By now, the military police and the settlers in Hebron all know Mikhael Manekin, the co-director of the Israeli anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence. Once or twice a week, the New York-born, Baltimore-raised 31-year-old is there, leading small tour groups through the eerie, desolate zone around the central settlement in Hebron’s old city, where 800 ultra-rightist Jews are protected by about 500 Israeli soldiers. As Manekin showed me and several other journalists around on a walking tour last fall, an armored car trailed us. He said not to worry—they were protecting us from the settlers, who have attacked him in the past.
At first glance Manekin, with his trim black beard and kippa, could be one of them. Indeed, part of what makes him such a formidable peace activist is how much Zionist credibility he has. He’s an Orthodox Jew and a veteran of the elite Golani battalion, where, among other things, he protected settler roads and liaised with settler security. His last position in the military was an instructor in an officer-training academy. Like other members of Breaking the Silence, an organization of young Israeli army veterans, he can discuss the occupation with authority, because he was one of the people charged with carrying it out.
Other than the armored car, a few kids in knit skull caps, and some Orthodox women pushing baby carriages, the streets of Hebron were empty. They are, in IDF parlance, “completely sterilized,” meaning that Palestinians aren’t allowed on them. Those who need to traverse the area must cut through a nearby cemetery. Most of the Arabs who once lived near the settlers’ encampment have since left. The few that have remained mostly stay inside their apartments. Bars protect their windows and balconies from the settlers’ stones. If they must go out, they have to climb onto the roof and down a fire escape into a back alley, because the concrete outside their front doors is reserved for Jews. If they get seriously ill, they’re in trouble. “The Jewish subset of the Red Cross doesn’t treat Palestinians here,” says Manekin. “What you see a lot of times is Palestinians carrying people by foot to an area with an ambulance.”
As he talks, our driver, a bluff man in his 50s who lives in Netanya and speaks English with a heavy Israeli accent, shakes his head. “I didn’t know,” he says. “People don’t know.”
Breaking the Silence was formed almost by accident in 2004. It started as an exhibition of photographs and video testimonies by soldiers who had served in Hebron and were anguished by their own behavior. The IDF wasn’t happy—military police raided the Tel Aviv gallery where the exhibit was mounted and confiscated one of the videos—but thousands of Israelis attended. Many of them were soldiers who’d never discussed their own shame. Among them was Manekin, who’s still dealing with what he describes as a “great sense of discomfort about my own personal behavior” during his army service. He agreed to give his own testimony, and soon he was part of a nascent movement.
There was no single epiphany that radicalized Manekin, no moment when he realized that much of what he’d taken for granted about Israeli righteousness was wrong. The son of two professors—his mother teaches modern Jewish history, his father medieval Jewish philosophy—he grew up in a home that was religiously Orthodox and decidedly Zionist, if also politically liberal. He had dual Israeli-American citizenship, and he spent a lot of time going back and forth between the two countries. When he was a teenager, Manekin’s family moved to Israel full-time, and he was sent to an Orthodox high school where right-wing politics predominated.
For Manekin, being accepted into the Golani battalion was like getting into a good college. “You want to excel,” he says. He enlisted for four years, one year more than required. He served first in Southern Lebanon and then in the Nablus region in the West Bank. During that time, he did things that he’s ashamed of, though they’re the sorts of things that any soldier controlling a restive, angry population would do, such as shooting stun grenades at Palestinians to intimidate them at checkpoints. Once, when his unit was assigned to protect the route to a settlement, the soldiers commandeered a house in a nearby village to serve as a lookout, and then, suspecting others might be more suitable, they took over those instead. Manekin was troubled by the soldiers’ cavalier attitude toward Palestinian homes. When he voiced his concerns, he was summoned to the battalion general, who asked if he was uncomfortable serving in the territories.
At the time, he was indignant at the suggestion that he wasn’t ready to do everything required by his military position. But in retrospect, he realized the general was right. There is no way to maintain an occupation without cruelty and moral squalor. That’s the message of Breaking the Silence: The abuses its members document stem directly from government policy. “On the whole, the military is actually fine,” he says. “This is not about the settlers. It’s not about the military. It’s about the state.”
A large part of Breaking the Silence’s work involves collecting and disseminating soldiers’ stories about their experiences in the occupied territories—to date, the organization has interviewed over 700 combatants, including members of every unit that has fought in the territories in the last 10 years. The group has just published a harrowing new book, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010. A selection of oral histories culled from interviews with more than a hundred soldiers, it presents episodes of the daily, casual degradation and brutality that occupation entails. Manekin’s own testimony is among them, though, in keeping with the rest of them, it’s anonymous.
Cumulatively, the testimonies describe a system intended to break the Palestinians’ will by subjugating their lives to Israeli whims, a system in which tyranny can always be justified with the rhetoric of security. Where there is self-rule, it’s granted on sufferance and can be taken away at will. The soldiers are not bad people, but, as one of them says, “It’s the power that you have in your hands. At some point it fucks you up, if you are a human being.” One soldier recounts detaining Palestinians arbitrarily, shackling them for eight or nine hours at a time. Another describes how harassing Palestinians became a form of entertainment: “One of the goals was always: I got him to cry in front of his kids, I got him to crap in his pants.”
A soldier in Hebron describes his shock at realizing how routinely settlers attack Palestinians, including women and children, with utter impunity. “And it exists here in the State of Israel, and no one knows about it, and no wants to know, and no one reports about it,” he says. There are numerous reports of soldiers smashing up Palestinian homes as a sort of catharsis. “I think it’s really like when you see people on MTV smashing their guitars on stage,” says one. “[O]ver there you have the power to act it out, and these things are not your own things, and what’s more, you’re at war.”
The book describes “mock arrests,” in which new soldiers arrest innocent Palestinians for practice. “They would actually do intelligence work to find out a Palestinian is innocent before arresting him, so as not to endanger the troops,” Mikhael says. Soldiers, he said, have two rationales for this. The first is training. Second, he says, it creates “a feeling of lack of understanding on the Palestinian side. Suddenly, an innocent person is being arrested. Nobody understands what’s happening, and the sense of insecurity and fear among the Palestinian population fits in very well with the overall strategy, which is instilling that fear in the population.”
One might see all this as the regrettable but inevitable price of self-defense. Palestinian terrorism, after all, is real, even if it has abated significantly in recent years. Many Israelis would dearly love to end the occupation if they didn’t believe doing so would put their own lives at risk. Breaking the Silence is addressed to them as well: Those who support Israeli policy have as much of a duty to understand what it entails as those who oppose it.
The American Jewish mainstream doesn’t like to listen to the sorts of stories that Breaking the Silence tells, but Manekin is more able to reach them than most. He was recently in the United States, giving talks in New York and Washington. When he spoke at Columbia with Peter Beinart, the political writer, the event was co-sponsored by LionPac, a campus pro-Israel group. In addition to briefing the State Department and the United Nations, he met with AIPAC, and he found the group impressively responsive.
Of course, in Israel, Manekin and his group have come under attack from the right: It’s one of the targets of the Knesset investigation into left-leaning NGOs. Manekin wrote a scathing response for the +972 blog, writing that he wouldn’t pander to his persecutors by testifying about his own Zionist bona fides before the committee. “I don’t owe them anything,” he wrote. “They don’t need to love us or tell us that we are patriots. They are doing far more damage to this place than we are.” Still, he has a charming inability to muster much outrage on his own behalf. The attacks “don’t really bother me,” he says. “We’re still part of the ruling class. I’m still a liberal Israeli Jew, so I’m not that worried.”
For all his frustrations with Israel, Manekin has no plans to go anywhere. Some of his friends are leaving—as he wrote in +972, “they want to find a place that is normal, a place that does not shame their existence. A place they can live in.” But he says, “I see my future in Israel. It’s just my home.” His 3-year-old daughter knows no language besides Hebrew. Besides, being there offers him the opportunity to put his ideals into practice. “I like to be part of changing things,” he says. “Activists in general don’t feel a sense of despair.”