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Breaking the silence around occupation

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NOVEMBER 19, 2013

My fist on the door shatters the midnight silence. Thud. Thud. I pause, listening to hear whether anyone is inside. Nothing — thud. Taking a step back, I tense up and launch my boot through the door. My heartbeat peaks as I jet into a stranger’s home. I barrel through a bedroom door — rifle and flashlight at the ready. I rip the covers off the bed to reveal a child’s face staring up at me in horror. His eyes pierced mine, and I … realize it’s not me.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I put the book down and hop out of bed to splash water on my face. This has been a recurring event lately — reading soldier testimonials late into the night has a way of unhinging me. Perhaps the whole situation is compounded by the fact that if my family hadn’t whisked me away to the United States as a child, my last few years would have been spent serving in an Israeli combat unit rather than studying at UC Berkeley. Those testimonials would have been my own.

My name is Roi Bachmutsky, and I am a proud Golden Bear who graduated from UC Berkeley just last year. Soon after receiving my diploma, I packed my bags for Tel Aviv, where I would be spending the next year working at an organization called Breaking the Silence.

You might have read about BtS in The Daily Californian some weeks ago as the linchpin of the Berkeley Jewish Student Union’s decision to deny membership to the campus J Street U chapter. The Daily Cal’s Senior Editorial Board suggested BtS “understandably makes some students uncomfortable.” Coincidentally, BtS is coming to campus tonight. Because you are all of course invited, allow me to clear the air.

BtS is an organization composed of former soldiers endeavoring to expose the public to what they witnessed and participated in during their service in the occupied territories. Having collected testimony from a thousand soldiers hailing from almost every nook and cranny of the Israel Defense Forces, BtS seeks to hold up a mirror to Israeli society. It turns out the reflection — littered with systematic disregard for the Palestinian residents — is darker than expected.

This is why BtS is deemed “controversial.” It is never easy to force someone to look at his or her own unsightly reflection in the mirror. It turns out the truth is a hard pill to swallow. Although not all Israeli soldiers share our political conclusions, there is no debate among those who served in the territories about whether the facts our testimonies present are accurate. Each is run through a strict verification process, a military censor, and to this day, not one has been proven false.

BtS does not believe the military is inherently the problem. The problem is the mission to control the day-to-day lives of a civilian population. The problem is the occupation. I have read endless testimonies by soldiers who were initially determined to be “the good guys,” only to realize early in their service that doing so was impossible. There is no way to be a benevolent occupier. The ultimate aim of BtS is therefore not to combat the military but to change Israeli public policy to end the occupation.

The vast majority of the energy of BtS is therefore focused on the Israeli public, but there are other publics involved as well. On the barrel of my colleague’s M-16, for example, was written: “Made in the USA.” He thought about that fact every time he used it. This is why, for us as Americans, this conflict is different from any other on the planet. Although we do not have a military presence on the ground, we enable the military presence that is. Our hands are not clean. This is why BtS comes to speak to Americans — because you likewise have a right and responsibility to know what Israel has done with your support.

At this juncture, I would like to make a few appeals to you as readers.

To those who typically avoid this topic, I ask you to give it a chance. Unfortunately, hearing a soldier’s sobering perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rare. Too often, the military is shrouded in mystery, and when we do hear from soldiers, they speak in an official capacity. Yehuda Shaul, who reached the rank of commander and platoon sergeant in the IDF at the peak of the Second Intifada, will be breaking that silence at UC Berkeley. This is a unique opportunity — I pray you do not miss it.

To those who are uncomfortable by BtS, I understand you. To challenge the myth of “the most moral army in the world” is a task that is bound to ruffle some feathers. Honestly, as someone who has been raised since childhood to be a defender of Israel, I also sometimes find myself feeling uncomfortable. But I relish in that discomfort. I thrive on it. Because I remember not to shoot the messenger. I remember not to be uncomfortable with BtS but with the reality its speakers are revealing. So I implore you to learn about that reality on Tuesday and to take the opportunity to ask Shaul the hardest questions you’ve got.

After all, what are you so afraid of? Looking at yourself in the mirror?

Roi Bachmutsky graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 and is now a member of Breaking the Silence. 

Editor's note: Opinion page editor Noah Kulwin, a leader of the organization J Street U which has ties to Breaking the Silence, was not involved in selecting or editing this op-ed.

NOVEMBER 19, 2013