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‘Tell it not in Gath’: Ari Shavit and silencing Breaking the Silence

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Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult. — 2 Samuel 1:20 English Standard Version

Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. — from the website of Breaking the Silence, a group of dissident Israeli soldiers.

Ari Shavit is an Israeli journalist who has recently served as the go-to-guy for Jewish American “liberal Zionists” who seek to “explain” the past and the ongoing horror of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.  What makes his task of hasbara (הסברה) totally preposterous is that Shavit and his champions seek to present Israel as a liberal multi-ethnic democracy, something known and appealing to an American audience.  The fact is that Israel is a racist ethnocracy in which non-Jews are discriminated against at best, scorned, oppressed, imprisoned, dispossessed and murdered, at worst.  However, this seemingly impossible liberal Zionist task of selling Israeli actions is made possible because the wares are being sold to gullible buyers. Many of these buyers seek a cheap cleanser for Zionist beliefs, whose soiled and rotted parts are increasingly seeing the light of day.

Shavit is a favorite in liberal Jewish American spaces such as the J Street annual conference and Ha’aretzQ.  His recent memoir, My Promised Land, was effusively praised by David Remnick and Jeffrey Goldberg. That tandem adoringly chaperoned Shavit to U.S. book signings and television appearances as if he were their favorite son making his career debut.  The highlight of the memoir, which was chosen as the segment to be excerpted in Remnick’s The New Yorker, was an apologia for the ethnic cleansing of over 50,000 – 70,000 Palestinians from Lydda and Ramle during the 1948 War.

Last month, Shavit employed his not inconsiderable writing talents to criticize the dissident group Breaking the Silence, while simultaneously glorifying his own moral behavior as an alleged whistle-blower, and extolling the conduct of the Israeli occupation army over the past half century.

Breaking the Silence is an alliance of Israeli soldiers, who since 2004 have been giving testimony detailing the ill-treatment of Palestinians in the territories as not isolated or extreme cases, but instead the norm.  They also have given testimony about the IDF’s actions in Gaza. Until recently, Breaking the Silence has been tolerated to varying degrees by “left” and establishment Israeli government officials.  First, because the group portrays itself as loyal Zionists who want reform from within, and second, because the existence of a small and powerless association, like these dissenters, reflects well on the “democratic Israel” that many in the center and left love to project.  Lately, that tolerance has been a casualty of the trend to more open hostility toward the Palestinians and other non-Jewish groups by both the Jewish public and the government.

In a column titled, Why I Broke My Silence, in English, and When I Broke the Silence, in Hebrew, Shavit favorably compares internal criticism of Israel such as those of deceased Israeli icons like Natan Alterman and Yizhar Smilansky, and his own, which he considers appropriate, as opposed to the harmful criticism of the members of Breaking the Silence.  In Shavit’s mind, his criticism and those of the aforementioned writers were proffered, “with great pain and with great love, and out of unending devotion to the Zionist enterprise.” Apparently, Shavit does not see those same endearing sentiments in the words of the dissident soldiers.  But this begs the question:  How much unending devotion can one feel toward the Zionist project when it has been the cause of so much injustice and suffering since its inception?

Shavit’s column is full of highly questionable logic, assumptions and suggestions, but permit me here to focus on his third principle for critics of Israel, more specifically on the biblical passage he quotes.

The third principle was to give the system a chance to work. Not to ‘tell it in Gath,’ [emphasis mine, IG] before the internal investigation procedures were exhausted and an authentic effort was made to correct things. As I discovered, the system can sometimes surprise you and fix things on its own.

In the second book of Samuel, David mourns the deaths in battle of King Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan.  He admonishes the Israelites not to inform their enemy the Philistines, who dwell in Gath and Ashkelon, of their deaths (see quote at top of page) because this news would bring joy to “the daughters of the uncircumcised.”  Of course, the Philistines have long since disappeared, but the point remains that Shavit, like many Israelis, still considers keeping secret news of his nation’s weakness and failings essential to Israel’s survival.

Today, the enemy for the Israelis is the Palestinian people, whose males are mostly circumcised.  Also, Shavit condescendingly includes as enemies “the international organizations” who in his view “… are tainted with anti-Semitism and are hostile to Israel.”  Male members of these organizations are like the Philistines, mostly uncircumcised.

