Former IDF soldier speaks out about military injustices

Like many of his fellow soldiers, Oded Na’aman had the best of intentions when he joined the Israeli Army in 2000.

“You start [out] wanting to defend your country,” he said March 30 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

“The whole idea of having a country is to have a place where you can be free, but you realize that the only way to defend your country is to control … people.”

Na’aman made his comments Sunday in two talks sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, a Bay Area grassroots organization dedicated to the rights of all peoples in the Middle East. One talk was at Sha’ar Zahav, the other at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

Na’aman is a 26-year-old former soldier and crew commander who spent a year in checkpoints all over the West Bank — then became a member of Breaking the Silence.

Testimony of soldiers such as Na’aman led to the 2004 formation of the group, which lets former Israeli soldiers speak out against what they feel are injustices done by the Israel Defense Forces in the name of Israel.

“We feel that we’re pointing out an existential threat to the nature of Israeli society — to our morals,” Na’aman said of the organization. “We think that whoever cares about Israel should care about this threat as well.”

Na’aman illustrated for the group of 40 at Sha’ar Zahav that during his time in Hebron, he felt the same dilemma experienced by many other Israeli

soldiers serving in the occupied territories.

“Although not at war, we control the territory where 2.5 million hostiles — for all we know — live,” he said. “We both control them and we are threatened by them, so the only way to handle that is to intimidate them.

“Since defense requires control and control requires obedience, when they are disobedient, we have to punish them.”

Na’aman described punishments as ranging from beatings to “making them sing for you, or do push-ups, dance for you, whatever.” He said those types of acts were “more intimidating than beating them up” because they are more unpredictable and humiliating.

He went on: “So, you get used to punishing people, even though most of them are innocent [because] I can never know who are the terrorists. We have to be as strict as possible with each and every one. You basically find yourself punishing mostly innocent people on a daily basis.”

Through Breaking the Silence, Na’aman and other former Israeli soldiers openly speak out about their experiences in the West Bank and Gaza. They have toured in Israel and Europe and are now in the United States.

In Israel, they had an exhibit in Tel Aviv called “Breaking the Silence: Bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv.” The ex-soldiers not only showcased many photos, but they also gave guided tours in

the villages to give people a taste of what things are really like in the West Bank. There were about 7,000 visitors in the first week.

The photo exhibit went on to Haifa and Jerusalem, and eventually the photos were even shown in the Knesset. Today, more than 500 soldiers have testified for Breaking the Silence and more than 2,500 people have taken the group’s tour of Hebron.

In San Francisco, Na’aman talked at length about his experience in the IDF dealing with Palestinians.

“At first, it’s shocking, but after a while, you get used to it,” he said. “You get used to your work, but you have no idea why you’re doing it, because most of them aren’t terrorists.

“They say that you have to ‘exercise your clear-headed judgment,’ but you realize that all it means is that you have responsibility for decisions that you cannot make. The regulations don’t tell me who is a terrorist or not, but I can’t take a risk. If a terrorist goes through my checkpoint, they’re going to blame me because I didn’t exercise my clear-headed judgment.”

Then again, Na’aman said, if he went ahead and “abused” someone because he felt threatened as a soldier, he also could get blamed for not exercising “clear-headed judgment” if that person turned out to be not guilty of anything.

“At a certain point, you realize that you’re going to fail anyhow, so you hate the people who put you there,” Na’aman said. “You also hate the Palestinians, because each and every person who comes up to you reminds you of the fact that you’re failing.”

Na’aman said he and his fellow veterans feel it’s important for Israelis — and others — to know what’s being done on their behalf.

“I see what we’re doing as equivalent to what people do when they try to point out the security threat that Israel faces,” he said. “What we found out is that while defending our country, we also betrayed it in a sense. We betrayed the values we were brought up on.”

Breaking the Silence offers soldiers’ testimony, videos and a gallery of photos at