‘Breaking the Silence’ event at B’nai Amoona exposes raw divisions

Benzi Sanders was one of four Israeli Defense Force veterans to speak before a crowd of about 200 people at an event sponsored by J Street on Nov. 13 at Congregation B’nai Amoona. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Weeks before former soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces started to explain why they had become disillusioned with the Israeli government’s occupation of the West Bank, some people in the St. Louis Jewish community were upset.

The veterans were set to speak Nov. 13 on behalf of Breaking the Silence, a group that uses testimonies from former soldiers to raise awareness of what they describe as abuse of the Palestinian population. 

The nongovernmental organization had held events in St. Louis before, drawing crowds of varying sizes. 

But now they were speaking at Congregation B’nai Amoona, a Conservative synagogue. Members and nonmembers had expressed their displeasure that the congregation had allowed J Street, a sponsor of the event, to use its space.

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About 200 people attended the panel discussion. Many appeared ready to object from the outset because they felt that the veterans were spreading lies about the Israeli army, or at least contributing to anti-Israel efforts by telling their stories. 

But the veterans said that they loved and cared about Israel. And as such, Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona said, the Zionists were welcome to use the space.

“I hope this evening that though we may disagree — and we may disagree with real passion – that we understand that we love one another and that we are here tonight to discuss and to debate and to learn respectfully from one another and to understand that all of us who are here love Tzion, love Israel,” Rose said. 

That proved to be, among a sizable number in the room, an unfulfilled aspiration.

Earlier this year, a group of St. Louis Jews started a local chapter of J Street, a national Israel advocacy organization, with the goal of building efforts toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Neil Jaffe, chair of the St. Louis J Street chapter. 

“(The Breaking the Silence veterans) share a unique and important perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we believe that having an open dialogue is important for the discussion and debate about Israeli policy,” said Jaffe, a member of Central Reform Congregation and board member of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. “We support a free exchange of ideas, and we recognize that there is more than one way to be pro-Israel and more than one way to be Jewish.” 

But in 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Breaking the Silence “slanders soldiers worldwide and works to tie the hands of the state of Israel when it defends itself, which defames the State of Israel.”

Galit Lev-Harir, a member of B’nai Amoona and co-president of St. Louis Friends of Israel, a local Israel advocacy group, wrote in an op-ed in the Jewish Light prior to the event that Breaking the Silence presentations “paint a biased picture of the IDF that gives little-to-no context regarding the situation in which IDF military operations occur.”

Rabbi Daniel Bogard of CRC moderated the event. He opened by saying that when he lived in Jerusalem, rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists and subsequent sirens caused his 3-year-old son to not sleep through the night for six months. 

“But for all of that, for all of my many years in Israel, there is no day that changed me, that impacted me, like the day I spent in Hebron with Breaking the Silence and the settler community there,” Bogard said. 

The four IDF veterans, three of whom grew up in the United States and immigrated to Israel, shared their testimonies. 

Benzi Sanders grew up in an Orthodox community in New York and immigrated to Israel after studying at a yeshiva during a gap-year program after high school. 

“I knew that taking on Israeli citizenship would mean I would serve in the IDF and defend my new country, which I felt was a real privilege, especially given the historic and religious significance,” said Sanders, who was part of a special forces reconnaissance unit and stationed for part of his service near Kedumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. 

During his time there, the Israeli government shut down a road connecting a Palestinian village to a larger city, Nablus, because it ran through Israeli settlements, Sanders said.

He had been trained “to fight an enemy army in enemy territory,” but here his unit was providing security for the Israelis that lived in the settlements. 

Palestinians began to stage weekly protests on Fridays in which they tried to leave the village and walk down the road. Sometimes they threw rocks. Sanders said his job was to disperse the protests, sometimes using rubber bullets and tear gas.

Sanders and his unit would then enter the Palestinian village and arrest not only terrorism suspects but also young protesters, blindfolding them with a fabric called flannelette and using a zip-tie to bind their hands behind their backs while their mothers or grandmothers were “often crying and shouting and protesting,” he said.

