beaten to the point of hysteria, cigarettes put out on his body. The report was honest. The commander ordered it to be revised, or the investigation unit would be all over the base. The report was revised; the boy was said to be a liar. In another case a woman was unsure of whether the boys she was to testify against had actually thrown stones. “They will confess,” she was assured, and she walked away with nightmare visions of what that meant. (I believe that most of the young people in Israeli prisons are there for throwing stones–27 percent, Goldstone reports, at paragraph 1460.)

The people in the room asked agonized questions. A tall strong older Jew said thrillingly, they were righteous Jews. A hasbara type said that the Palestinians don’t accept the existence of Israel, would destroy Israel. He was hushed after a point. Later I saw him badgering Golan. 

Dana Golan is striking and articulate. She will be going to many synagogues and schools in the US over the next three weeks, and will talk to many Jews. New Israel Fund supports this tour, and there was a soulful woman from J Street there, encouraging Golan. Golan reminds Jews here of what they love about Israel: the strength and beauty and exoticism of Jews who have struggled with wielding awful power. Golan is reflective; power upset her. She didn’t like the feeling that Palestinian men gave her as she walked in the streets– they deferred to her. She didn’t like treating Palestinians’ houses as her own.

The occupation is wrong, that is what everyone in Breaking the Silence agrees upon, she said. Israeli society has blinded itself to the reality of what occupation means. So have American Jews. In Golan’s own family, they don’t want to believe what she has to say. But she is trying to convince them. 

"I’m trying to make a crack that they can see through, I’m not trying to break the whole wall."

The Jews of Breaking the Silence made a crack that I could see through four years ago. I went to Hebron with their brave leader Yehuda Shaul. This year Mikhael Manekin, another BTS leader, told me that even Israeli leaders have never seen what I had seen.

The awakening that I had must be had by other Jews. And only Jews can give it to them?

As I stood watching Golan yesterday, so compelling, so striking, I understood the terrible limitations of the experience. We were hearing agonized Jews with power talk to other Jews with power. Some agonized, some not. They are trying to break the silence inside the Jewish community.

There is no silence inside the Palestinian community. These things – the cigarettes put out on the boy’s body and forced confessions and humiliating raids and thefts and destruction of people’s dignity—they are utterly familiar. People like myself didn’t want to consider it for most of our lives, but that was the reality. Look at Joe Sacco’s amazing book about the humiliation of Palestinian men and women in Gaza 50 years ago in ethnic cleansing operations.

So as Dana Golan spoke I felt some impatience. I wanted the objects of this violence to speak for themselves, I wanted to see Palestinians in the room and in the Hillel and synagogue. I wanted Golan to tell me abut trying to find that Palestinian family she had searched the house of. I wanted to hear about other of the Breaking the Silence Jews trying to find the boys they had watched have cigarettes put out on them and apologize.

No, no: the important energy of Breaking the Silence is inside Israeli society and American Jewish society. That is where the power is. I know, I’m engaged in the same game, trying to get thru to the powerful. So I wish them well.

Still I date my own awakening from that trip 4 years ago with Yehuda Shaul and if you’re not a rock 4 years will change you. I no longer need to be in a comfortable room in an American campus with other Jews hearing these horrifying tales. I no longer need to overcome my disbelief. The work is everywhere.

And the fact that this conversation must take place in a Jewish space, must involve cracking open a little light for Jews, when there is Jim Crow and massacres and little boys are arrested trying to visit their aunts houses because they walked thru a segregated road—lord, these facts have been there a long time and are Enough Information for anyone to bear witness.

The tour shows how profoundly blocked Jewish ethnocentrism has made us Jews to reality; it shows how hopeless the situation is, that this terrain should even be disputed. Imagine going to the Holocaust museum and only hearing the testimony of the Germans. Oh yes I know, it’s not the same. But just imagine that. That the world could still only trust German witnesses to describe horrors, we couldn’t trust the Jewish witnesses. Think about that, and you will understand how profoundly blocked my community is.

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