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On Silence

To a clear goal—
Where all words come to rest,
Where days meet
Which never met before . . . 1  

Relevant Links
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The Warrior Rabbi  Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas Daily. Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, single-handedly redefined the Jewish conception of war for the modern era.
The Jewish Way in War  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. What does Judaism have to say about the rules of war?  Jewish and Israeli theoreticians have mined Jewish tradition for a moral reality check.

In the ceaseless tumult of conflicting ideas and outlooks that marks Israeli society, it would be good to bear in mind those zones of consciousness that are fully exposed to the hubbub but again and again beat back the constant assaults of the media, politics, and even literature and music.  The spheres of silence are related to those zones of consciousness that prefer stillness to tumult as a central force for the formation of memory, forgetfulness, or identity.  Silence is not forgetfulness.  It can in the course of time become forgetfulness, if the national memory so decrees, assuming that a collective memory or collective forgetfulness does indeed exist.  “The essence of a nation,” wrote Ernst Renan, “is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.”2  Silence is a twilight zone, between memory and forgetfulness.  And just as it is doubtful that all members of the nation are caught up in memory or forgetfulness at one and the same time, so may silence not necessarily encompass the entire collectivity.  Stillness utters no less than words, but one has to make an effort to hear its hushed rumbling.

Silence is a form of conduct that is conditioned by a society’s culture.  In the following article, I will attempt to treat silence as a zone of forgetfulness and memory while pointing to a number of occasions on which silence played an important part in the formation of the Israeli ethos and culture.  I will conclude with a consideration of the place of silence today.  The work of the historian Jay Winter inspired me to write this article.3

The funeral of the writer Yosef Haim Brenner, who was murdered in the riots of 1921, was part of the collective funeral of dozens of victims who were brought to burial in the cemetery that was established in what in time became Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv.  Tumult, weeping, and the cries of the mourners accompanied the funeral procession, which included the learned as well as the unsophisticated, Zionists and ordinary migrants.  But after all the victims were buried and their corpses were covered with earth, all of those present sat on the ground and kept silent.  In those moments of hushed communion, a national ethos took shape, one that in time found expression in the words of the poet David Shimoni: “Don’t mourn, don’t cry/ at a time like this./ Don’t lower your head,/ Work! Work!”

This was an ethos of self-restraint, of biting one’s lip, and stubborn adherence to the national purpose, despite the victims who fell along the way, and perhaps a means of honoring their memory.  The ethos of biting one’s lip and restraining oneself in expressions of mourning shaped the behavioral culture of two generations, the generation of the Founding Fathers and the generation that fought in 1948.  This was a decision of the Jews of the Land of Israel against the demonstration of emotions and in favor of internalizing them.  Traditional Jewish culture assigns an honorable place to ceremonies of mourning.  These ceremonies are generally supposed to offer a kind of consolation to the mourner through a justification of divine judgment: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  The kaddish prayer speaks of the greatness of God, and only at the end does it refer to the deceased.  But the actual patterns of mourning that took root in Jewish communities gave a great deal of space to expressions of private sorrow and grief that externalized the pain and grief due to loss.  The Zionist ethos linked these expressions to “exilic” whininess and regarded them as unsuited to the builders of a state who bore the future of the Jewish people on their shoulders.  This was the heritage of the members of the Second Aliyah, who sought to distance themselves from lofty phrases, to speak in modest terms, and to prefer the deed itself to the glorification of it.  Perhaps there were Western influences here, too, in favor of self-restraint (the Germans and the British were thought to possess self-restraint.  The Russians were seen as people who externalized their emotions.  See the film based on Goncharov’s famous book on Oblomov, which presents the German father of Oblomov’s friend as an emotional cripple, in contrast to the Russians, who excel in effusive expressions of love).  Thus, at the same time that the newspapers published every day, in black-bordered notices, lists of the fallen, there was a determination, in the spirit of Shimoni, to continue to work.  This was the spirit of the ethos that turned coping with hard realities into a behavioral norm that dictated the avoidance and the repression of pain, together with the deferral of satisfaction in the hope of a personal and national future full of inspiration. 

Stillness encompassed both generations: Chaim Guri wrote in his poem “Our Bodies are Spread Out,” which speaks in the name of the 35 who were killed, “Behold our mothers bent over and silent, and our friends stifling their  tears.”  And in the poem “Friendship” he defined the intergenerational attitude: “Friendship, we bore you without words, grey, stubborn and silent.”  And Natan Alterman wrote in his poem “Around the Campfire,” “Stiff boots, knapsacks/ Camaraderie, and sacrifice beyond all saying.”4  Chaim Gouri quoted the poet A. Hillel, “We are people who don’t cry,” and spoke about “silences that sank in and truths that were repressed.”  These poetic works reflected an existing norm, and also gave it a cultural presence that enhanced its strength. 