“Look at what happened here in this story: There is a settlement that we are protecting, that necessitated the closure of a road, which led to a protest by the Palestinians, which led to us dispersing the protest, which led to them throwing rocks at us, which led to us arresting them, which led to them fighting back against us and us arresting them more,” Sanders said. “That’s kind of what I realized is the reality of what I did and what we continue to do as IDF soldiers in this area.”

At one point, as people from the audience interrupted the panelists, Bogard requested that they please stop and said, “Everyone is here because you wanted to hear these four people.”

A number of people responded that that was not why they were there.

“They are liars,” one Israeli woman shouted of the panelists. 

Later, Sanders, who is still in the IDF reserves, said that when he was at a base in the West Bank he remembers looking out and seeing an Israeli flag caught and shredded in a barbed wire fence. 

“I thought, this is what’s happening here,” he said. “This is the romantic Zionist ideal that I had come to believe in, it was being torn apart here as we were controlling this civilian population against their will. I feel very strongly as an American-Israeli former IDF soldier that whatever discussion is going on here about Israel, our perspective should be heard and taken into account.”

An Israeli man in the audience shouted: “But tell the truth, don’t be a liar.”

Other people also disagreed with the panelists but did not interrupt. They later asked questions.

“First of all, I commend you and respect all four of you for coming out and sharing your opinions,” said Boruch Smason, a St. Louis native who served in the IDF. “My question is more about your personal experience and brings me to question your personal testimony. I carried out tens, if not upwards of 100 combat missions. … I was a sniper on the border in Gaza, and my experience was not even parallel to what you guys described. The situations that you guys described were so far divorced from reality.”

Many in the audience applauded and whistled. 

“My question is why are you taking potentially fictitious or highly exaggerated stories to push your own political agendas?” Smason asked, questioning why they said they had arrested children. 

Sanders said: “I think what we tried to convey here tonight is not about stories of bad apples. I didn’t say at all that we had arrested children for no reason. I said we arrested people who participated in protests and threw rocks at soldiers who were dispersing those protests. The message I want to convey here is not to question the morality of the IDF. What we are questioning here is the morality of the mission that has been given to the IDF.”

Rabbi Rose said he had anticipated that there would be tension in the room.

“People have strong opinions, and people have a lot of passion around the issue,” he said. “I was a little disappointed, very candidly, with some of the overly aggressive behavior. I thought that people should have been a little more respectful. This was a presentation, and they should have listened to the presentation and not interrupted it.” 

Rose said he has visited Hebron many times and met with Israeli soldiers and settlers there and seen how there are “1,000 soldiers protecting 500 settlers.”

“That’s a difficult situation,” the rabbi said. “Many of the young people I talk to there who are serving in the IDF have said to me, ‘Look, we have made all kinds of choices and compromises, do we really belong here?’ It’s a question. I don’t know the answer. I ask myself that question when I visit there. It hurts me to think about giving up any piece of territory in the Jewish homeland, but maybe realpolitik is such that we have to make compromises.” 

After the event, J Street’s Jaffe said that he appreciated that there were people who said they disagreed with Breaking the Silence but supported a two-state solution. 

“We may have a difference in how we want to approach it, and that’s the wonderful blessing of the Jewish community, is our ability to wrestle with these ideas and have an open dialogue about them,” Jaffe said. “I actually walked away with an optimism, or at least a pride that we generated a discussion and could hear that we have more in common than we may have thought.”

As the panelists wrapped up their remarks, the uproar continued. One audience member shouted that the veterans were all saying “Kumbaya” but that the Palestinians would then come and stab them in the back. 

Another shouted, “Of course we all want peace but they [the Palestinians] don’t want it, don’t you see that?”

And finally, one more person yelled, “I work with children who are better behaved than the people in this room. Will you give them the respect to finish what they are saying?”

When the program was over some people from the audience came forward to have quieter dialogue with the panelists.