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April 3, 2016 9:19 am

Breaking the Silence Demonizes Israel at Columbia University Hillel

avatar by Alexandra Markus

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Avner Gvaryahu. Photo: Breaking the Silence website

Avner Gvaryahu. Photo: Breaking the Silence website

On Thursday night, at Columbia University, Breaking the Silence (BtS) was well-received by a group of about 100 excited college students.

The former soldier who represented BtS was Columbia graduate student Avner Gvaryahu, who is getting a Master’s Degree in Human Rights, and is the controversial organization’s Diaspora Programming Coordinator for the United States.

In his hour-long speech, Gvaryahu accused Israeli MK Oren Hazan of “tricking us into trying to publish classified information,” and claimed that a group of Israelis was placed to “spy on anti-occupation groups.”

“We found four people who sat down and lied to us in their testimonies, but because we do our work well, we caught that and made sure it wouldn’t be published,” he said.

He did not directly counter the claims, substantiated on video, of BtS members trying to obtain from former Israeli soldiers classified information about military operations that had nothing to do with human rights, as reported by The Algemeiner.

Gvaryahu gave what appeared to the untrained ear to be a sobering speech about the activities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza, describing in great detail a slew of egregious acts some of which would seem to amount to war crimes, emphasizing that the goal of BtS is to end the “occupation,” not Israel. He spoke of soldiers ransacking Palestinians’ homes, manhandling elderly people, ignoring those with medical conditions, looking to steal, and other offenses. Nevertheless, he stated that BtS does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and they feel themselves to be “patriotic Israelis,” even in questioning the purported “morality” of the IDF. (To the often floated suggestion that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world,” Gvaryahu scoffed and said, “I’ve never heard about any ‘moral army Olympics.’”)

BtS has widespread and apparently growing appeal to Jewish college students. It allows them to feel that they are part of an important process of social and political change, and to participate in human rights activism without feeling like they have to give up their love of Israel or belief in Israel’s existence. Organizations like J Street and BtS prey on students who want to be heroes — young adults who want to fight the establishment, who want to feel like they’re making their mark in some way.

Unfortunately, their methods are extremely suspect. And, as a result, their aims are questionable. BtS and Gvaryahu have been repeatedly under fire because they refuse to cooperate with the IDF in investigations of their claims, and for publishing and citing testimonials on record that have been proven false not only by IDF soldiers, but by members of Gvaryahu’s own unit.

Outside the hall, members of the Columbia chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) handed out flyers featuring members of Gvaryahu’s unit refuting the claims he has made, many of which were discussed in his talk.

Moreover, BtS is known to receive millions of dollars in funding from foreign governments, which Gvaryahu claims are “Israel’s strongest allies,” countries like the UK, France and Germany. This funding is sometimes provided based on the number of testimonials the NGO produces. This, coupled with the fact that testimonies are anonymous, causes many to doubt not only the veracity, but also the legitimacy of BtS itself. It seems to many that they are taking money from foreign entities that actually are hostile to Israel to collect dirt on the IDF and use it against Israel.

SSI president Rudy Rochman, who also served in a paratrooper unit as a sniper in the IDF, says: “I’ve watched hours of Avner’s videos and I was also in the Paratroopers and I can tell you that what he is saying is not twisting the truth but straight-up lies. Lies that demonize Israel and its army.”

Avi Dorfman, a former soldier, disagrees with Gvaryahu’s assertion that BtS is pro-Israel, claiming that “Breaking the Silence, if it gets its way, will cripple the IDF to such a degree that the army, and therefore Israel itself, can no longer exist.”

Rochman, during the question period, criticized Gvaryahu’s refusal to provide proper context in his stories. “You talk about individual instances of behavior, but not the Code of Ethics the IDF has; you mention the soldier last week who shot a Palestinian terrorist, but don’t mention that he’s going to be tried for what he’s doing and in detention. It’s very easy to mention the wrongs the IDF does, but you don’t mention what the country does to take care of those wrongs. Also, you talk about the houses the IDF uses during its operations, for example during the Second Intifada. What you don’t mention is they do so to prevent the next suicide bomber who perhaps planned to blow up a bus tomorrow, as his cousin, friend or comrade blew up a pizza place the week before.”

Documentarian Natan Nestel, who heard Gvaryahu’s talk, warns of the danger of groups like BtS and what he calls their “unsubstantiated blood libel.”

“You’re turning an entire generation of students against Israel, impressionable Jewish students are being brainwashed and alienated from Israel by Hillel’s and J Street’s Israel-demonizing presentations, portraying IDF soldiers as ‘war criminals’ and Israel as an ‘occupier’ committing ‘crimes against humanity,’” he said.

Although the controversy over BtS speaking at Hillel seems recent (as reported by The Algemeiner), according to Nestel, Hillel has been hosting anti-Israel speakers, in violation of their Standards of Partnership, for years, especially at elite campuses such as Columbia, Harvard, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania.

On Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday, Hillel Israel president Alon Friedman argued that they are not in violation, stating that hosting BtS is “what the students want, and it’s better to have it here inside a Jewish environment where it can be countered than under the supervision of an anti-Israel group or professor.”

Gvaryahu claims his views are in line with Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, claiming BtS doesn’t support BDS, and that he wholeheartedly supports Israel’s right to exist. “I say yes to Israel, no to occupation, and feel that the Israeli Right, which argues that to support Israel we must support the settlements, is damaging.”

“If it is really about ending the occupation, BtS would not resort to spreading lies and breaking the law,” Dorfman counters. “In the presentation, [Gvaryahu] brags about breaking the law to meet the demand to present to students in Israel. Israel has a free press, and the law banning BtS from schools wouldn’t have been passed unless it was proven that BtS spreads lies to defame Israel, I know for a fact it has been proven.”

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  • Daniel Cheren

    The offensiveness of Breaking the Silence (BtS) is not in their position or politics. Opposing the Occupation, or bringing to light instances of the IDF’s violation of Israeli or international law or even actions which some would deem “immoral” regardless of its permissibility under the law are all legitimate expressions of political opinion that ought be protected in any democracy.

    No, there offense is their tactics of lying and contempt for the democratic process.

    The first and most obvious lie is implicit in the group’s very name. “Breaking the Silence”?!? What “silence”? Who has EVER accused the Jews and ESPECIALLY Israelis of ever being silent? What an incredibly outrageous accusation so obviously controverted by even the most casual observation of Israeli society and politics to imply that Israelis are in any way reticent about engaging in political discourse, open debate, self-critique, opposition or dissent. Israeli political society is raucous, active, loud, unfettered, and amazingly tolerant of an unusually wide range of views. There are no sacred cows; there are no red lines. Certainly the limits of legitimate political debate and expression exceed by far anything that was ever known in the United States. Consider that in the US where membership in the Communist Party was once prohibited by law and even calling oneself a “socialist” is the political kiss of death – at one time, Israel had THREE different Communist Parties, as well as a radical Socialist and a couple of moderate Socialist parties, along with several religious parties and of course a left of center and right of center party. To then pretend that somehow there are topics regarding which Israelis do not discuss is a flat out deception. Any group that starts out with a deception from the inception has a big credibility problem (and the credibility of BtS’s sources has always been subject to question).

    The other fundamental problem with BtS is its tactics of going outside of Israeli society to gain traction. Israel is an open democracy. Any political view can be aired and if its arguments are persuasive, then it will find support and may be advanced. That is how a democracy ought work. However, BtS is obviously disappointed that it has been unable to convince enough Israelis of the justice of its cause. Rather than accepting the judgment of the people – which is part of living in a democracy – BtS has sought to turn its arguments to non-Israelis in the hopes that convincing foreigners will be easier. This is a fundamentally illegitimate tactic, it is anti-Democratic, and it is harmful to Israel such that it verges on being treasonous.

    Israelis have a right to SELF-determination. That means ISRAELIS have the right to make political decisions that effect them and, equally, have the right to be free from FOREIGNERS imposing their political will on them. When BtS takes its arguments to foreign countries in the hopes that foreigners will apply political and economic pressure to force Israelis to do what the majority believe is wrong – that violates essential concepts of democracy and self-determination.

    When one considers that the world does not have a great track record of being supportive of the rights of Jews, but an excellent one of Machiavellian self-interest and pandering to power and money, and an even better one of Jew-hatred, persecution and oppression – to bring one’s failed arguments to such a forum is not just wrong, but clearly hurtful to Israelis, their rights and their lives.

    BtS does NOT deserve a forum at Hillel or any other organization that respects the concepts of democracy and self-determination.

  • Reform School

    At his infamous “We Will Bury You” speech, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly slammed a shoe against the United Nations General Assembly podium, he only slammed one shoe. His other hand was busy waving to his adoring Leftist college professors lining the visitors’ gallery.

    Thus began the Era of Political Correctness that precipitated the fall of The Noble Experiment.

    “When the sticks and the stones go beyond breaking bones

    To the point where the threat’s existential

    If an Ivy League Jew shows the brain of a gnu

    He’s beyond getting help from the pencil.”

  • Wm. J. Levy

    What is wrong with being pro-Israel since so much of American Jewry is anti-Israel because they are strong, tough and win wars as opposed to those cowards who cry for the Palestinians on their couches as did a rabbi in the last Gazan war.

  • Judith Levine

    Ms Ms Markus has written a wonder article regarding the BtS. She is factual and to the point. She provides genuine voices to support her claim. BtS, on the other hand , produces smoke. It makes allegations but never provides definitive proof of their existence. Either they have no actual IDF members (a very strong possibility) or the stated purpose of the group to expose IDF failings is a smokescreen for work to undermine the IDF and Israel in the eyes of the world. In either case, they also ignore what many of us now call the group privately… Becoming the Supercilious.

