Explained: How Radical Fringe Groups Manipulate Westerners Against Israel

Reprinted from Honest Reporting.

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“There are streets they cannot walk and places they cannot go, simply because they are Palestinian.”

Those are the words of Jamaal Bowman, a United States congressman.

They are also highly misleading.

Bowman is the latest in a long line of people to have visited Hebron over the years as guests of radical fringe groups and come away repeating their talking points to the media. The same messaging has been repeatedly transmitted by foreign dignitaries, novelists, film stars and other celebrities who have been shown select parts of the city by members of groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.

Breaking the Silence in particular is a highly controversial group, with a history of spreading false and misleading allegations against the Israel Defense Forces, many of them given anonymously. Its tours are a notable source of misinformation regarding Hebron specifically, and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in general.

Unsurprisingly, this strategy has resulted in a trove of quotes slamming Israel being reproduced in prominent English-language media outlets.

Israel Vilified While Palestinian Terrorism Overlooked

In 1967, Israel defeated numerous Arab states openly threatening it with extermination in a stunning six-day victory. As a result of that war, Israel tripled in size, with eastern Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights coming under its control. Although Israel forged peace deals with Jordan and Egypt, surrendering parcels of land in the process, it has still not reached final agreements with Syria and the Palestinians.

In 2017, to mark fifty years since the war, Breaking the Silence organised a VIP tour of Israel together with Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman, herself a well-known writer, resulting in an anthology of essays about the life of Palestinians.

The ensuing Associated Press report detailed how the resultant book included essays that “describe the segregated city of Hebron” and identified Breaking the Silence as the driving force behind the project. Omitted is that Hebron was divided in accordance with an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) whereby Israeli citizens, including Arab Israelis, can access only 20% of the city and not the other 80%.

By comparison, Palestinians in Hebron are able to wander approximately 97% of the city. They were banned from entering the remaining 3% following rampant terrorism, including countless shootings and sniper attacks in which even a three-month-old baby was targeted; suicide bombings; rock-throwings; Molotov cocktail attacks; and stabbings of Israeli soldiers protecting Hebron’s minuscule Jewish community and Judaism’s second-holiest site, the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The book was also reviewed by The New York Times, which wrote of a work detailing “a status quo of chronic entwinement, choking the Palestinians.” The Irish Times headlined its piece, “Indignation and horror: 26 writers visit Palestine”; and a Financial Times article about the book described the conflict as one “which doles out small injustices and humili­ations to Palestinians more often than it does rank brutality,” and names the writers “as guests of Breaking the Silence, a pro-peace non-governmental organisation.”

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Even though The New York Times‘ Gal Beckerman saw through the charade, describing Chabon and Waldman as having “gathered their friends, most of whom, they admit, had never given the occupation more than a glancing consideration,” and panned the book as “fairly superficial, full of unearned authority and exhibitionist empathy,” it still accepted the basic premise. Beckerman slammed “Israel’s occupation of large swaths of Arab land to which it had no legitimate right besides brute force,” and spoke of “deeply etched marks of subjugation.”

The book received yet more exposure in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which co-editor Ayelet Waldman is quoted as describing Hebron thus: “It is absolutely reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. It’s reminiscent of the areas of German cities from which Jews were barred.”

That same year, Pretty Woman actor Richard Gere visited the city, and was shown around by Breaking the Silence. The Hollywood star’s visit caught the attention of Israeli television and the international media alike, with reports citing Gere as having described Hebron as a place reminiscent of the Jim Crow-era US South, where black Americans were subjected to apartheid-like structural discrimination. An Associated Press article reported how “During the visit, Gere said ‘it’s exactly what the Old South was in America.’

This exploitation of “human rights” rhetoric led to Breaking the Silence being selected by the European Parliament as a finalist for the 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought — an award intended for defenders of human rights and other freedoms.

In fact, from its very first years an integral part of Breaking the Silence’s operations has been to showcase Hebron to high-profile foreign visitors, with this strategy bearing fruit as early as 2008, after it took celebrated Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa to the city two years previously. Vargas Llosa, who would later become a Nobel Prize laureate for literature, described Shaul as “one of the righteous this country [Israel] has,” and penned a column for El Pais, partially translated into English for The Independent, which falsely claimed that, “this part of Hebron, subject to ethnic and religious cleansing, will soon have no Arab residents.”

Core Messages Spread by Willing Foreigners

As the Jerusalem Post noted, “Bowman’s inclusion [on the recent congressional mission to Israel] is particularly noteworthy, given the New York Democrat’s alliance with a prominent group of legislators that includes some who openly back the boycott-Israel movement. The Squad comprised the most outspoken critics of Israel during the May conflict.”

It remains unclear whether Bowman came to really listen, learn and work together with his Israeli counterparts, or whether he used the opportunity to raise his profile by leveraging the highly contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A review of his Twitter feed reveals that his posts typically garner in the range of 50-200 likes. But when he tweeted about the inability of Palestinians to walk around certain areas in Hebron, the message received over 3,500 likes.

Whatever Bowman’s true intentions, it is clear that he left having spread a misleading message about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. And he’s not the only one.

The message is one of a number of core narratives propagated by the likes of B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, two Israeli NGOs often characterized in the media as pro-peace, but whose vision of peace seems to entail Israel alone making concessions.

A search of the internet shows that the term “Ghost Town” has been in use by B’tselem in relation to Hebron as far back as 2007. But the reality is that Hebron is far from a ghost town. While it is true that the old center is now mostly depopulated, the PA-administered part of the city is home to close to 200,000 Palestinians, an eight-story shopping complex, one of the largest in the Middle East, and boasts numerous factories and distributorships, accounting for a significant portion of the PA’s economy.

