‘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.


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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… Read more »

“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… Read more »

“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.

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… Read more »

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… Read more »