Ben-Gurion is an example of an extreme case of the internalization of mourning on the part of the generation of the Founding Fathers.  David Ben-Gurion was a very verbal man who wrote and spoke about almost every subject in the world.  But he didn’t speak about matters that caused him pain: “We speak about the things we have already overcome.  Maybe not everyone, but I cannot speak about pain that I haven’t overcome,” he explained.  It appears that he felt that a leader has to internalize and repress pain or fear and to present to his people the image of a man who was resolute and dauntless.  He believed that the people would trust a leader who would quell its fears and not magnify them.  Thus, only on rare occasions did he share his worries and fears with those around him.  He was very worried on the brink of the establishment of the state.  In spite of the fact that he was an agnostic, according to one of his letters, one of the only two times that he entered into a synagogue in the Land of Israel was the eve of the state’s establishment.  The second was the occasion of one of his grandsons being called up to the Torah.  According to another letter, he entered a synagogue in the Land of Israel for the first time after the elections of January 1949).  In his telegrams to the agents acquiring weaponry overseas he demonstrated a sense of urgency that bordered on desperation.  He once let Golda Meir know the depths of his fears but never did so again.  At the same time, he appeared in public as a leader who was sure of himself, who did indeed promise his people blood, sweat and tears, but also faith in victory.  

Ben-Gurion’s silence stands out especially in his relation to the Holocaust.  Historians have attacked him for supposedly not showing enough pity for the Jewish people as they were being slaughtered.  The truth is that he didn’t put his feelings into words: he was very conscious of the suffering, agonies, and debasement that his brothers underwent.  But he said little about this subject in public.  In letters to an intimate friend in the United States, he wrote about the horror and the shock that he experienced as a result of an hours-long meeting with a survivor who had made it to Palestine in a prisoner exchange in 1943 and who had told him what had happened to her.  “And you are entirely helpless, and you can’t even go out of your mind, and the sun shines in all its glory,” he writes, paraphrasing Bialik’s poem, “City of Slaughter.”  The only thing one can do is to imagine that one is living in a normal world and to continue to work to save the surviving remnant, he added.  In January, 1944 he wrote to her again about this: Hitler will be defeated, but in the meantime he will have exterminated almost half of our people.  And he convinced himself and her: “We are obligated, obligated despite this, to look forward and to save what will be left, at least we will save our self-respect.”  But in Palestine he was careful not to speak about this in public.  Silence was the best way to deal with pain.  He was pained by the destruction of his hometown, Plonsk, and kept track of the list of survivors from his city who made their way to Palestine. The annihilation of Jewish Plonsk continued to plague him, and as the years passed he retained his interest in his city.  He involved himself in the publication of the Plonsk Memorial Book, as a kind of metaphor for the destruction of Polish Jewry.  But he convinced Shlomo Zemach, his childhood friend, a son of Plonsk, to write the article on the history of the city.  He was pained by the destruction of the family of one of his sisters, yet apart from one solitary reference, he never mentioned it in his letters, and certainly not in his speeches.  Ben-Gurion’s silences did not mean forgetfulness.  They signified the zone of pain that could not be touched with speech. 

Ben-Gurion’s silences were not peculiar to him, even if they were perhaps particularly pronounced in his case on account of his notion of how a leader ought to behave in public.  Zemach explained the difficulty he had in writing his article on Plonsk by noting that “three sisters, Scheindel, Frania, and Salla, went up in smoke in Hitler’s furnaces, and the grief of my heavy mourning I will carry in my heart until my final days.”  Here is an example of the difficulty one of the members of the generation of the Founding Fathers had in touching the painful spot.  

