Sunday, February 12, 2017

A View From The Frontlines

A year working as a journalist in Israel and the Palestinian Territories made Hunter Stuart rethink his positions on the conflict

By Hunter Stuart
Published Feb. 20, 2017 in The Jerusalem Report magazine

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In the summer of 2015, just three days after I moved to Israel for a year-and-a-half stint freelance reporting in the region, I wrote down my feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A friend of mine in New York had mentioned that it would be interesting to see if living in Israel would change the way I felt. My friend probably suspected that things would look differently from the front-row seat, so to speak.

Boy was he right.

Before I moved to Jerusalem, I was very pro-Palestinian. Almost everyone I knew was. I grew up Protestant in a quaint, politically correct New England town; almost everyone around me was liberal. And being liberal in America comes with a pantheon of beliefs: You support pluralism, tolerance and diversity. You support gay rights, access to abortion and gun control.

The belief that Israel is unjustly bullying the Palestinians is an inextricable part of this pantheon. Most progressives in the US view Israel as an aggressor, oppressing the poor noble Arabs who are being so brutally denied their freedom.

“I believe Israel should relinquish control of all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank,” I wrote on July 11, 2015, from a park near my new apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. “The occupation is an act of colonialism that only creates suffering, frustration and despair for millions of Palestinians.”

Perhaps predictably, this view didn’t play well among the people I met during my first few weeks in Jerusalem, which, even by Israeli standards, is a conservative city. My wife and I had moved to the Jewish side of town, more or less by chance ‒ the first Airbnb host who accepted our request to rent a room happened to be in the Nachlaot neighborhood where even the hipsters are religious. As a result, almost everyone we interacted with was Jewish Israeli and very supportive of Israel. I didn’t announce my pro-Palestinian views to them ‒ I was too afraid. But they must have sensed my antipathy (I later learned this is a sixth sense Israelis have). 

During my first few weeks in Jerusalem, I found myself constantly getting into arguments about the conflict with my roommates and in social settings. Unlike waspy New England, Israel does not afford the privilege of politely avoiding unpleasant political conversations. Outside of the Tel Aviv bubble, the conflict is omnipresent; it affects almost every aspect of life. Avoiding it simply isn’t an option.

During one such argument, one of my roommates ‒ an easygoing American-Jewish guy in his mid-30s ‒ seemed to be suggesting that all Palestinians were terrorists. I became annoyed and told him it was wrong to call all Palestinians terrorists, that only a small minority supported terrorist attacks. My roommate promptly pulled out his laptop, called up a 2013 Pew Research poll and showed me the screen. I saw that Pew’s researchers had done a survey of thousands of people across the Muslim world, asking them if they supported suicide bombings against civilians in order to “defend Islam from its enemies.” The survey found that 62 percent of Palestinians believed such terrorist acts against civilians were justified in these circumstances. And not only that, the Palestinian territories were the only place in the Muslim world where a majority of citizens supported terrorism; everywhere else it was a minority ‒ from Lebanon and Egypt to Pakistan and Malaysia.

I didn’t let my roommate win the argument that night -- the bickering continued until the early morning hours. But the statistic stuck with me.

Less than a month later, in October 2015, a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jewish-Israelis began. Nearly every day, an angry, young Muslim Palestinian was stabbing or trying to run over someone with his car. A lot of the violence was happening in Jerusalem, some of it just steps from where my wife and I had moved into an apartment of our own, and lived and worked and went grocery shopping.

At first, I’ll admit, I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for Israelis. Actually, I felt hostility. I felt that they were the cause of the violence. I wanted to shake them and say, “Stop occupying the West Bank, stop blockading Gaza, and Palestinians will stop killing you!” It seemed so obvious to me; how could they not realize that all this violence was a natural, if unpleasant, reaction to their government’s actions? 

IT WASN’T until the violence became personal that I began to see the Israeli side with greater clarity. As the “Stabbing Intifada” (as it later became known) kicked into full gear, I traveled to the impoverished East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan for a story I was writing.

As soon as I arrived, a Palestinian kid who was perhaps 13 years old pointed at me and shouted “Yehudi!” which means “Jew” in Arabic. Immediately, a large group of his friends who’d been hanging out nearby were running toward me with a terrifying sparkle in their eyes. “Yehudi! Yehudi!” they shouted. I felt my heart start to pound. I shouted at them in Arabic “Ana mish yehudi! Ana mish yehudi!” (“I’m not Jewish, I’m not Jewish!”) over and over. I told them, also in Arabic, that I was an American journalist who “loved Palestine.” They calmed down after that, but the look in their eyes when they first saw me is something I’ll never forget. Later, at a house party in Amman, I met a Palestinian guy who’d grown up in Silwan. “If you were Jewish, they probably would have killed you,” he said.

I made it back from Silwan that day in one piece; others weren’t so lucky. In Jerusalem, and across Israel, the attacks against Jewish Israelis continued. My attitude began to shift, probably because the violence was, for the first time, affecting me directly.

