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April 1, 2016 2:01 pm

Amid Heated Controversy, Breaking the Silence Speaks at Columbia/Barnard Hillel

avatar by Andrew Pessin

"Reservists on Duty," speaking out against the claims of their fellow combat soldier, Avner Gvaryahu, of Breaking the Silence. Photo: Screenshot.

“Reservists on Duty,” speaking out against the claims of their fellow combat soldier, Avner Gvaryahu, of Breaking the Silence. Photo: Screenshot.

Amid an ongoing controversy over whether NGO Breaking the Silence (BtS) should be hosted by the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, a BtS representative addressed the Columbia/Barnard Hillel Thursday night, The Algemeiner has learned.

But before Avner Gvaryahu, the “Diaspora Programming Coordinator USA” for BtS — a group of former Israeli soldiers and officers who accuse their comrades-in-arms of war crimes — began his lecture, he was met by protesters.

Individual students near the venue handed out flyers saying, “Breaking the Silence Does Not Belong at Columbia Hillel,” and asserting that BtS “irresponsibly demonizes the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with anonymous unverified testimonies;” that “its actions provide ammunition to Israel’s sworn enemies;” and that it “is supported by hostile anti-Israel European governments and organizations.”

The Columbia chapter of the advocacy organization Students Supporting Israel (SSI), with the assistance of a group of Israeli reserve soldiers called “Reservists on Duty,” also distributed flyers. These excerpted testimonials from members of Gvaryahu’s own IDF unit, who have accused him of spreading lies and misrepresentations that “tarnish the name” of the IDF and “fuel hatred of Israel around the world.” These testimonials appear in a YouTube video Reservists on Duty produced, as The Algemeiner reported in December.

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Gvaryahu’s lecture lasted about 45 minutes, according to attendees, and covered the organization’s 2004 founding, its subsequent history and ongoing work and its political orientation, which he described as “patriotic support of Israel,” but dedicated to “ending the occupation which is approaching its 50th year.”

In a 30-minute question period, Gvaryahu then addressed some of the recent complaints surrounding BtS, including those involving its funding and international activities. Responding to the charge that BtS promotes anti-Israel activity abroad, for example, Gvaryahu answered, “The vast majority of our work is in Israel itself, and we aim to contribute to the Israeli conversation about occupation.”

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of the watchdog group NGO Monitor, which has produced a report about BtS, rejected Gvaryahu’s assertion. Steinberg told The Algemeiner that “European taxpayers provide the vast majority of BtS funds, and most of BTS’s activity is outside of Israel.”

The domestic controversy about the lecture stems from the allegation, voiced by pro-Israel groups as recently as this week (as reported by The Algemeiner), that in hosting BtS, Hillel International is violating is own “standards of partnership,” which preclude the organization from working with groups that “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.”

Two weeks ago, Hillel International released a statement defending its decision to allow local Hillel chapters to host the group, as reported by The Algemeiner. It stated that Hillel does “not support BtS or its mission in any way,” and that its staff, when “confronted with BtS on their campuses,” would ensure that “students hear from other voices challenging BTS’s assertions.” Still, it concluded, Hillel had reviewed the allegation that the BtS program violates Hillel’s guidelines and was “confident it is false.”

According to a statement released at the same time by Columbia/Barnard Hillel Executive Director Brian Cohen, “During the same week as this program, a group of undergraduate students who served in the IDF will share their own narrative with our students.”

According to Columbia Hillel’s online calendar, an event called “IDF Code of Conduct” was scheduled for Friday night, April 1, at 10 pm. The event’s description reads:

Given the controversy surrounding the recent event in Hebron, we would like to invite you a special dessert discussion to hear from current Columbia students about the event, their service in the IDF, and the IDF’s rules of engagement.

BtS is also the source of great controversy in Israel, as reported by The Algemeiner, being both under investigation for allegedly collecting classified military information, as well as the target of a slander suit by IDF reservists.

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