The Jewish community in Palestine was wrapped in silences: the trauma of the generation of the fathers was aliyah to the Land of Israel.  After they arrived there, they very rarely spoke about the home they had left in the Diaspora.  This was an abandonment not only of childhood landscapes, young loves, family, city or town, but of an entire cultural realm, which included a spoken language, Yiddish, and the cultural intimacy that flowed from it.  Even if they did not intend it, the Holocaust and the disconnect that followed between “here” and “there” as a result of the Cold War created an abyss between two worlds.  Most of them did not tell their children about the family that was lost, the town that went up in flames, the cultural context that they relinquished when they adopted Hebrew in a fanatical manner and forcefully tore themselves away from the world that was lost.  Again and again we read about children born in the 1940s and 1950s who regret that they did not interrogate their parents about the family they left behind, that they did not talk to them about their home in the Diaspora.  But they thought of this too late, when their parents had already passed away.  Thus, the parents did not tell and the children did not ask.  Life focused on the new reality that was taking shape in Israel, and the children did not develop a spiritual relationship to the world that had been left behind.  The silence of the parents was a form of mourning: not to touch the zone of grief.  The silent mourning of the parents reflected a mixture of several ingredients, including pangs of guilt over abandoning family, even if from a rational point of view they could justify the abandonment, for it was impossible to anticipate anything like the Holocaust, and Palestine hadn’t exactly been a “safe refuge.” After the destruction they could not help but feel like people who had left their parents, their brothers, or their sisters, to their bitter fate.  The poems of Avot Yeshurn and Amir Gilboa disclose the pain and longing and the sense of a void that cannot be filled, and their guilty feelings about the break that they caused.  “And the glances of the memory of my father and my brother were fastened to my back/ From across the street and the spheres.”   In his poem “Isaac,” Gilboa turns the model of the sacrifice of Isaac on its head, and instead of the son being offered up, this time it is the father whose blood is spilled, and the son whose hand is unable to save.  But the writers and poets were the only ones who were granted the freedom to address this subject.  The great majority bore the pain in silence, hoping to hide from it and continue with their occupations—the raising of their children, making a living, and so on.  Silence is an expression of the helplessness of people facing the tsunami of history.  It also says: we have crossed a line, and we want to build a new society here.  The last point was particularly strong in the period that preceded the world war, when the home that was still intact in the Diaspora retained much of his magnetic force.  It lost its force with the destruction, but the patterns of silence received new justification in the face of the disaster and the need to find a way to continue to live in spite of everything.  The line that they had decisively drawn around the past became the source of guilty feelings in the present. 

The silence of the survivors of the Holocaust gave rise to a fierce public discussion, which revolved mostly around accusations that the established Jewish community turned its back on the survivors and did not want to listen to the horror stories.  As is always the case when one speaks in generalities, it seems that the truth was more complicated: in the public arena, the survivors were not silent.  They demonstrated most impressive energies not only in the rehabilitation of their lives and in founding new families, but also in forming social organizations based on cities of origin with the intention of memorializing the communities that had been lost, the culture that had been annihilated.  Yad Vashem and the communal memorial books were part of a commemorative enterprise that grew stronger with the years.  The newspapers, especially but not only the women’s papers, made room for astonishing stories of heroism and rescue.  But along with this, in the sphere of the ordinary individual, in the framework of his family, silence enveloped the period of the six terrible years.  The silence of the individual about his past flowed in part from the unwillingness of the society that absorbed him to hear his stories but also, at least in the same measure, from his effort to rebuild his life.  As long as the survivors were busy reconstructing the family, work, and the internalization of an Israeli identity, they spoke little of those years, and certainly did not talk about them with their children or with their relatives who made aliyah before World War II.  Memories of helplessness, debasement, and even things that were unintelligible to those who had no direct experience of such impossible situations did not seem to be subjects worthy of discussion with those who had not been “there.”  The silence was broken in meetings with relatives or friends from the past, but even then the story was selective enough.  

The silences were broken when someone was ready to serve as a witness.  Authentic testimony bursts through the walls of silence.  It happened first when survivors arrived in the prisoner exchanges of late 1942 and early 1943 and provided first-hand accounts of their experiences.  The second time it happened was after the testimonies in the Eichmann trial.  In the first instance, it was the testimonies of living people who suddenly shed a horrible light on the conditions prevailing in the areas that had been conquered by the Nazis.  The facts were apparently known beforehand, but people had trouble believing them.  So many times newspaper stories had turned out to be nothing more than wartime atrocity propaganda.  It was better not to believe; it was easier not to believe.  The living testimonies ripped apart the conspiracy of silence and turned a theoretical state of affairs, a matter of statistics, into the experiences of men and women.  The power of testimony to tear the curtain of silence found incomparable dramatic expression in this case: what the dispatches, the briefings, and even the letters (which were of course censored and presented only a fragmentary picture) could not do, the testimonies could.  The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his novel Snow, describes how physical disconnection from the world enables one to do things that simply are not done.  The partition that he describes comes into being as the result of a snowstorm.  The German conquest of Europe was a snowstorm of this sort, on a much more serious scale.  The testimonies of the people who came from subjugated Europe burst through the barrier and made it possible to catch a glimpse of life in the isolated world of the conquered lands. 