I found myself worrying that my wife might be stabbed while she was on her way home from work. Every time my phone lit up with news of another attack, if I wasn’t in the same room with her, I immediately sent her a text to see if she was OK.

Then a friend of mine ‒ an older Jewish Israeli guy who’d hosted my wife and me for dinner at his apartment in the capital’s Talpiot neighborhood ‒ told us that his friend had been murdered by two Palestinians the month before on a city bus not far from his apartment. I knew the story well ‒ not just from the news, but because I’d interviewed the family of one of the Palestinian guys who’d carried out the attack. In the interview, his family told me how he was a promising young entrepreneur who was pushed over the edge by the daily humiliations wrought by the occupation. I ended up writing a very sympathetic story about the killer for a Jordanian news site called Al Bawaba News.

Writing about the attack with the detached analytical eye of a journalist, I was able to take the perspective that (I was fast learning) most news outlets wanted – that Israel was to blame for Palestinian violence. But when I learned that my friend’s friend was one of the victims, it changed my way of thinking. I felt horrible for having publicly glorified one of the murderers. The man who’d been murdered, Richard Lakin, was originally from New England, like me, and had taught English to Israeli and Palestinian children at a school in Jerusalem. He believed in making peace with the Palestinians and “never missed a peace rally,” according to his son.

By contrast, his killers ‒ who came from a middle-class neighborhood in East Jerusalem and were actually quite well-off relative to most Palestinians ‒ had been paid 20,000 shekels ($5,300 USD)* to storm the bus that morning with their cowardly guns. More than a year later, you can still see their faces plastered around East Jerusalem on posters hailing them as martyrs. (One of the attackers, Baha Aliyan, 22, was killed at the scene; the second, Bilal Ranem, 23, was captured alive.) 

Being personally affected by the conflict caused me to question how forgiving I’d been of Palestinian violence previously. Liberals, human-rights groups and most of the media, though, continued to blame Israel for being attacked. Ban Ki-moon, for example, who at the time was the head of the United Nations, said in January 2016 ‒ as the streets of my neighborhood were stained with the blood of innocent Israeli civilians ‒ that it was “human nature to react to occupation.” In fact, there is no justification for killing someone, no matter what the political situation may or may not be, and Ban’s statement rankled me.

SIMILARLY, THE way that international NGOs, European leaders and others criticized Israel for its “shoot to kill” policy during this wave of terrorist attacks began to annoy me more and more.

In almost any nation, when the police confront a terrorist in the act of killing people, they shoot him dead and human-rights groups don’t make a peep. This happens in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh; it happens in Germany and England and France and Spain, and it sure as hell happens in the US (see San Bernardino and the Orlando nightclub massacre, the Boston Marathon bombings and others). Did Amnesty International condemn Barack Obama or Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or Angela Merkel or Fran├žois Hollande when their police forces killed a terrorist? Nope. But they made a point of condemning Israel.

What’s more, I started to notice that the media were unusually fixated on highlighting the moral shortcomings of Israel, even as other countries acted in infinitely more abominable ways. If Israel threatened to relocate a collection of Palestinian agricultural tents, as they did in the West Bank village of Sussiya in the summer of 2015, for example, the story made international headlines for weeks. The liberal outrage was endless. Yet, when Egypt’s president used bulldozers and dynamite to demolish an entire neighborhood in the Sinai Peninsula in the name of national security, people scarcely noticed.

Where do these double standards come from? 

I’ve come to believe it’s because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeals to the appetites of progressive people in Europe, the US and elsewhere. They see it as a white, first world people beating on a poor, third world one. It’s easier for them to become outraged watching two radically different civilizations collide than it is watching Alawite Muslims kill Sunni Muslims in Syria, for example, because to a Western observer the difference between Alawite and Sunni is too subtle to fit into a compelling narrative that can be easily summarized on Facebook.

Unfortunately for Israel, videos on social media that show US-funded Jewish soldiers shooting tear gas at rioting Arab Muslims is Hollywood-level entertainment and fits perfectly with the liberal narrative that Muslims are oppressed and Jewish Israel is a bully.

I admire the liberal desire to support the underdog. They want to be on the right side of history, and their intentions are good. The problem is that their beliefs often don’t square with reality.

In reality, things are much, much more complex than a five-minute spot on the evening news or a two paragraph-long Facebook status will ever be able to portray. As a friend told me recently, “The reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so intractable is that both sides have a really, really good point.”

Unfortunately, not enough people see it that way. I recently bumped into an old friend from college who told me that a guy we’d both known when we were freshmen had been active in Palestinian protests for a time after graduating. The fact that a smart, well-educated kid from Vermont, who went to one of the best liberal arts schools in the US, traveled thousands of miles to throw bricks at Israeli soldiers is very, very telling.