Almost invariably, whenever Hebron is described as a “ghost town” in the media, it is in reference to only one small part of the city. Frequently, at least one of the aforementioned groups is explicitly invoked in the story. For example, The New York Times mentioned “ghost town,” and then refers to B’Tselem, in a 2015 report and in another in 2019. Both Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are named in a 2015 Mother Jones article describing Hebron as a “ghost town.” Salon refers to B’Tselem and “ghost town” in a 2011 report. The claim also featured in a 2008 article by The Independent that also explicitly mentions both organizations.

In short, when people, including reporters, refer to Hebron as a ghost town, it’s almost certain that they have only visited a small part of the city at most, under the auspices of NGOs bent on defaming Israel.

For example, Roger Cohen of The New York Times described visiting Hebron in a 2018 column in which he saw “biological metaphors of classic racism that accompanied [the Jews’] persecution over centuries.” Cohen depicted a soldier as “clearly uncomfortable with his mission, enforcing segregation.” The claim is not backed up with any evidence, and ignores the reality that soldiers are not allowed to speak to the media unless given express permission from their commanders.

In the very first paragraph, he identifies the old center of Hebron as having “been a ghost town for many years.” A few paragraphs later, Cohen writes that he visited the city “with Yehuda Shaul, who served in the infantry in Hebron and later became a founder of Breaking the Silence.”

Shaul is no stranger to the media. In 2019, after Jason Greenblatt, then-US president Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy shared a tweet describing an iftar celebration in Hebron attended by Israelis and Palestinians as “laying the groundwork for peace,” Shaul penned an opinion piece published in the Guardian that slammed the city as “not a model of coexistence, but rather of segregation.”

As HonestReporting noted at the time in a column published by the Jerusalem Post, Shaul’s piece contained 780 words. Only two, “Second Intifada,” referred to Palestinian violence against Israelis. While Shaul obsessed over Palestinian suffering, literally not one word was devoted to describing the carnage wreaked by Palestinian terrorists.

The media campaign has also involved dozens of op-eds, interviews and exposure in some of the world’s most-read and most well-known news outlets, including the BBC, CNN, The Daily Beast,  The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, and many more.

It has also led to the production of a documentary film based on Breaking the Silence testimonies which was then shared by the New York Times in November 2021. However, the Times failed to note the connection to Breaking the Silence, instead allowing Rona Segal to cast herself simply as an “independent director” looking to “offer a view that has rarely been seen by the public.”

Partnering With Fringe Groups

Tourists visiting with Breaking the Silence are taken on a highly selective tour of a small fraction of the city, and meet with members of an organization called Youth Against Settlements, headed by Issa Amro, a man who professes “non-violence” and whose business cards call him a “Human Rights Defender.”

In reality, his group has been documented as repeatedly glorifying Palestinian rock-throwing attacks on Israelis and sharing blatantly antisemitic smears. In 2014, Youth Against Settlements awarded a prize to the governor of Hebron for supporting the “popular resistance” against Israel, a codename for widescale violence including the frequent throwing of Molotov cocktails and stones, and sporadic stabbing and vehicular attacks.

In 2016, Breaking the Silence partnered with a T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, to sponsor “Go and See” trips for Jewish groups visiting Israel. And in 2018, the organization partnered with another radical group, IfNotNow, to organize a ‘walk-out protest by five participants on a Birthright trips who claimed that the tour did not adequately address Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. The live-streamed stunt culminated with the five embarking on a visit of Hebron with Breaking the Silence.

Despite other group participants describing them as agitators who used the free trip to Israel as an excuse to push their own agenda, widespread media coverage resulted. One of those to walk out had a column published in The Nation thereafter, thereby further amplifying her voice.

And just this month, a New York Times article, “Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism”, named Breaking the Silence as partly responsible for “A reliable subcurrent in American students’ conversions away from the ardent Zionism of their youth is firsthand confrontation with reality in the West Bank.” The article was widely panned on Twitter by many Jews for showing a highly unrepresentative subsection of American Jewry.

Influencing Foreign Dignitaries

In 2012, Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, said that Breaking the Silence was trying to “sensitize” Israelis to the effect of the occupation. This stands in stark contrast to the group’s activities, which include delivering lectures at leading American universities, taking high-profile foreign visitors on its one-sided tours of the city, and releasing serval highly tendentious books translated into numerous European languages. These books have repeatedly been criticised as premised on predetermined “analyses” that falsely portray Israeli actions as “terrorizing the civilian population.”

Meanwhile, Breaking the Silence has repeatedly posted to social media about meeting diplomats from the European Union and other countries. Since 2005, it has been conducting tours to Hebron for Israeli and foreign visitors, though they were temporarily suspended in 2008. In 2017, then-German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel met with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, despite then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that their scheduled meeting would be canceled if the top German diplomat insisted on meeting the groups first.

In 2019, British consulate staffers reportedly chauffeured Breaking the Silence’s co-founder, Yehuda Shaul, as he gave them a tour of a settlement near Jerusalem. Such meetings have become standard for many diplomats, and consequently serve to undermine the positions of the Israeli government.

Notably, in October 2021, Breaking the Silence CEO Avner Gvaryahu met with Ilhan Omar, a congresswoman with a history of antisemitic and offensive anti-Israel statements.

Breaking the Silence on Breaking the Silence

While room for fair, measured criticism is a hallmark of democracy, Breaking the Silence’s modus operandi of targeting foreign politicians, diplomats and news outlets — many of whom are already hostile to the Jewish state — constitutes a relentless campaign to delegitimize and smear Israel.

And the media are all-too-often willing partners in Breaking the Silence’s obsessing over Israel while ludicrously claiming to be showing something rarely seen or talked about.

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Photo Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

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