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Students brawl during Breaking the Silence lecture at Hebrew U

Fight breaks out after right-wing students enter lecture hall waving Israeli flags and chanting derisive slogans

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

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 controversy over Breaking the Silence, which is at the eye of a storm on the limits of free speech in Israel, reached the hallowed halls of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Tuesday night, when a fight broke out between right- and left-wing students during a lecture by a representative of the organization.

The brawl began after dozens of right wing activists arrived at the lecture hall, waving Israeli flags and shouting derisive comments against the speaker, Army Radio reported. University security personnel intervened and separated the warring students.

Breaking the Silence is a group whose members are veteran IDF combatants who report, mostly anonymously, about alleged abuses they witnessed or took part in during their military service in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Since the NGO was founded in 2004, it has regularly locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass, which regularly denounce its activities as harming Israel’s image abroad.

In May, Breaking the Silence angered the military establishment by publishing a report accusing the army of having caused an unprecedented number of civilian casualties through indiscriminate force during Operation Protective Edge. The IDF responded to the rights group’s report by saying it was “committed to properly investigating” all claims against it, but also cautioned that Breaking the Silence’s method of gathering evidence was faulty.

On December 14, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announced that he was banning the group from events attended by Israeli soldiers. Addressing what he described as attempts to “vilify” Israeli soldiers abroad, Ya’alon decried on Facebook the “hypocrisy and deceitful propaganda against IDF soldiers and the State of Israel, which is part of the delegitimization campaign against us.”

A day later, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party banned the organization from schools.

Ya’alon’s condemnation came on the heels of an uproar by right-wing activists over President Reuven Rivlin’s speech at the Haaretz conference in New York, at which members of Breaking the Silence were also scheduled to appear. Dozens of IDF reservists gathered outside Rivlin’s residence on Saturday to protest his participation in the conference. Rivlin later wrote on Facebook that he would never attend an official Breaking the Silence event, or sit on a panel with its representatives. In his remarks at the conference in New York, the president defended the Israeli army.

A number of public figures have since come out in support of Breaking the Silence. Last Friday, Amiram Levin, a former head of the IDF northern command, took out a newspaper advertisement in which he wrote: “‘Breaking the Silence’ guards IDF soldiers in the impossible place in which politicians have abandoned them.” He added that “the instructions to silence ‘Breaking the Silence’ harm and weaken the IDF.”

On Tuesday, former Shin Bet security service director and navy commander Maj. Gen. (res.) Ami Ayalon, and retired Northern District police chief Deputy Commissioner (ret.) Elik Ron wrote in their own advert that Breaking the Silence strengthens the IDF and its morality.

In November, Beersheba Magistrate’s Court issued an order prohibiting a lecture by members of Breaking the Silence scheduled to be held at a local bar from taking place, citing threats by far-right wing activists to the owners of the site.

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