* * *

THERE’S AN old saying that goes, “If you want to change someone’s mind, first make them your friend.” The friends I made in Israel forever changed my mind about the country and about the Jewish need for a homeland. But I also spent a lot of time traveling in the Palestinian territories getting to know Palestinians. I spent close to six weeks visiting Nablus and Ramallah and Hebron, and even the Gaza Strip. I met some incredible people in these places; I saw generosity and hospitality unlike anywhere else I’ve ever traveled to. I’ll be friends with some of them for the rest of my life. But almost without fail, their views of the conflict and of Israel and of Jewish people in general were extremely disappointing.

First of all, even the kindest, most educated, upper-class Palestinians reject 100 percent of Israel ‒ not just the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They simply will not be content with a two-state solution ‒ what they want is to return to their ancestral homes in Ramle and Jaffa and Haifa and other places in 1948 Israel, within the Green Line. And they want the Israelis who live there now to leave. They almost never speak of coexistence; they speak of expulsion, of taking back “their” land.

To me, however morally complicated the creation of Israel may have been, however many innocent Palestinians were killed and displaced from their homes in 1948 and again in 1967, Israel is now a fact, accepted by almost every government in the world (including many in the Middle East). But the ongoing desire of Palestinians to wipe Israel off the map is unproductive and backward-looking and the West must be very careful not to encourage it.

The other thing is that a large percentage of Palestinians, even among the educated upper class, believe that most Islamic terrorism is actually engineered by Western governments to make Muslims look bad. I know this sounds absurd. It’s a conspiracy theory that’s comical until you hear it repeated again and again as I did. I can hardly count how many Palestinians told me the stabbing attacks in Israel in 2015 and 2016 were fake or that the CIA had created ISIS.

For example, after the November 2015 ISIS shootings in Paris that killed 150 people, a colleague of mine ‒ an educated 27-year-old Lebanese-Palestinian journalist ‒ casually remarked that those massacres were “probably” perpetrated by the Mossad. Though she was a journalist like me and ought to have been committed to searching out the truth no matter how unpleasant, this woman was unwilling to admit that Muslims would commit such a horrific attack, and all too willing ‒ in defiance of all the facts ‒ to blame it on Israeli spies.

USUALLY WHEN I travel, I try to listen to people without imposing my own opinion. To me that’s what traveling is all about ‒ keeping your mouth shut and learning other perspectives. But after 3-4 weeks of traveling in Palestine, I grew tired of these conspiracy theories.

“Arabs need to take responsibility for certain things,” I finally shouted at a friend I’d made in Nablus the third or fourth time he tried to deflect blame from Muslims for Islamic terrorism. “Not everything is America’s fault.” My friend seemed surprised by my vehemence and let the subject drop ‒ obviously I’d reached my saturation point with this nonsense.

I know a lot of Jewish-Israelis who are willing to share the land with Muslim Palestinians, but for some reason finding a Palestinian who feels the same way was near impossible. Countless Palestinians told me they didn’t have a problem with Jewish people, only with Zionists. They seemed to forget that Jews have been living in Israel for thousands of years, along with Muslims, Christians, Druse, atheists, agnostics and others, more often than not, in harmony. Instead, the vast majority believe that Jews only arrived in Israel in the 20th century and, therefore, don’t belong here.

Of course, I don’t blame Palestinians for wanting autonomy or for wanting to return to their ancestral homes. It’s a completely natural desire; I know I would feel the same way if something similar happened to my own family. But as long as Western powers and NGOs and progressive people in the US and Europe fail to condemn Palestinian attacks against Israel, the deeper the conflict will grow and the more blood will be shed on both sides.

I’m back in the US now, living on the north side of Chicago in a liberal enclave where most people ‒ including Jews ‒ tend to support the Palestinians’ bid for statehood, which is gaining steam every year in international forums such as the UN.

Personally, I’m no longer convinced it’s such a good idea. If the Palestinians are given their own state in the West Bank, who’s to say they wouldn’t elect Hamas, an Islamist group committed to Israel’s destruction? That’s exactly what happened in Gaza in democratic elections in 2006. Fortunately, Gaza is somewhat isolated, and its geographic isolation ‒ plus the Israeli and Egyptian-imposed blockade ‒ limit the damage the group can do. But having them in control of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem is something Israel obviously doesn’t want. It would be suicide. And no country can be expected to consent to its own destruction.

So, now, I don’t know what to think. I’m squarely in the center of one of the most polarized issues in the world. I guess, at least, I can say that, no matter how socially unacceptable it was, I was willing to change my mind.

If only more people would do the same.

