Why is Matti Friedman so mad at Breaking the Silence?

A former AP reporter who crusades against the international media’s alleged anti-Israel bias takes aim at the Israeli NGO of veteran soldiers in an article that is long on … well, length. But short on substance. 

By Mairav Zonszein and Lisa Goldman

An IDF post inside a Palestinian home (photo: breaking the silence)
An IDF post inside a Palestinian home (Photo: Breaking the Silence)

Earlier this month, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence released a report about the army’s 50-day incursion into Gaza last summer. Titled “This is How We Fought in Gaza 2014,” it is comprised of more than 60 oral testimonies collected from soldiers and officers. The overriding theme of the eyewitness accounts is that soldiers going into Gaza were given unprecedentedly loose rules of engagement. Many of the soldiers say those orders contradicted the rules and code of ethics they were taught in training, which mandate doing everything possible to avoid harming civilians or their property.

In Israel, the response to the soldiers’ testimonies has ranged from indifference to ambivalence to outright slander. The higher political and military echelons didn’t even acknowledge the report, while the Hebrew media was largely ambivalent. For example, even Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel writes (Hebrew) that despite the organization’s agenda, which he defines vaguely as “leftist,” its claims should not be ignored.

The slander has come from people who, rather than respond to the report itself, try to delegitimize Breaking the Silence by discrediting the soldiers who gave testimonies and questioning their integrity and motives.

A journalist turned attack dog

Matti Friedman, a Canadian-Israeli who was once a reporter for the AP bureau in Jerusalem, now falls on the slandering side of the spectrum. Friedman recently launched his own one-man crusade against what he seems to think is an international conspiracy to churn out gratuitously critical reporting on Israel. He has written several long articles to this effect, and been invited to speak on the topic at events hosted by Jewish organizations in England and the United States.

Friedman’s analysis of the Breaking the Silence report, published in Mosaic Magazine on Thursday, can be boiled down to three main points:

1.    The BtS report is propaganda, not journalism;

2.    The testimonies not only fail to show loose rules of engagement, but in fact support the army’s claim that it did everything possible to avoid civilian injuries;

3.    BtS is dishonest about its political agenda, which Friedman suggests is nefarious.

None of these claims is supported by evidence.

Friedman’s working assumption, embodied in the title of the piece, “The latest Breaking the Silence report is propaganda, not journalism,” is strange, considering that Friedman himself writes, “[t]he activists from Breaking the Silence aren’t journalists.” Indeed, they are not journalists, nor have they ever claimed to be. They are activists. Breaking the Silence is an organization founded by normative, patriotic Israelis, many of them from religious backgrounds, who served in combat units during their mandatory army service. Uncomfortable with acts they committed under orders, they founded the organization after completing their military service, to expose what they had experienced.

Who is the one parroting a narrative?

Friedman bashes the international press for unquestioningly quoting from Breaking the Silence’s report, but then he himself repeats the army’s talking points, giving the impression that he did not really read the testimonies — or, at least, not with much attention. For example, one soldier mentions in passing that his unit entered a certain area of Gaza after the army had dropped leaflets that warned of an imminent attack. According to Friedman, the leaflets are evidence that the army took measures to avoid injuring civilians. But in fact, the soldier giving this testimony is talking about having used heavy, imprecise weaponry in high-density civilian areas. More importantly, we know from the testimonies of Palestinians and NGO workers in Gaza that the leaflets and SMS messages warning of an imminent attack were often of no use to them — because they had nowhere to go, because members of their family were physically incapacitated, or because they had no transportation.

Take Friedman’s former colleague Ibrahim Barzak, AP’s veteran bureau chief in Gaza and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Barzak fled his family home with his wife and two small children after it was hit by a shell or missile. But then the house they took refuge in, in another part of Gaza, was also hit. And so was his car. After that, even if he had had somewhere to run to, he had no way to get there. This was the case for tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza during last summer’s war. There was simply no safe place. And with all the borders sealed, there was no escape.

Furthermore, given that over 500 children were killed and given that, even by conservative Israeli estimates, half the dead were non-combatants, it’s not credible to claim that soldiers adhered to the army’s code of ethics, which calls upon them to “…maintain their humanity even during combat [and] do all in their power to avoid causing harm to [civilian] lives, bodies, dignity and property.”

But surely the ugliest and most dishonest claim in Friedman’s piece is that there is no silence to break:

“The idea that there has been “silence” about Israel’s actions in its conflict with the Palestinians cannot be taken seriously; over the past two decades, probably no international story has been covered more than this one.”

In fact, the Hebrew media rarely reports about Gaza unless there are Israeli soldiers in the territory or rockets coming out of it. Otherwise, the only sound you hear about the Hamas-ruled coastal territory in the Hebrew media is a deafening, roaring silence. Israelis who receive their information from the Hebrew media rarely see reports about the humanitarian crisis there — the hundreds of amputees, the thousands of homeless, the hundreds of thousands of children suffering from debilitating PTSD. As for what actually went on during Operation Protective Edge last summer, most Israelis will not give credence to Palestinian testimonies, the international media or UNRWA reports, so BtS testimonies are in fact the only firsthand, Israeli source that is not the IDF spokesperson — but is from within the IDF.

Friedman casts doubt on the credibility of soldiers who give testimonies because many of them redact their identities. Friedman has lived in Israel long enough to know that there is a huge taboo against criticizing the army, the country’s most sacred institution. Those who speak out are marginalized, even within their own families, and sometimes threatened with physical harm, as Breaking the Silence’s members can attest. Who can blame a soldier for wanting to speak the truth without risking bodily harm or his place in his community?

They didn’t know what they were doing

Friedman also suggests that the soldiers who approached BtS somehow did not know what they were getting into: “I am willing to guess,” he writes, “that in many or most cases the answer is no: these soldiers did not fully understand whom they were talking to, or what they were participating in.” How patronizing.

BtS has been around for over a decade. It has published many testimonies, most of which can be read or viewed on its bilingual website, along with an explanation of its mission and dozens of testimonies. And not all of them are anonymous. According to BtS, in many cases soldiers took the initiative and offered to give testimonies.

It’s a global anti-Israel conspiracy

And, of course, there is the tired old accusation that BtS is colluding with European donors to discredit the Israeli army. Friedman surely knows that all Israeli NGOs, regardless of mandate or political affiliation, are largely funded by money raised abroad from foundations and individuals. There is almost no culture of philanthropy in Israel.

We have to wonder what it is about these testimonies that frightens Friedman so much that he cannot even address their substance. Breaking the Silence is trying to show what military rule over another people for so long does to an army, and what acts are committed when soldiers are given loose rules of engagement. In a democracy, the guiding assumption is that one has the right to criticize government policy. One has the right to dissent. A good citizen (and a good journalist for that matter) should engage with that criticism — not silence it. For all his preaching about journalistic integrity, Friedman appears to be a man with an obvious agenda who disingenuously presents himself as a detached journalist.

Newsletter banner