(Editor’s note: This is a corrected version of the story that appeared in the Sept. 26 Chronicle. The correct time for the program is 7:30 p.m.)
Avner Gvaryahu will never forget the first time he met a Palestinian. How could he?
He was a 19-year-old soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, and he was coming uninvited into a Palestinian home in the middle of the night to use the place as an observation post — an operation the soldiers call a “straw widow.”
“I still remember this day, the eyes of the people whose home I was entering,” Gvaryahu recalled. “[For a long time] I saw myself as someone doing tikkun olam, making the world a better place, doing something my society, my community, my God, expected of me. Then suddenly, you see through the eyes of people whose house you’re entering that you’re the epitome of evil in their eyes.”
In his three-year tour of active duty, mostly on the West Bank, Gvaryahu, a paratrooper and sergeant in a sniper unit, conducted many such raids; he shot and injured (and his men even killed) several Palestinians; they were shot as well.
He also witnessed treatment of Palestinians by IDF soldiers that ran the gamut of theft, assault and plain humiliation.
It’s that side to the Israeli-Palestinian debate many American Jews know little about, Gvaryahu says.
So he’s doing something about it. The now 28-year-old IDF veteran, and co-founder of Breaking the Silence, is coming to the United States on a speaking tour. One of his stops is Pittsburgh, where he will speak at Congregation Beth Shalom, Wednesday, Oct. 9, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. J Street Pittsburgh is sponsoring the program.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of IDF combat veterans who have served in the military since the start of the Second Intifada who “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories,” according to the organization’s website.
According to Gvaryahu, there is a disconnect between what many American Jews read and hear about events on the West Bank and what is actually happening on the ground.
“One thing I’ve really come to realize — and I have heard this over and over — is that young American Jews who come to Israel and hear our stories are frustrated and angry,” he said, “I don’t think they’re frustrated and angry with reality so much as they were lied to, that they weren’t told the truth about the reality.”
He described himself as “an alternative source of information, trying to portray what’s happening on the ground through the eyes of the soldiers, and showing this side of reality, which, of course, my government is not really keen on talking about.”
Neither he nor Breaking the Silence excuse Arab terrorism, he said, recalling his own memories of walking through the streets of Jerusalem to visit his grandmother, knowing he risked being a bombing victim.
“We don’t disregard Palestinians’ violence; there was another soldier just killed in Hebron, [but] I would say this is just another example of the work we have to do. The game is not who is suffering more. Security is a mutual concept.”
He was referring to Staff Sgt. Gal Kobi, who was shot in the neck Sunday as he stood at the Pharmacy Checkpoint, not far from the Cave of the Patriarchs, and died later at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netsanyahu responded to the shooting by allowing Jewish settlers to return to the Machpelah house, near the Cave of the Patriarchs, which the IDF evacuated last year.
Gvaryahu criticized the prime minister’s move.
“He [Netanyahu] is a politician, and he saw an opportunity,” he said.
A self-described “proud Israeli,” Gvaryahu is worried about the hardening of positions in the dispute.
“We’re entrenching ourselves in the current situation and this entrenchment is happening without a real exit strategy,” he said. “What’s the end game? I don’t know.”
He added, “As an Israeli I can come out and say this is what I experienced, and maybe we’ll stop thinking in this paradigm of a zero-sum game — either us or them, which has been on the table, some would say, since ’48 or ’67. … I want to go on living here, but the only way I can talk about the future is to talk about equality.”
“We’re talking about freedom and equality. As long as they’re not equal to me, then I’m living on an explosive jar, a place that’s a volcano that’s awaiting to erupt.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.)