* Correction: Since publishing this story, it has been brought to my attention that Bilal Ranem and Baha Aliyan, the two Palestinians who shot up the bus in Jerusalem in October 2015, may not have been paid 20,000 shekels to carry out the attack. I got that information from this Jerusalem Post article, which I now realize says only that the pair "obtained" 20,000 NIS before committing the attack, which could mean a variety of things.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Casting Their Ballot For Trump

American citizens living in Israel lean Republican, and many, despite the scandals, are set to vote for Donald Trump, citing his position on Israel and the Middle East

By Hunter Stuart
Published Oct. 2016 in The Jerusalem Report magazine

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Yael Kaner grew up in a left-leaning home in Massachusetts during the 1960s and 1970s.

“I was brought up Democratic. That was my family’s tradition,” says Kaner, who is 57 and moved to Israel from Baltimore in 2011.

But as Kaner became more religious, she “took a hard right.”  It was in the 1990s, during the Clinton presidency, that she became a devoted Republican.

“I think it was the day that Bimbo No. 5 came up. I went to the phone book, looked up Republican, and wrote checks to every organization I could find!” says Kaner, who lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, a mega-settlement next to Jerusalem.

Kaner has voted Republican in every US presidential election since, and plans to vote for the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, in November. However, her loathing of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, seems stronger than her affinity for Trump.

“Her entire being offends me. She has terrible judgment! Just look what happened in Benghazi. I wouldn’t stand next to her in a lightning storm,” she says.

Among American citizens living in Israel, Kaner is, perhaps, not unique ‒ a majority of the 200,000 or so eligible US voters in Israel, analysts say, support the Republican Party over the Democratic Party.

In the US, Jews vote overwhelmingly Democrat; in Israel not so much.

“The thing about the American Jewish community in Israel is that it’s kind of the reverse of the Jewish community in America,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a professional pollster and political consultant, tells The Jerusalem Report. A poll conducted by iVoteIsrael, an allegedly non-partisan group that registers people in Israel to vote in US elections, found that in 2012, 85% percent of absentee voters cast ballots for the Republican nominee Mitt Romney and only 14% percent for Barack Obama.

There are a number of reasons for American-Israelis’ preference for the GOP. First and foremost is religion.

“Level of religious observance is the biggest predictor of Left-Right attitudes in Israel,” says Scheindlin.

Mitchell Barak, another American-Israeli political consultant, agrees: “If people are religious, they’re more likely to vote Republican because they want those conservative, wholesome Southern family values,” he says.

Then there’s foreign policy, specifically vis-a-vis Israel.

“Americans come to Israel equally split between Democrats and the Republicans,” says Abe Katsman, the legal counsel for Republicans Overseas Israel, a non-profit group that functions as an arm of the Republican Party. But once they get there, he says, many gravitate to the Republican Party. “I guess when you have a front row seat to American Middle East policy, things look a bit different than they did before.”

Republicans Overseas Israel has been hosting events and election drives to persuade more American-Israelis to cast ballots for Trump. The group organized a Hebrew-language campaign this year, which it has not done for previous elections, as a way of targeting people who identify more as Israeli than American, even though they have US citizenship.

“I think there’s a feeling, especially over, let’s say the last eight years, that who the president is matters a great deal both from a US perspective and from an Israeli perspective,” Katsman says, adding that the predominantly Hebrew-speaking demographic is “ripe for receiving that kind of message.”

US politicians from congressmen to presidential candidates put time and resources into their Israel campaigns not just to get the votes but also for public-relations purposes. According to Barak, Trump’s campaign in Israel may be geared more for US consumption than for local American-Israelis.

“It seems to be that they are trying to make Trump more ‘kosher’ by showing he has support and a ground campaign here,” Barak says. “It also seems to try and make up for his shallow foreign policy experience and lack of any real policy or advisors by saying, ‘Look, Americans living in Israel support me, so I must be okay.’”

Eitan Charnoff, iVoteIsrael’s national director, however, says the Israeli vote can influence the outcome of a presidential election, contrary to the popular belief that absentee voting doesn’t really matter.  

“There are a lot of misconceptions about voting from abroad,” Charnoff tells The Report. “In reality, there is a significant enough voter block here from the States, that we can actually sway the results of elections,” pointing out that in 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just 537 votes in Florida.

In 2012, Israelis cast 7,500 ballots in Florida and 3,500 in Ohio, both crucial “swing states” that could go red or blue based on a few hundred votes. Such figures further demonstrate the influence Americans in Israel can have if they vote in the absentee ballot.

Which they likely will.

American citizens of Israel are exceptionally enthusiastic about voting in US elections, much more so than Americans living in other countries such as Canada, Mexico or the United Kingdom.

“In the past two elections, 2012 and 2008, more Americans voted absentee from Israel than from any other country in the world,” Charnoff says.

On the flip side, America, itself, is disproportionately fixated on what Israelis think about US elections.

“In a sense, we’ve got a megaphone in Israel,” Katsman says. “People want to know what things looks like from over here.”

Trump, a Manhattan real estate mogul and reality TV star, has been inconsistent on his positions with regard to US intervention in the Middle East. On numerous occasions, he has taken an isolationist stance, arguing that the US has “become a dumping ground” for the world’s problems.

But he’s also argued for massive interventions abroad, the likes of which are controversial even among people who are typically in favor of such operations. For example, during a debate in March, Trump suggested that the US should send a ground invasion of 20,000-30,000 troops into Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. During the second presidential debate on October 9, he repeated his intention to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” and claimed the group had been created because of the “vacuum” left by Obama and Clinton.

On Israel, specifically, Trump has alarmed conservatives by saying he’d be “neutral” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which, as the Jewish newspaper The Forward points out, places him “to the left of every American president since [Dwight] Eisenhower, including [Jimmy] Carter and Obama.” But Trump backtracked on that statement not long after making it, and has since declared his unswerving support for the Jewish state, telling the newspaper Israel Hayom in May that he was “extremely strongly in favor of Israel” and that he will “make sure” that Israel will be “in very good shape forever.”

In interviews and conversations with a dozen American citizens who live in Israel, it was clear many like Trump’s position on Israel and the Middle East more than Clinton’s.

“He seems to have a better idea of what it’s all about,” says David Weissman, 35, a freelance writer and US army veteran who was stationed in Afghanistan before moving to Israel in 2013. “He’s not trying to force a two-state solution like his opponent.”

While Clinton often says she is devoted to keeping America’s relationship with Israel close ‒ “The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values,” she said during a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in March ‒ she also periodically speaks about the need to give Palestinians in the West Bank a state of their own.

To many right-wing Jewish-Israelis, giving land and greater autonomy to West Bank Palestinians is seen as an existential threat.

“I perceive it as threat to my ability to live,” says Kaner, who lives in the E1 Zone, a small but contentious area east of the Green Line, from Ma’aleh Adumim to East Jerusalem, that the Israeli government wants to develop. The US government and others have said such development would threaten the viability of a future Palestinian state.

“From my backyard, you can see one of the proposed borders. I look at an Arab village from my window. It’s called Eizariya, which is where a lot of the shaheeds [“martyrs”] come from,” Kaner says. “It’s very scary.”

Kaner is more comfortable with the Republican Party’s national platform ‒ which mentions Israel 19 times and says the party is opposed to “any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders [with the Palestinians]” ‒ than she is with the Democratic one, which mentions Israel only nine times and proclaims that “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state.”  

There are no reliable statistics for how American-Israelis vote since absentee ballots make exit polling impossible.

In the past, says Sheldon Schorer, the former spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, the vote in Israel “pretty much paralleled” the vote in the US, with 72-78% of Jewish citizens voting Democrat. But that changed 10 or 15 years ago when larger numbers of religiously-motivated American Jews began moving to Israel, many to the administered territories. These new olim, he says, were less comfortable with the Democrats’ support for a two-state solution largely because they themselves lived on settlements. Their influx into Israel over the past two decades may have signaled a trend toward the GOP among American Jews living in Israel, Schorer posits.

Still, Schorer claims that, even today, with so many religious-conservative American Zionists living here, the majority of American Jews in Israel support the Democratic Party.

He wasn’t able to provide statistics to back up his claim, but he strongly questioned the legitimacy of iVoteIsrael’s 2012 survey ‒ the one that found 85% support among American-Israelis for Romney and just 14% for Obama, and which is one of the only pieces of hard evidence pointing to the supposed preponderance of Republicans in the Jewish state.

“They used a totally skewed sample,” Schorer claims. “They asked students at Yeshiva University who were known to be Republicans who they voted for. If you come to my backyard, I’ll give you 100% in favor of the Democrats, and that poll will be useless, too!”

iVoteIsrael disputes this, saying the survey had a large sample size of 1,700 people and was conducted at multiple events and through email and phone conversations.

Regardless, the poll is simply a snapshot of one election and, therefore, is not necessarily reflective of the Republican-Democrat breakdown among the 300,000-400,000 American citizens who have made Israel their home, Charnoff says.

Dislike of Obama in Israel is so high (a 2015 WIN/Gallup survey of 65 countries found only four with a more negative view) that, in 2012, Americans who live in Israel may have cast their ballots for the Republican Party more to illustrate their loathing of Obama than their affinity for Romney, a private equity executive who served as a governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007.  

Because Trump is such an unusual candidate, Scheindlin and Charnoff say it’s not so easy to assume the majority of American Jews in Israel will vote for him. “This election is going to be far less predictable,” says Charnoff.  

Romney was a paragon of predictability, which is one of three qualities Israelis like to see in their leaders, says Barak, the political consultant. They also savor stability and experience. “We elected a 74-year-old overweight widower [Ariel Sharon] to be prime minister for the second time,” he said. “No country does that!”

Because he is prone to outbursts and changing his position on crucial issues, Trump is not always seen as “predictable” or “stable.”

“All my Republican friends are scared of Trump ‒ everyone is,” says Arielle Adler, a 27-year-old non-profit worker in Jerusalem who moved to Israel after graduating from college and will vote for Clinton. “He doesn’t think before he speaks. He says whatever comes to mind. It’s terrifying.”


People who move to Israel from the US typically aren’t fleeing anything, not economic pressure, antisemitism or hardship, says Scheindlin, meaning they come mostly for ideological reasons, either on the Right or Left.

“They come because they are committed and passionate about Israel, each from his or her own direction,” she says.  

Scheindlin says the data she’s seen over the years suggests Americans in Israel are majority-Republican, but she says that majority might not be as large as people tend to think. “There’s a perception that Americans are disproportionately represented in the settlements, you know, this stereotype of the kind of radical West Bank settler, speaking Hebrew with a thick American accent. But there’s also an over-representation of Americans in left-leaning circles.”

Adler supports giving more land and autonomy to Palestinians in the West Bank.

“We have to think about them, as well. Any solution other than a two-state solution or a three-state solution is scary for a Jew, whether you look at it in terms of demographics or in terms of terror,” she says, adding that Clinton would be a better mediator for peace negotiations than Trump would be.

Other Americans in Israel who are voting express distaste for Trump’s persona, particularly his past.

Through stiffing building contractors and not paying federal taxes, it just seems that he is an asshole,” says David Ross, 34, an entrepreneur in Jerusalem who also says he’ll vote for Clinton. “And now his candidacy is allowing all the other little assholes in the country to get a little bolder, to the point where there was a ‘White Lives Matter’ protest outside the NAACP office in Houston recently.”

Ross, who says he moved to Israel three years ago for ideological reasons questions the popular notion that Trump will be “a better friend to Israel.”

“George [W.] Bush was assumed to be a friend because of his Christian allegiances and overtures toward Israel, but he’s the one who brought us war in Iraq, which ultimately set the Middle East into a tailspin from which it’s still trying to recover,” says Ross. “So, I don’t put too much stock into ‘better friend’ or not.”

Some Jewish Americans in Israel are concerned about Trump’s rhetoric toward minorities such as a proposed a blanket ban on Muslims entering the US; his characterization of Mexican immigrants as murderers, drug dealers and rapists; and mocking of people with disabilities.

“I think Israelis ‒ and Jews to a certain extent ‒ need to be careful who they take as friends,” says Gabriel Avner, a 31-year-old editor who made aliya from Maryland in 2002 and lives in Ramat Gan. “I don’t think US presidential candidates who are anti-Muslim are a good thing, especially someone trying to work for peaceful resolution here. I want someone who will have Israel’s back, but a good friend knows to nudge you and tell you when you’re making a mistake.”

Trump also has been portrayed by some as anti-Semitic because of direct or retweeted comments saying Jews are good with money, a stereotype long used by antisemites to stir up hatred against Jewish communities around the world. Adding to this perception is the support Trump gets from white supremacist groups in the US whose attitudes toward Jews also are problematic.

Katsman, however, says he sees no evidence of a seed of antisemitism in Trump. “Quite the contrary. This is someone whose counsel [Jason Greenblatt], who sits next to him in his office for the last 20 years, is a kippa-wearing Zionist Orthodox Jew. The Jewish connections are wide and widely-known,” he says.

When asked about Trump’s refusal to condemn some of the extremist right-wing figures in America who have publicly shown support for him, such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Katsman says Trump has “no love for unsavory white supremacist groups” but doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to disavow them.

“They may see in him something they like, but that doesn’t mean it’s part of a legitimate political platform,” he says.

“For example, let’s say that by getting control of immigration, and even enforcing the existing immigration laws that are on the books, that would have the effect of reducing the flow of populations that the white supremacist groups don’t like. Well, is that a reason to not enforce the laws that are on the books? Because the white supremacists also get ancillary benefits from this? No, we are doing it for national security reasons, and I don’t care what the white supremacists think. If they’re happy, they’re sad, that’s not even part of the equation.”

Whether or not Trump’s proposed policies are borne of bigotry or a legitimate desire to get a handle on illegal immigration, some American-Israelis feel the direction he wants to take America is inconsistent with the nation’s values.

“I think Trump has the wrong vision for America,” said Avner. “America has a role to play in the world, of being an open society, and Trump and his message reject that vision. This is an important time for Americans to say what they are, what values they believe in.”

A Troubling Mirror: Allegations by Breaking The Silence of IDF misdeeds have clearly struck a nerve

By Hunter Stuart
Published in March 2016 in The Jerusalem Report magazine

Sandwiched between a highway and a strip club in an industrial part of Tel Aviv sit the offices of Breaking The Silence, Israel’s most hated NGO.

Breaking The Silence is a group of IDF veterans who publish testimonies of disturbing and unethical things they say they witnessed while serving in the West Bank and Gaza. The group’s short-term goal is to show Israeli society the dark underbelly of the Palestinian occupation. In the long-term, Breaking The Silence wants to end the occupation completely.

The office is unmarked: there’s no sign advertising its presence. One must walk through a pair of unwashed glass doors, up four flights of dusty stairs and pass the muster of an armed security guard stationed outside their front door, who stands warily beside a pack of Marlboros and a cup of instant coffee.

Inside, the atmosphere is much livelier. The group’s spokesman, Achiya Schatz, greets The Jerusalem Report with a handshake and a broad smile. A documentary crew is positioned around him, filming our interaction. “They’re making a film about us, and everything that’s been going on lately,” explains Schatz, who is 30 and looks like he hasn’t shaved in a week.

Inside the office, seven or eight activists sit at communal tables, working on laptops and talking animatedly. Next to a set of shelves lined with glossy black-and- white books containing hundreds of war testimonies is Yehuda Shaul, one of the group’s founders, asleep on a beanbag chair.

If Breaking The Silence is a little tired these days, it’s no wonder. In the past couple months, the group has been through a whirlwind. They’ve been excoriated by the prime minister and a number of Israeli politicians, been banned from schools and army bases, targeted by vicious right-wing campaigns and infiltrated by moles wearing tiny secret video cameras and microphones. Most recently, a coalition of lawmakers introduced a bill to the Knesset to have the group outlawed entirely.

Breaking The Silence’s detractors say it’s slandering Israeli soldiers abroad in order to undermine government policy in Israel; its supporters say it’s merely exercising its right to free speech. Either way, the fight over Breaking The Silence has grown into something much bigger: a fight over the very future of Israel.

The controversy began in earnest in early December, when Breaking The Silence participated in a conference in New York where Israeli president Reuven Rivlin also spoke. Israel’s right-wing Channel 20 accused Rivlin of “spitting in the faces” of IDF soldiers by appearing at the event. Not long after, the ultranationalist organization Im Tirtzu released a video saying Breaking The Silence was staffed by foreign agents.

The rhetoric against the group only went downhill from there. The next day on the Knesset floor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Breaking The Silence of “trying to tie Israel’s hands in its attempts to defend itself.” A few weeks later, when a mother of six was slain in a terror attack in the West Bank, Eli Yishai, a former interior minister, said Breaking The Silence was responsible for the murder.

In the past two months, Schatz says he and his colleagues have been getting near-daily death threats. Hence the armed guard, who was hired in December. The group’s members have received Facebook messages, phone calls, and letters all warning of violence. One read ‘Rabin was only the beginning, you’re next.’ The Israeli police are now involved in an effort to protect staff from being attacked.

Breaking The Silence has clearly struck a nerve in Israel. After all, the things that the group is saying about the way Israeli soldiers treat Palestinians are shocking. They paint Israel as an inept and cruel occupier. One story, for example, that Shaul has told the media on several occasions, describes how he and other IDF soldiers on patrol in 2002 locked an innocent Palestinian family in the basement of their own home so the soldiers could watch a World Cup match.

Other testimonies--which are almost always made anonymously--have claimed soldiers get high before going on reconnaissance tours, or have burst in on families in the middle of the night with no other purpose than to intimidate them or to “make their presence felt.”

Most recently, after Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, Breaking The Silence published a 240-page report containing detailed testimonies from about 60 soldiers and officers who had served in the operation. Those testimonies, which are published on the Internet, say that the IDF’s guiding military principle during the battle, known as Operation Protective Edge, was one of “minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians.” The report also alleged that the IDF recklessly shelled civilian neighborhoods, causing “massive and unprecedented” harm to homes and infrastructure.

The chief complaint many Israelis have against Breaking The Silence is that it chooses to ignore the official systems in place in Israel for IDF whistleblowers to lodge complaints, choosing instead to take their case directly to foreign countries for support.

“Israel, as a functioning democracy, has established channels to prosecute such infractions” by IDF soldiers serving in the territories, wrote former Soviet prisoner Natan Sharansky a recent Haaretz column. Those channels are something that persecuted dissidents in the USSR “could only dream about,” wrote Sharansky, who is now head of the Jewish Agency.

In mid-February, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said at an academic conference near Tel Aviv that he welcomed communication with Breaking The Silence and that he had instructed the IDF’s legal department to follow up on some of the claims the group had made. Breaking The Silence says it wrote to Eisenkot asking for a meeting about six weeks before it published its report on Operation Protective Edge. But Eisenkot’s office never responded, says Schatz.

So is Breaking The Silence looking forward to more communication with the army going forward? Not really. “We have no problem to meet with the army, and to let them know what's going on and how we see stuff,” says Schatz. “But we don’t think they should be the one dealing with the consequences of what's going on the West Bank. The one who needs to deal with it is us--it’s the republic, it’s society, but not the army. The army is just the operational hand of the government.”

This is the same reason Schatz gives when asked why Breaking The Silence chooses to avoid official channels for registering complaints about immoral or illegal incidents in the IDF. “You say official channels, but to do what? To say, ‘I want to change reality in the West Bank?’” Schatz says. “The thing is, it’s not about one or two incidents [where something bad happened]. It's about the whole mindset of the occupation."

Though Breaking The Silence is unenthusiastic about starting a dialogue with the IDF, it may soon have no choice. The Israeli news site NRG reported in early February said that the IDF had asked the State Prosecutor’s Office to force Breaking The Silence to turn over testimonies that relate to alleged war crimes and other illegal conduct.

The State Prosecutor then petitioned a magistrate court to force Breaking The Silence to give up the testimonies, the NRG report said.

Breaking The Silence has no intention of doing this. “Our policy is clear. We’re happy to help where we can, but we’re not going to jeopardize any soldiers. We’re not going to expose them if they don’t want to be exposed,” says Schatz.

The other reason Breaking The Silence rankles Israelis is because it does a lot of its publicity and fundraising abroad—mostly in Europe. The group received roughly NIS 3.5 million ($779,000 USD) in donations in 2014, according to its own financial records, which are publicly posted online. About 60 percent of the donations it receives each year come from foreign sources, either from European charities and development groups--many affiliated with Christian or Catholic churches--but also directly from foreign governments in Scandinavia and Western Europe, and from the European Union itself.

“The problem with Breaking The Silence is that they say they care about the moral values of the IDF, but if that’s the case, why do they take the conversation outside of Israel?” says Itai Reuveni, a senior researcher with NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group that investigates NGO activity in Israel.  

Many Israelis object to the fact that European governments are giving substantial sums to effectively weaken the policies of Israel’s elected government. “I can’t imagine Israel trying to give money to interfere with the dispute over something like abortions in the United States,” said Yair Lapid, the leader of the secular moderate party Yesh Atid (“There Is A Future”), at a Jerusalem press conference in late January that The Report attended.

Money aside, many Israelis also find it offensive that Breaking The Silence is using their country’s most sensitive moral dilemmas and exporting them to Europe to support a political agenda. “They explain things [about war] that are clear to Israelis, because they serve in the army and they know what’s going on,” says Matan Katzman, an officer in the IDF reserves who co-founded the soldiers’ organization “My Truth” over the summer as an antidote to Breaking The Silence. “But they go to audiences overseas that are very anti-Israel, and that’s the problem.” 

Breaking The Silence says it does not support the boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) campaign, which aims to put economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation. But the group occasionally collaborates with pro-BDS organizations. It also receives sizeable donations from European charities that fund pro-BDS groups, some of whom are radically anti-Israel. For example, the Irish charity Tr├│caire--which gave NIS 73,000 ($18,450 USD) to Breaking The Silence in 2014--also funds groups like Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that promotes awareness of the Nakba and speaks about the need to “de-Zionize” Israel.   

It’s foreign funding of this sort that’s the target of a new bill introduced to the Knesset in November by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The proposed law would require any NGO in Israel that receives more than half of its funding from foreign states to say so in its literature. Critics of the so-called transparency bill say it’s a way to stifle dissent by targeting left-wing groups; supporters say it’s merely a way to know which NGOs are beholden to foreign interests. 

Left-wing civil society organizations in Israel aren’t the only ones looking for help overseas. Right-wing groups here also take their message abroad in order to garner support for political agendas at home. For example, pro-settler organizations in Israel raise millions of dollars from charities in the U.S. and elsewhere, funds that are used to buttress controversial settlement projects in the West Bank. 

So, if right-wing groups can raise support for the occupation overseas, Breaking The Silence has every right to fundraise abroad, too, Yuli Novak, the group’s 33-year-old executive director, tells The Report in Tel Aviv. And it’s all for a noble cause, she says:  “For those of us who love Israel and believe the only way Israel can be a democracy is by ending the occupation, we feel this is our duty.” 

Support for Breaking The Silence is low among the Israeli public, but some high-ranking former officials from army, police and intelligence agencies in Israel have spoken in favor of the group’s right to exist. “Breaking the Silence protects IDF soldiers in the impossible situation in which politicians have abandoned them," read one recent ad in Haaretz that was published by former Shin Bet chief and former commander of the Israeli Navy Ami Ayalon, together with Israel Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Alik Ron.  

“I see them as a group of warriors, none of whom decided to disobey any orders, none of whom decided not to join the service, and most of whom served in the best units in our army, which is how they came to see what they saw,” Ayalon, who is now a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Report during a recent phone interview. 

Ayalon stressed that he doesn’t support Breaking The Silence--he only supports their right to operate, which is different. “I hate what they do,” he said. “But they are the mirror that shows us who we are.”  

Yet Israelis don’t seem to like their own reflection. War is hideous business, after all, and the effects of it are often equally ugly to behold. Breaking The Silence and its supporters are right when they say that a functioning democracy needs institutions that question and criticize the status quo. But if those institutions alienate the same people they claim to be helping, they may find their job just got a lot harder.