  • Robert Davis

    It’s about time those stupid Israeli “leaders” who lead nothing and no one,understand the only way to stop this trash, the pressures to CLAIM SOVEREIGNTY AND EXPEL ARABS WHO OCCUPY THE JEWISH PROVINCES otherwise Israelis should expel Netanyahu.

  • Robert Davis

    Not only this guy “does well” his treason work but on top of that he is a LIAR asserting Israel “occupies” the jewish provinces. He should he should be impeached for treason and LIES, slander and anti Israel pr.

  • tiki

    “We have been tricked”.
    My dear Avner, that’s the purpose…….of your organisation!

  • I note this:
    “Gvaryahu claims his views are in line with Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, claiming BtS doesn’t support BDS, and that he wholeheartedly supports Israel’s right to exist. “I say yes to Israel, no to occupation, and feel that the Israeli Right, which argues that to support Israel we must support the settlements, is damaging.””

    Anyone know how many Jewish residents of communities in Judea & Samaria have been guest speakers at Hillel houses?

    • Alexandra

      Yehuda Hakohen spoke there last year.

  • Mike P

    BtS is about taking European money in exchange for libeling Israel and misleading students.

    That is why Avner Gvaryahu refused to provide context, consequences of lesser action, standards of action globally, and how extraordinary is both the IDF’s Code of Ethics and Israel’s enforcement of that code.

    Naive college students will always seek to glom on to something that enables them to feel good and accepted and righteous, even if they are misled into demonizing the good and siding with the bad.

    Such were the useful idiot student the 1960’s and 1970’s that enabled the slaughter of 5 million Cambodians and Vietnamese in the 1970’s by Communists.

  • Dorothy Nicolazzo

    Occupation??? The only occupiers are the Arabs and their religion which appropriated every single tradition of Jufaism without ever accrediting the source.

  • Pinchas Baram

    BtS is against “the occupation.” like Meretz, Bernie Sanders, lots of so-called progressive Jews. why is that? because they have no real connection to the Bible, to the idea that Judea and Samaria is the land of their ancestors and thus is and must be precious to Jews.

    further, leftist progressives see the Bible as myth and/or irrelevant history. they dislike, even hate Torah and have no sense of loyalty to it. moving to the next step, they choose to see the arabs as victims and as the original and indigenous “natives” and the Jews as colonists and therefore foreign “occupiers.”

    in short, they are the product of a tremendous FAILURE of parental and school upbringing. phrased differently, the status of Bible studies in the typical Israeli curriculum is low and weak, irrelevant and disconnected to students’ lives today.

    and thus the concept of the Jewish HOMELAND being Judea and Samaria, and not Tel Aviv, is lost, abandoned, discarded, even scorned…

  • The Jewish people have had traitors amongst them since the beginning ….likely it was because of their always dire predicament …maybe the Stockholm syndrome much so that even in Israel ..there are traitors..likely there’s a sort of moral narcissism involved…or maybe it’s the Jewish habit of. Questioning every thing….HOWEVER…these pond scum…are doing their very best to de.legimate their own nation in a time of war…using outright lies and fact twisting…their motives?…. either some moral breakdown..a self hatred of sorts…or they are making money on their treason…getting paid by leftist NGO s..from the EU..and their aram /Muslim friends…the later is my best guess

  • Julia Wexler

    Thank you Alexandra,

    The most awful irony is that college students can, and should be raising their voices against a host of human rights atrocities all over the world: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Africa . . . the list is long. The girls of Boko Horom were never returned; why don’t they put their human rights voices behind any one of these awful atrocities? Instead they choose only to create lies that lead to rage and wrongful conclusions about the only democratic state on the list: Israel. Also the only state targeted for genocide openly by the Palestinian President Abbas. What a waste of an education.

  • Sandy Wasserman

    (1) Aside from the article’s title, the first hals of this article, from “Last night…” through “… in some way.” could have been an advertisement for BtS. I wish the rest of the article – all the negative aspects of BtS,would have been front and center after the article’s title, which I want to imagine was/is the article’s author’s belief, as in the choice of title. (2) Since Algemeiner is read mostly by English speakers, I am not sure of the sense and honesty behind the short paragraph: Hillel Israel president Alon Friedman argued that they [Hillel Israel] are not in violation, stating that hosting BtS is “what the students want, and it’s better to have it here inside a Jewish environment where it can be countered than under the supervision of an anti-Israel group or professor.” Where is ‘here?’ Seems to me, ‘here’ is on American campuses, with students speaking English, reading English, and NOT in a Jewish environment- certainly not in Israel. It’s recruitment, clear and simple. (3) It’s kind of sad for a Jewish organization, claiming to support Israel, to base its existence on the fact that they are ‘not in violation’ (4) The best part of the article is Natan Nestel’s paragraph, regarding the true intent of BtS. Nestel warnings about BtS have been around for several years. See the article in J Post in which he informs us the BtS receives its funding from the NIF and also that BtS was cited as a source 27 times in the Goldstone Report. Even Goldstone retracted his own report! Wake up BtS: You are being used! Read: