Friday, August 16, 2013 - East Jerusalem, Palestine
Eran Efrati (far right) speaking about Breaking the Silence on serving in the Israeli military. The young Israeli Jewish activists to his left were all conscientious objectors.
Eran is a 7th generation Jerusalemite who spoke with us Friday as part of a panel of young Israeli activists. He described himself as growing up in a Zionist family. His father was the head of investigations at the Jerusalem Police. His grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor.
“My first memory of my childhood is me waking up in the middle of the night from my grandma’s screaming,” Eran told us. “She used to wake up and just start screaming in the middle of the night.”
A few years later, in high school, Eran took a trip with his 11th grade class to Poland to visit some of the concentration camps. He found himself at Auschwitz, next to the very same bed where his grandmother slept. At this point, Eran recalled, the guide gave everyone letters that their family had written to them.
The guide followed up the personal moment by telling Eran, “You understand what your grandma really wanted to tell you, right? If you don’t want the holocaust to happen again, you have to come back home, finish high school and join the best unit in the army you can.” While Eran didn’t quite get to the most impressive unit, he did indeed join the army and found himself stationed in Hebron.
“Hebron is hell on earth,” he said.
800 Jewish settlers live in the middle of the second biggest city in Palestine (180,000 Palestinians). These 800 settlers cause Palestinians to have limited access to the central road in Hebron, and to face curfews during Jewish holidays, among other things.
During one curfew night, Eran found himself staying inside the camp while his fellow soldiers went out. A few hours later, he noticed that half of the returning soldiers were either laughing and really happy; the other half were in complete shock.
Eran asked a friend who had taken the 11th grade trip with him what happened.
‘Well, I think we just killed a little boy,’ Eran recalled his friend saying. ‘We’re not really sure - there There was someone outside and he was holding something and we shot.’
“And I didn’t know what to do because I’m here to protect Israel and stop the next holocaust from happening” Eran said to us.
Eran advised his friend that they would wake up early and sort things out.
Only Eran was woken up early by his officers and given an assignment that took him and his friend to the very house where the unit was the night before.
It was clear that there was a funeral inside the house. It was clear that they were planning to proceed outside of the house. But it was also clear that there was a curfew going on and Eran’s unit had been sent in to make sure nobody left the house.
The boy’s father opened the door and argued with the soldiers. He eventually touched the soldier and was immediately handcuffed, blindfolded (as happens with many Israeli arrests in the West Bank), and escorted into a police van.
The boy’s mother, upon seeing her dead child’s father being taken away during his son’s funeral, began screaming.
"Her screaming is so loud and so deep," Eran says. "And I recognize the screaming. Its’s the same screaming I sued to hear every morning from my grandma when I was a little kid. And it came out from the same place."
A few days later, Eran encountered an IDF news report saying that a terrorist had opened fire on the soldiers in Hebron and that his unit had fought back and killed the terrorist.
Eran ran to his father to tell him that they must have made a mistake, this did not happen. His father encouraged him not to say anything - it would upset his mother and that there was a system in place where things would all work out. A few days later he then read the same story in Israel Today - what was then a new free newspaper.
Frustrated, Eran quickly received a call to tell his story to Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF soldiers who share their experiences and thoughts on the horrors of occupying Palestine. But after doing 150 interviews and being excited to share the story with the press, Eran found that even Breaking the Silence could not do what their name called for - the Israeli military has the power to censor anything related to its operations.
“That’s about the same time I realized there is nothing free in life,” Eran told us.
Eran had learned that the newspaper - now Israel’s most read daily paper - was funded by Sheldon Adelson.
“I understand that we need help from people like you to finish this occupation,” Eran concluded to us. “I need your help. I’m asking you to join the call for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).”
To this day, Eran’s grandmother remains the only member of his family who speaks to him. At first when he relayed his experiences serving in the IDF to her, she did not believe him. But as she learns more and more, he said, his grandmother has come to say “this is not the Zionism I want.”
During the question and answer session, Eran responded to a question I posed about how Zionists and their supporters on American campuses claim that BDS is offensive to them as Jewish people, as Israelis, or as allies of Israel. I noted that these people frequently invoke guilt of The holocaust and fear of others being seen as anti-semitic to intimidate conversations on justice in Palestine.
“The Zionist movement didn’t only colonize Palestine,” Eran said. “It killed my traditions as a non European Jew. Zionism doesn’t represent most of the people living on this land from the river to the sea.”
Eran noted that his family was from Iraq and Morocco and that Zionist Mizrahi Jews dressed up as Arabs and bombed synagogues to spur Jewish emigration to historic Palestine.
Another member of the panel added on, saying, “They don’t have the right to speak for me—they have no right to speak for anyone but themselves.”
In the context of how I started the day—frustrated with the cynical politicization of The holocaust at the Israeli Holocaust Museum—coming full turn to hear a former Israeli soldier identify his society creating the same trauma for Palestinians that his grandmother experienced in Auschwitz was troubling, but refreshing.
I believe it is fine to study situations of injustice and to talk about them as much as we can. There is nothing wrong with memorializing the horrors of the past, but the impulse for empathy that naturally arises from such memorials must be used to care for and prevent the suffering of all people—not to protect one’s own at all other costs to everyone else. I applaud Eran for this reason and encourage everyone to think about how similar ignoring the pleas of Palestinians in the United States was to ignoring the pleas of Jews and others during The holocaust. We must learn to stop making the same mistakes.
Check out the audio from Eran’s talk here: