J Street U Tufts hosts former IDF soldier to discuss Israeli occupation

– J Street U Tufts brought member of Breaking the Silence and former IDF soldier Avner Gvaryahu to Tufts on March 3, 2016. Breaking the Silence is an organization that features the voices of IDF soldiers sharing their experiences while serving for Israel. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

Over 30 people gathered to hear Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence (BtS) speak about his experiences as a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the occupied West Bank. The event, hosted by J Street U Tufts, featured Gvaryahu’s presentation, titled “Understanding the Israel Occupation.”

Co-chair of J Street U Tufts Andrew Goldblatt, a first-year, opened the event by providing background about Gvaryahu and the goals of J Street U.

Following the introduction, Gvaryahu began his presentation by asking audience members about their prior knowledge of Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF veterans who gather testimonies from and make public knowledge the activities of Israeli soldiers in West Bank, and their expectations of his talk. According to a Mar. 3 Daily op-ed co-authored by Goldblatt and J Street U Co-chair Sasha Kerez, “BtS faces backlash from those who believe that their testimonies misrepresent the IDF as bloodthirsty, disregard the efforts taken by the army to spare civilian lives and paint Israel in an unfair light.”

Gvaryahu said he previously served in the IDF as a paratrooper in 2004, then as a sergeant in a special operations unit largely in areas such as Nablus and Jenin. He explained that he has been in the United States for a little less than one year doing his masters at Columbia University, while continuing his work with BtS.

Gvaryahu has been involved with BtS since ending his service. During his time as a soldier, Gvaryahu said he was also part of the special operations unit, where his specific role was to scout out enemy tanks and shoot them before they attacked members of his platoon. He used a map to explain his experience being stationed in West Bank, adding that there was contention over the way the contested areas are described.

“Every word is politicized… Especially in the army, it’s really interesting to see how the language has changed,” he said.

Gvaryahu went to speak about one of the first missions he ever took part in, a “Straw Widow” operation, where soldiers occupy a home for tactical reasons, while holding occupants in the home captive.

“Israel is the occupying force,” he said. “This is the reality that a solider’s in and in this reality … As a military force, as the occupying force, if you want to take over a house, or road, or building, or even a piece of land, you can do that if you say it’s for security forces.”

At the time, Gvaryahu said he and the other soldiers in his unit wanted to be on the mission to protect and fulfill their obligation to their country. However, as Gvaryahu continued to serve, he said he didn’t see theft and humiliation of Palestinians, or the destruction of property regularly, but arrests and “Straw Widow” procedures were happening daily.

“We’re trying to do good… but it doesn’t really matter to the family that I’m barging into their home in the middle of the night,” he said.

Gvaryahu described one “Straw Widow” he led where he and his soldiers tried to forcibly enter the house of a local doctor, who was in his 70s or 80s. The doctor attempted to stop the soldiers from entering and the IDF soldiers had to physically restrain him, his wife and his daughter in a room, binding them.

Toward the end of his service, Gvaryahu said he and other soldiers were thinking back to all the Palestinians they had encountered.

“We were trying to remember faces of Palestinians,” he said. “We entered dozens of homes, we couldn’t remember faces.”

Gvaryahu then spoke about how BtS was formed, and the shift in the political climate in Israel surrounding the conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said that BtS now provides a database with thousands of testimonies from a variety of IDF soldiers.

“The heart of our work is really the gathering of these testimonies,” he said. “We’re trying not only to be a history group, not an archive. We want to be relevant to the discourse … we want to be people to be knowledgeable about this reality.”

In addition to collecting testimonies, Gvaryahu said BtS also does educational work, meeting with approximately 10,000 to 12,000 people a year, from high school and college students in Israel to people internationally.

“We really think that in order to fully understand the reality and battle of occupations, we have to know what it means on the ground from the perspective of the soldiers as well,” he said.

As part of his presentation, Gvaryahu also showed the attendees two video testimonies from soldiers, to explain that there are extreme cases of IDF forces punishing and humiliating Palestinians that are “part of the reality soldiers talk about.”

He added that part of this reality means understanding that there are people in the middle of the conflict, including terrorists from both sides who have killed Israelis and Palestinians.

“We’re not ignoring the fact that there are real threats, but these real threats are only a symptom of this overarching reality… an almost 50 year reality, and today there is still no end in sight,” Gvaryahu said.

Gvaryahu, who identifies as an Israeli patriot, said he is doing the work he is doing for the sake of his country. He said that in addition to his love for Israel, he believes that the right to self-determination is a right.

“When we talk about ending the occupation, we understand that with the end of the occupation that hopefully we can help promote, we are not necessarily [at the] end… of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “This is our future and if anyone cares about the future of the people living in the region, Israelis or Palestinians … we have to think about a way forward to address this problem.”

Following his presentation, Gvaryahu opened the room up to questions, entertaining questions that ranged from the process of vetting testimonies to his thoughts about the future of the conflict situation.

“Israel is not ideal, Israel is also not a demon. Israel is a state and like any other state, there are problems … specifically we’re continuing an occupation that has no place in 2016,” he said. “There cannot be a moral occupation, we don’t believe there can be a moral occupation, but we also understand where the society is now.”

He explained that the mission of BtS is to share the experiences of IDF soldiers and make the public aware of these experiences.

“Our job in the society today is to let people know what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “What motivates me is ending occupation and exactly what is in order to allow Israel to continue and prosper.”

Gvaryahu said that Israel is in crisis, with one political voice coming out of Israel that tells people that in order to support Israel, they have to support the occupation.

“That’s petrifying. It’s not new. It’s the first time it comes out; it’s the first time it comes out with such a loud voice and without real opposition,” he said. “We’re going to see things at least in the near future deteriorate, and that’s petrifying.”

Despite his feelings about the occupation, Gvaryahu reiterated his support for the state of Israel.

“This is our time to unite against basically these destructive forces which are pulling us down, I believe,” he said. “I think as someone who loves his country … in exactly the same amount of love that I love my country, I hate this occupation.”

Oren Abusch-Magder, the educational chair for J Street U Tufts, said he felt that hosting Gvaryahu was important and productive for dialogue on campus.

“I think it’s really great for a lot of the different opinions on Israel to kind of come together and listen and have a really civil space to kind of have discourse on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Abusch-Magder, a first-year, said.

Sophomore Abraham Bayer said he enjoyed the event and hearing from someone who seemed genuine in sharing his experiences.

“I always think it’s good to hear somebody who’s being self-critical, a group that’s being self-critical,” he said. “I think it has a lot of power when somebody who is also pro-Israel is critiquing Israel.”

Bayer, one of the co-presidents of the Israeli-group Friends of Israel, said he tries to go to all of the events put on by Israel-related groups to hear different perspectives.

“I think especially on a campus with strong political views, the best thing that you can do is just bring in a variety of opinions … the most important thing is that people also do their own education,” he said. “It’s important to hear every opinion, but it doesn’t mean that you can take everything you hear without a grain of salt.”

Fellow FOI Co-president Itamar Ben-Aharon echoed these sentiments, saying that it’s everyone’s personal responsibility to educate themselves on all sides of the issue.

“It was a very important event to have for me as an Israeli-American and someone who identifies as pro-Israel to learn about the side that we don’t hear so much — sort of the bad things that Israel does in the occupation that need to end,” Ben-Aharon, a sophomore, said.

He said that he and others often struggle with BtS as an organization because often people who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist use quotes from testimonies that BtS collects “as a way to demonize Israel that wasn’t originally the purpose.”

Kerez, a junior, explained that it is important to recognize the multiplicity of opinions on the subject.

“I just think that it’s really important to lift up Israeli voices that are opposing the occupation,” she said. “I feel like those voices aren’t always heard.”

Abusch-Magder added that he feels the American-Jewish community benefits from hearing from a diversity of voices and views when they show that there are a “whole host of different ways to love Israel.”

“I was really excited to see the fact that…there are a lot of people here, but even more importantly, there are a lot of different people here with a lot of differing opinions on Israel and the conflict,” Abusch-Magder said. “For me, that’s a really positive sign; it means that there’s a lot of civility at least in this space and that there’s a lot of willingness to hear other voices … so I was really just impressed and proud of the Tufts community.”