Co-founder of contentious political group Breaking the Silence speaks on campus

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An Israel Defense Forces combat veteran delivered a controversial public address on campus Tuesday evening, calling for the reform of Israeli-Palestinian relations and an end to the Israeli occupation of disputed territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

About 80 students, faculty and community members gathered to hear Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of the contentious political advocacy group Breaking the Silence, speak at a nearly two-hour event in Evans Hall sponsored by the UC Berkeley Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Shaul’s talk followed the much debated October rejection of the Jewish student political advocacy group J Street U at UC Berkeley from joining the campus’s Jewish Student Union, partially on grounds that J Street U’s ties to Shaul’s organization violated the union’s anti-Israel bylaws.

A number of Jewish Student Union members argued Breaking the Silence presents an unfair picture of the climate in Israel and inaccurately represents Israeli soldiers. J Street U did not sponsor Shaul’s talk but has hosted other speakers from Breaking the Silence in the past.

In his speech, Shaul, who served as an infantry officer during the conflict of the Second Intifada from 2001 to 2004, argued that Israel’s possession of the disputed territories has ceased to be primarily defensive in nature and has evolved into an offensive campaign. He added that he does not believe Israel has any intention of ever leaving the occupied regions.

While Shaul said that broader Israeli policy — rather than the Israeli Defense Forces — is to blame for the worst excesses of the occupation, he cited a number of purposeless military tactics, including so-called “mock arrests” and unnecessary highway checkpoints, as evidence for a need to re-examine Israel’s Palestinian policies.

“That’s what Breaking the Silence is about,” Shaul said, “holding up a mirror in front of our society and demanding that (it) take moral and civil responsibility for what’s being done in its name. It’s about trying to force a debate about the moral price … of a prolonged occupation of another people.”

While Breaking the Silence has accumulated more than 950 testimonies from IDF soldiers sharing their experiences in the field, others question the validity of Shaul’s testimony. That group includes UC Berkeley junior Nir Shtern, who served in an IDF combat unit before attending community college in Southern California and transferring to UC Berkeley this year. Shtern said his experience leading troops in the Israeli military differed significantly from Shaul’s and that many of Shaul’s anecdotes and interpretations of soldiers’ stories were taken out of context.

Shaul said he and his fellow soldiers often unnecessarily intruded on Palestinians for the sake of making the IDF’s “presence felt.” That included sending units on nighttime training missions to Palestinian homes that had been determined to be innocent by Israeli intelligence, according to Shaul. The troops would then clear the house and temporarily detain an individual before simply packing up and heading back to base, he said.

Shtern, however, said he never thought his actions as a soldier were unwarranted.

“I never encountered a situation where we just stopped and did something to this house or this group of people for no reason,” Shtern said. “I always felt like I knew what I (was) doing or there was reason for what I (was) doing.”

Many members of the Jewish Student Union agreed and said Breaking the Silence’s position is held by only a small minority of Israeli soldiers.

“Even if all of these presumed testimonials are to be accepted at face value, that makes up less than a tenth of a percent of Israelis who have served in the Israeli Defense Forces,” said Jewish Student Union member David Eliahu in an email. “Their viewpoints are not at all representative of the millions (including my family and fellow Berkeley alumni) who serve or have served in the IDF.”

Associate professor of anthropology Charles Hirschkind, who moderated the event, said Breaking the Silence stood out to him among other Middle Eastern peace groups because of its members’ frontline combat experience. Hirschkind said he understood why the group might be seen as controversial.

“When you have members of the military who are entrusted to enforce (the occupation) … there’s a sense that that view is both a very important one and a very dangerous one,” he said.

UC Berkeley students Shayna Howitt, J Street U’s national communications co-chair, and Elon Rov, a co-chair of J Street U at Berkeley, said they hope Breaking the Silence’s appearance will spark dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian relations within the campus Jewish community rather than divide students over the issue.

“The fear is that people will come to Breaking the Silence and mistakenly infer that every single soldier in the IDF is somehow committing war crimes … (and) come away with this hatred of the IDF or this feeling that the IDF is evil,” Howitt said. “(But) Breaking the Silence is not painting the entire military as committing war crimes.”

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected].