Israeli university cancels prize to Breaking the Silence

Ben-Gurion U. leadership says IDF-critiquing NGO beyond the pale of ‘national consensus’

Illustrative photo of a lecture by a member of Breaking the Silence. (Gili Getz)
Illustrative photo of a lecture by a member of Breaking the Silence. (Gili Getz)

The president of Ben-Gurion University cancelled a decision to award a prize to an Israeli NGO that tracks alleged abuses of Palestinians by IDF soldiers, arguing the group is too far beyond the national consensus.

The Breaking the Silence organization was chosen in May by the Middle East Studies faculty of the university to receive the Berelson prize for Jewish-Arab understanding, worth NIS 20,000 ($5,145). The prize is awarded annually.

University President Rivka Carmi decided the organization, which has been highly controversial in Israel, was not an appropriate awardee, the Israeli news site Haaretz reported on Sunday.

The university said in a statement that Breaking the Silence “is an organization that is not in the national consensus, and the giving of the prize is liable to give a appearance of political bias.”

Ben-Gurion University president Rivka Carmi will be honored by Queen Elizabeth II. (Dani Machlis/Ben-Gurion University)
Ben-Gurion University president Rivka Carmi. (Dani Machlis/Ben-Gurion University)

The head of the Middle East department, which selected the group for the award, said the organization was chosen because it has been “one of the principal targets” of a right-wing onslaught.

“We believe that advancing Jewish-Arab relations requires confronting the public with the truth of the occupation – which may not be pleasant to hear, but constitutes a fundamental condition for reconciliation between the two peoples,” said Professor Haggai Ram.

Breaking the Silence reportedly responded to the decision, saying: “It is unfortunate to discover that the university administration chose to give in to political pressures and join the campaign of incitement and persecution against soldiers and fighters who broke [their] silence about what is happening in the territories, from a moral stance and concern for the country’s future.”

Founded in 2004 by army veterans, Breaking the Silence has come under political pressure from the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The NGO provides a platform for military veterans to anonymously describe what they say were disturbing aspects of their service.

Right-wing activists protest at Jerusalem's Hebrew University against the Israeli group Breaking the Silence on December 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Right-wing activists protest at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University against the Israeli group Breaking the Silence on December 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The state attorney’s office says that anonymous testimony allows potential lies to spread and makes it impossible to investigate alleged abuses. Legal proceedings aimed at forcing the group to reveal the identities of those soldiers who give testimony are set to continue on July 18.

Breaking the Silence drew intensified fire last year when it published a book about the 2014 war, which included allegations by more than 60 officers and troops of abuse and excessive use of force during the 50-day conflict.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has said the NGO and other groups provided evidence to the United Nations which formed the basis of a 2014 UN inquiry into the Gaza war. The probe concluded that Israel and Palestinian terrorists may have committed war crimes, a charge bitterly rejected by Israel as flawed and biased.

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