The Palestinians, who dwelled for hundreds of years in Gath and Ashkelon, no longer live there.  Kiryat Gat, an Israeli town which was named after the biblical Gath, was established after the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian town named Iraq al-Manshiyya, whose ruins now lie buried beneath a pine forest adjacent to the current town.  The Israeli city of Ashkelon was built on the site of the Palestinian city of al-Majdal Asqalan.  Its Palestinian population either fled or were expelled during the 1948 War and then the remaining community was expelled to Gaza in 1950.

Now, the residents of modern Gath and Ashkelon are all Jewish and mostly supporters of right-wing political parties.  They will not be a force for change as Shavit implies.  Neither will the general Israeli electorate, whether they vote for the left (Shavit?), center, right or ultra-right.

Israel is a society that has dispossessed and oppressed the Palestinian people for generations.  It is an apartheid system which is almost universally supported by the majority of the Jewish citizenry and journalist/propagandists like Ari Shavit.  It is a Sparta, whose sons are educated to serve in the military and are willingly sacrificed in a continual war for the Zionist goal of maintaining Jewish sovereignty over millions of non-Jews.  This will never be changed from within.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding him or herself.

The only change that is possible will come when the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and human rights is supported by the world community.  If this is to occur, a handful of dissidents like the members of Breaking the Silence will have an important role to play.

Ari Shavit is trying to silence these brave soldiers and any Jew who blows the whistle on Israeli crimes when “telling it in Gath.”  His message is that the Zionist project is just and only Jews and Israelis can repair any injustices in Israeli society.  That message is wearing thinner and thinner as the world learns the truth.


Ira Glunts

Ira Glunts is a retired college librarian who lives in Madison, NY. His twitter handle is @abushalom

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17 Responses

  1. pabelmont on January 5, 2016, 10:28 am

    How much pain can one demand of Zionists who are asked to confront the actualities of Zionism-in-Practice (as distinguished, for example, from Zionism-in-Dreams or Zionism-explained-by-simplisitic-formulae)? Can we really expect Shavit to become honest (a very painful transformation, surely)? Can we really expect Shavit to confront bitter truths? Can we really expect Shavit to desert his comrades-in-Zionist-enterprise?

    I ask, because I am conscious that I have never had to make such a confrontation myself. I am a persuaded anti-Zionist, and the persuasion came from my wife, a Palestinian, and 35 years of reading and listening to reports on I/P. I did not have to overcome a childhood (or any other period) of indoctrination in Jewish solidarity or Zionist solidarity.

    So I guess that when we complain about Shavit and so many others (Remnick comes to mind), we should seek and publish as many testimonies as we can find from people who HAVE confronted and broken with a many-years-long association with Zionism and committed Zionists. Because we are not, on the whole, talking here about people who are criminals who feel they must hang together or else hang separately nor yet about people afraid of punishment by an actual police-state or Zionist death squads; no, we are talking about people whose indoctrination(s) prevent either seeing evil (the evil in Zionism-in-Practice) or, if they’ve seen it, speaking-evil (which would amount to abandoning friends and society).

    I would have to say that finding Remnick among these refuseniks surprises me, but of course I don’t really know the pressures or the indoctrinations he’s undergone.

    • pabelmont on January 5, 2016, 10:51 am


      “In this country we have a Jewish establishment that’s getting older and older, it’s completely ossified in its thinking, it does not understand what’s happen[ing; ed] on the ground. To think seriously that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic?! That’s totally self deluding. If they think that, they are setting up this firewall against anybody that has criticisms. And they will be the last to know that these changes are happening. Because they can’t see it, they’re in the bubble; and to protect themselves, they are becoming more vicious. ”

      So Zellner, very perceptive, sees the accusation (against anti-Zionists) of anti-Semitism as self-protection by the bubble-wrapped ossified elders among the big-Zion in USA. We’ve sure got a long way to go.

      • annie on January 6, 2016, 12:35 pm

        thanks pablemont, that was a great interview of zellner

  2. a blah chick on January 5, 2016, 12:40 pm

    “The third principle was to give the system a chance to work. Not to ‘tell it in Gath,’ [emphasis mine, IG] before the internal investigation procedures were exhausted and an authentic effort was made to correct things. As I discovered, the system can sometimes surprise you and fix things on its own.”

    Now that is really precious.

    First the Gathistinians already how effed up the situation is. Second there are NO procedures to address the abuses because the Occupation is SUPPOSE to be abusive.

    The guy is hopeless.

  3. Citizen on January 5, 2016, 1:38 pm

    “Also, Shavit condescendingly includes as enemies “the international organizations” who in his view “… are tainted with anti-Semitism and are hostile to Israel.” Male members of these organizations are like the Philistines, mostly uncircumcised.”

    USA is the only Western country where routine baby boy circumcision is practiced.

    • Mooser on January 5, 2016, 4:30 pm

      “USA is the only Western country where routine baby boy circumcision”

      And a certain type of circumcision, too.

    • pabelmont on January 6, 2016, 11:25 am

      If Shavit really, actually, knowingly mentioned circumcision as a desideratum for ANYTHING, he’s nuts, off-the-deep-end, etc. And , as many people including I’d suppose Shavit know, his dear friends the Muslims also circumcise. Including his particularly dear friends the Palestinian Muslims.

      But a quick reading of the present article’s text suggests to me that the comment about circumcision was not Shavit’s. (Don’t mention that in Gath, tho.)

      So suddenly he trusts Muslims because they circumcise? Give me a break.

      • Shmuel on January 6, 2016, 11:45 am

        Hi pabelmont,

        Circumcision is certainly not the point of Shavit’s use of the biblical text or even its original sense. Although the word ʻarel does literally mean “uncircumcised”, it is used here as a synonym for Philistine (employing the poetic device of “parallelism”), just as the synonymous roots SMḤ and ʻALZ (both roughly meaning “rejoice”) are used in the verse. It could just as easily be translated along the lines of “heathen”.

        As long as we’re on the subject, it’s interesting to note that a number of Jewish texts from the time of the Crusades express support for the Muslim side and underscore Jewish-Muslim fraternity, pointedly referring to the Christian invaders as “the uncircumcised”.

      • Mooser on January 6, 2016, 7:35 pm

        “So suddenly he trusts Muslims because they circumcise? Give me a break.”

        Weeell, we can talk about this another time, but, see, there is circumcision, and then there is circumcision.

  4. Shmuel on January 6, 2016, 10:11 am

    David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, from which the expression “Tell it not in Gath” is taken, is a classic of Zionist education. Among other things, the poem projects the image of the “warrior-poet”, and is central to Israel’s commemoration and perception of its own fallen soldiers.

    The Philistines recently came up in another context. The words to the “revenge song” played at some religious-Zionist weddings, during the course of which knives — and apparently automatic weapons and pictures of murdered babies — are brandished, come from the book of Judges (16:28 [Samson’s prayer]), and lead up to Samson’s declaration of his single-minded desire for revenge, even at the cost of his own life: “Let me die with the Philistines” (ibid. 30).

    I can’t help but think that there is a connection between Shavit’s veneration of David’s martial lament (and specific criticism of Breaking the Silence) and attitude to the “Philistines”, and the veneration of Samson’s prayer for revenge against the “Philistines”, no matter the cost.

    • pabelmont on January 6, 2016, 11:35 am

      Shmuel, I think you are on to something here. Jewish Israelis’ love for savagery and over-the-top slaughter of the mostly defenseless is well known and does seem likely to arise from emotional-ideology. And why not Bible-based? A lot of ideology does spring from religion. Look at Iran and Saudi Arabia today.

      There is something that has always struck me, an outsider, as quite odd about the Jewish circle-the-wagons support-the-clan-no-matter-what-the-clan-does practices: it seems to be an ideology that assumes something not in evidence (a threat sufficient to warrant the protective behavior) and then SERVES, IRRATIONALLY, as an excuse to demand to be allowed to do anything the too-self-protecting-Jews decide they want to do — such as, in Israel, the settlement project (whereby 10% of Israeli Jews live in occupied territories in flagrant violation of international law).

      Being attacked is a justification for legitimate self-protection, not for criminality. Methinks the Israeli (and many American) Jews do protect too much.

  5. Rafi on January 6, 2016, 11:46 am

    The paradox of bds, israel cant be changed ‘from within’ but boycotting it, pressuring it can and will cause change, between the pressure and the change there is going to be some internal procedures, no? Bds really call for change from within israel, they just say the catalizator will be boycott, a regime cannot fall just from outside unless arms are involved, ask saddam, ask kadafi, ask the mufti and his special friend.

    The paradox of onestaters, israelis will never/cant give up the west bank, yet israelis can and must and will give up zionism including accepting ror. (half a miliion jews plus minus should move from east to west of the green line, than the green line needs to be erased, for justice)

    The paradox of antizionism, in 1897 zionism was marginal, antisemitism was rampant, today it is reversed, and those developements are not connected, only that the last irrelevent antisemites use zionism as a drowner that grab straw. Also, the end of american antisemitism and the rise of american jews has really nothing to do with zionism, the yankees just use their success to help and it is their misfortune.

    Get rid of zionism, global antisemitism (the few weak links that remain) goes with it. And american jews, they soar.

    Or not

  6. annie on January 6, 2016, 12:44 pm

    thanks so much ira. although shavit doesn’t mention it, (nor you) i think this article he’s written is tied to the even bigger issue happening in israel now about the new law targeting the left as foreign agents (introduced again right about the time the article was published last month). breaking the silence is one of those groups being targeted and there’s a debate about that in israeli society — tho not much of a debate given how right wing they’ve become. so it’s interesting he’s written this, basically coming down on the side of the silencers at a (crucial) time like this.

  7. JLewisDickerson on January 6, 2016, 2:00 pm

    RE: Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult. — 2 Samuel 1:20 English Standard Version

    MY COMMENT: Not only that, it is apparently A-OK for Israeli’s to lie for the “Fatherland”!* As for taking more “prejudicial” actions . . .**

    * SEE: “A Boy Called Bibi ~ Netanyahu on the Couch” | by Uri Avnery | | May 1-3, 2015

    [EXCERPTS] . . . On the eve of the last election, just now, Netanyahu announced that there would not be a Palestinian state as long as he was in power. When the Americans remonstrated, he repudiated himself. Why not? As his Likud predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, famously said, “It is permitted to lie for the Fatherland.”

    Netanyahu will lie, cheat, repudiate himself, raise false flags – all for the purpose of achieving his one and only real goal, the Rock of our Existence (as he loves to say), the heritage of his father – the Jewish State from the sea to the river. . .


    ** Angels’ Tears – Yitzhak Rabin’s Funeral and the mourning after

    • JLewisDickerson on January 6, 2016, 2:16 pm


      “In a government of law, the existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.” ~ Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis in his dissenting opinion to Olmstead v. United States (1928)

      SOURCE –

      P.P.S. AS TO ISRAEL’S LAWBREAKING, SEE: “Fighting Settlers’ Impunity and Immunity”, by Pierre Klochendler, Inter Press Service, 12/16/11

      [EXCERPT] . . . The Israeli occupation, particularly the future of wildcat settlements built by settlers without formal government approval has been a simmering issue ever since their creation during the 1990s.
      In 2005, former head of the State Prosecution Criminal Department Talia Sasson published a landmark report on the question. Commissioned by then prime minister Ariel Sharon, the report found the Israeli government guilty of “institutional lawbreaking”
      and of the theft of private Palestinian land to covertly establish over a hundred “illegal outposts”. The damning irony is that the “outposts” were a 1997 initiative by none but Sharon himself, then foreign Minister under Netanyahu, who’d urged settlers to seize hilltops in order to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
      The report recommended criminal investigation against those allegedly involved in the scheme, but it was shelved. Repeated injunctions have since pressed successive governments to address the issue. . .


      ■ Sasson Report –

    • JLewisDickerson on January 7, 2016, 2:08 pm

      P.P.P.P.S. ALSO SEE: “New Israeli Government Will Support Settlements” | By Geoffrey Aronson | Al-Monitor | April 5, 2013

      [EXCERPT] . . . It is not for nothing that it has long been said that “the Likud will announce 10 settlements and build one while the Labor Party will announce one and build 10.” Leaders from the heart of the Labor Zionist movement — the same one that transformed 78% of Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state — were the principal architects of Israel’s post-1967 settlement policies in the occupied territories and employed all the instruments of Israel’s national power and authority to place the territorial future of the “liberated territories” beyond Palestinian reach.
      Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon epitomized the leadership of this national effort. They were unabashed supporters of Greater Israel. Recently released protocols of discussions held between US President Jimmy Carter and an Israeli delegation led by PM Menachem Begin in March 1979 recorded Sharon telling Carter, “I don’t see any possibility whatsoever to draw any geographical line which can divide [the] Jewish population and Arab population, because we live here together. Believe me, Mr. President, when I use this figure of one million, saying that in 20 to 30 years I hope that one million Jews will live there, Mr. President, I can assure you, they will live there. There’s nothing to do about it. They will live there, and if we said that we believe that in Jerusalem, what we call the Greater Jerusalem, it is a crucial problem for us, to have one million Jews, they will live there, and they will live in what we call the area of Gush Etzion, in Tekoa, in Ma’ale Adumim. They will live there. There is nothing [you can] do about it.” . . .


  8. Dutch on January 6, 2016, 7:00 pm

    Excellent writing. Thanks Ira.

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