The right to dissent against a government and its policies is an essential part of any democracy. But what happens when dissent crosses the line from mere criticism into active efforts to undermine a nation’s armed forces in their work against terrorists? Revelations about the activities of the Breaking the Silence group are illustrating that, in Israel, some left-wing activists may have abandoned any sense of obligation to either their fellow citizens or their right to self-defense.
Breaking the Silence is a favorite of Western liberals who are critical of Israel’s government and its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Its conceit is that it is a group of veterans of the Israel Defense Forces who have come forward to expose atrocities committed against the Palestinians by the army. Though its findings are widely disputed by most Israelis, its members have gotten a sympathetic hearing outside the country and are now a staple of the lecture circuit here at synagogues and college campuses. Indeed, unlike other critics of Israel that come across as outside the Israeli mainstream, Breaking the Silence members were hailed as combat-veterans-turned-whistleblowers.
But it turns out that its activities are not so innocuous. An undercover investigative group called Ad Kan has produced videos of meetings between Breaking the Silence activists and an IDF veteran that debunks the group’s claim that it is primarily interested in promoting human rights or in protecting the Palestinians. The videos show that the group’s main interest was in obtaining data about the army’s operational methods and tactics.
This is bombshell material because it demonstrates that, despite its self-styled image as a defender of human rights, it seems to be conducting what amounts to a spying operation whose only possible purpose would be to help Palestinian groups and their supporters evade or defeat IDF efforts to suppress terror.
This is important because, in recent months, one of the main talking points used by critics of the Israeli government was to claim that members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, as well as right-wing activists, were seeking to destroy the nation’s democracy.
The primary evidence for this charge consisted of a bill in the Knesset to force more transparency in funding for left-wing non-governmental agencies that get most of their money from hostile foreign governments and that would also make their lobbyists wear identifying badges noting this fact when in the Knesset (something that lobbyists must also do at the U.S. Congress). But in addition to outrage about that rather innocuous bill, claims that the right was seeking to suppress the speech of the left also rested on a series of ads promoted by a right-wing group that sought to depict the left-wing NGO’s such as B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence as actively seeking to hinder the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces in their fight against Palestinian terror.
The whole idea that such groups could be called “foreign agents” or working to undermine Israeli security was considered obvious proof of a campaign against democracy and received prominent mention in outlets like the New York Times. The ads, the Knesset bill, and virtually all criticism of these left-wing was put down as “incitement” and akin to the harsh language that was used by some opponents of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination in 1995.
But this narrative of right-wing incitement against the left has been undercut by revelations about the activities of these groups. In January, it was learned that a prominent Israeli left-wing activist for Taayush — one of the groups mentioned in the Knesset bill as getting most of its funding from foreign governments — was feeding information about Palestinians who sell land to Jews to Palestinian Authority security services who would then kill them. These new reports about Breaking the Silence have prompted comments from across the Israeli political spectrum, including from some fierce critics of Netanyahu, who have labeled what the videos show as nothing short of espionage.
As the Times of Israel reports, two leaders of the opposition to the Likud had plenty to say about Breaking the Silence:
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid accused Breaking the Silence of “undermining the nation and causing it great damage from within and without.”
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli called the report “serious and very disturbing … Instead of its professed actions to support human rights, we see subversive activity involving the collection of sensitive and classified intelligence and operational information. And who knows who this data is given to and for what purpose?”
What we’ve learned about Breaking the Silence should shame those of its foreign backers who claim to be friends of Israel. That is particularly true of some liberal American Jews that enabled it to play a role in destroying Israel’s image, especially on college campuses. Seen in the context of competing claims by the overwhelming majority of IDF veterans who discount the atrocity stories the group peddled — and which have been largely discredited by army investigations — its time to strip away the public and the media’s illusions about Breaking the Silence. It ought now to be seen for what it is: a subversive organization whose purpose appears to be to undermine the efforts of the IDF at a time when Israel is under assault by a wave of bloody terrorism, as well as from threats from Hamas and Hezbollah. Its members are not victims of incitement but people who are actively attempting to impede the army from protecting Israel’s citizens.
The narrative promoted in the New York Times and other venues about the Jewish right trying to destroy Israeli democracy in an effort to silence well-intentioned human rights activists on the left who only want to save the nation’s soul and protect helpless Palestinians is a myth. Left-wing NGO’s like Breaking the Silence are not content to merely sabotage IDF counter-terrorism. The fundamental purpose of these organizations is to overturn the verdict of Israeli democracy as expressed by the overwhelming majority of the country’s voters who continue to re-elect Netanyahu and Knesset majorities for his governments. It is those who back foreign pressure to force Israel’s government to submit to Palestinian demands that are trying to kill democracy, not Netanyahu’s supporters.
Israeli authorities will investigate this spying on the army. But those who have cheered on efforts to promote Breaking the Silence and other like-minded organizations from abroad must now do some soul searching about their choices. No one, either in Israel or here is obligated to support every policy of the government in Jerusalem or to refrain from speaking out against actions they deem to be wrong. But there is a line between democratic dissent and espionage or other efforts that materially aid the efforts of terror groups. Breaking the Silence has crossed that line. Those who claim to be friends of Israel should never again grant it a platform or a penny of financial support.