Breaking the Silence Demonizes Israel at Columbia University Hillel
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.”