Former IDF soldier seeks to diffuse the hatred

For Assaf Sharon, going to the West Bank town of Hebron today is a markedly different experience than it was when he served as a soldier there more than a decade ago.

Then, it was his job to protect Jewish settlers, which sometimes meant arresting Palestinians. Now, he is often welcomed by Palestinian children who shout his name and greet him with high-fives.

It’s a familiarity that stems from Sharon’s years of work as an activist with organizations that strive, among other goals, to deepen understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I don’t want to sound sentimental, but I believe this is not just a feel-good kind of liberal thing,” says Sharon, a 33-year-old Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Stanford University. “I think this is of genuine political value.”

Sharon is one of two Israeli activists who will speak at a VIP reception preceding the New Israel Fund’s annual New Generations benefit Thursday, Nov. 20 in San Francisco.

The other is fellow Stanford graduate student Amir Engel, who has worked with HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, which aims to combat human rights violations of Palestinians in the territories. Engel and Sharon’s groups are among the beneficiaries of the NIF, whose stated mission is to strengthen Israel’s democracy by empowering all members of Israeli society.

Sharon co-founded Children of Abraham, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization that opposes the occupation. He also served as director of Breaking the Silence, a group that gives soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada a forum for sharing their stories.

A traveling exhibit of testimonials, photographs and videos documenting the veterans’ experiences has appeared in the Knesset, and in cities across Israel and Europe. Earlier this year the exhibit caused a stir when it appeared at Harvard Hillel, with the Zionist Organization of America asking Hillel leaders nationwide to issue a statement condemning the Harvard chapter for “promoting programs and material that don’t promote love and respect for Israel.”

For Sharon, who was born to an Orthodox Tel Aviv family and studied for many years in yeshivas in the Palestinian territories, such reactions represent a major challenge of being an Israeli activist far from home.

“On the one hand, at first especially, it was kind of a relief that you can just live your life and not be caught in this constant political battle,” he says of coming to Stanford two years ago to study epistemology and political philosophy. “On the other hand, my encounter with American Jewry, and especially Jewish organizations, has been less than encouraging. I find that the debate in this country in general is lagging far behind where the debate in Israel and the rest of the world is.”

To deepen the debate, Sharon, who served in a Golani combat brigade, encourages people to visit the Breaking the Silence Web site (www.shovrimshtika. org/index_ e.asp) to read the soldiers’ highly personal recollections.

“It’s not the kind of thing you can summarize,” he says. “What I can tell you is you hear people saying things like, ‘I was a monster. I don’t know who I was over there. It wasn’t me. When I look back I can’t recognize myself.'”

Breaking the Silence not only provides a forum for soldiers, however. It also aims to give Israelis at large a picture of day-to-day life in the territories — with the idea that such awareness helps plant the seeds of a lasting peace. To that end, the group takes Israelis of all backgrounds on tours of Palestinian towns and villages.

“What we are trying to do,” Sharon says, “is to lay the foundation of the kind of relationships, on a human level, that can foster a real peace between the two people — not the kind of peace that you do in European capitals at cocktail parties, but the kind where people know each other, trust each other, diffuse the hatred and the tension and fear that has been mounting for years.”

The New Israel Fund benefit takes place 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, with a VIP reception starting at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call (415) 543-5055 or visit

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.