The Eichmann trial allowed the survivors of the Holocaust to show their wounds in public.  After the testimonies that were heard at the trial, people no longer worried about disclosing weakness, degradation, and pain.  The stories that were heard at the trial granted legitimacy to the whole range of human experiences that can occur under inhuman conditions.  The catharsis experienced by the Israeli community, which was riveted to the reports of the trial, revealed how much silence had become a burden and how great a psychological and national need there was to release it by telling the story of the greatest drama of the 20th century.  Not just the story of exceptional events, but the full picture, the fate of the courageous as well as the spineless, of the wise and the not so wise, who somehow, thanks to their good luck, managed to survive.  The experiences of the witnesses at the trial were a sample of the experiences of Jews in the Holocaust, and could therefore give voice to them.  After the trial, the ground rules of silence began little by little to give way at home.  In fact, they weren’t altogether broken until the arrival of grandchildren, who didn’t leave grandma and grandpa alone and pleaded to hear about their roots, about their family “there,” about what happened to them during the Holocaust.  After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the slow trickle of roots-seekers became a veritable waterfall, and the geographically distant past became a part of the Israeli identity.  

Silence was the accepted pattern of behavior with respect to those who fell in the War of Independence.  Precisely because so many fell, the parents decreed silence upon themselves, at least in public.  To be worthy of the sacrifice on the part of the fallen meant to hold one’s tongue and be quiet.  Ben-Gurion recounts in his diary a visit to the family of his friend Yitzhak Ben Zvi after their son fell in battle.  “Ben Zvi did not shed tears and discussed matters—but his pain was no less intense than that of Rachel [the mother],” he wrote.  Ben-Gurion, too, refrained from expressing his feelings, and with the same restraint he noted in his diary that the son who fell was about to get married in a few days, and added nothing to that.  Local councils and city governments memorialized the fallen by raising monuments that sometimes listed the names of the fallen, at least in the smaller places, in which the fallen were familiar and well known.  Military units also raised their own monuments, which sometimes listed the names of the fallen and sometimes restricted themselves to memorializing the unit.  Monuments were also set up at the scenes of battle.  These were impersonal means of memorialization, which did not provide the desired relief to family members.  Many of the mourners dealt with their loss by publishing the literary remains of the son, or by publishing his letters or his friends’ recollections of him.  The abundance of books and memorial pamphlets that appeared in the 1950s reflects the conflict between silence, as a binding social and cultural norm, and the need of relatives and friends to obtain relief from their suffering by showing the son or the daughter in all his or her glory.  No one says, “I am mourning, I am in pain,” and only on rare occasions does anyone pose subversive questions with regard to the value of the sacrifice.  What they do is show the extent of the loss—the shining personality of the fallen—and the depth of the sacrifice is thereby demonstrated.   This is an opportunity to rise above the anonymity decreed on the fallen by the institutional memorialization and the norm of silence and also to display the spiritual fiber of these young people, who often concealed beneath the guise of seemingly indifferent silence a great deal of human sensitivity and a rich spiritual life.  

Many of those who published memorial volumes took the trouble to send a copy of the book to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the man who sent these young people to battle, with the implied message that “those who are about to die salute you.”  This was a declaration on the part of the parents that here, in spite of their pain, they accepted with understanding the loss that had been decreed upon them.  And Ben-Gurion, who was so good at keeping quiet, would read every one of the books he received and would afterwards write a heartfelt letter to the parents.  Just like the sons who fell, who disclosed in writing feelings that they did not dare to expose orally, Ben-Gurion, too, revealed in his letters to the parents feelings that he took care to hide in his speeches.  This ritual of sending books to the Prime Minister and his emotional response served at once as a kind of justification and a means of comfort: the compensation for the death of the sons lay in the establishment of the state, in the sense of historical accomplishment.  Thus, one rarely finds in the parents’ letters any lashing out at Ben-Gurion or the Israel Defense Forces on account of the sacrifice that was asked of the sons.  This generation believed fully in the justification for the war and did not doubt its necessity.  Arthur Miller once wrote that the economic crisis of 1929 was the last crisis in which people blamed themselves for their misfortune and not “the system.”  It seems that the War of Independence was one of the last wars in which the parents understandingly accepted the sacrifice that was expected of them, and did not issue any accusations against the leadership.  Their silence represented acceptance, a kind of justification of the judgment: A state is not given to a people on a silver platter, said Chaim Weizmann.  This was an expression of the depth of the internalization of the Zionist ethos on the part of the Yishuv.  At the same time, one has to remember that we are dealing with a very circumscribed, idealistic stratum of educated people that was in large part tied to the labor movement, and not the entire Yishuv.  By no means all of the immigrants who arrived in the country after World War II and during the War of Independence, and who were drafted and even killed in battle, internalized this ethos.  While the silence of the educated class followed from an acceptance of the war’s justification, the silence of the other classes in the Yishuv flowed in large measure from the lack of appropriate means of expression.  This was a forced silence, and not a conscientious silence.  For the educated class, the dispatch of the book that memorialized the dead to the Prime Minister, and the receipt of his response, was part of the process of memorializing the son or daughter, and served as a sort of compensation for the loss.5

An example of the intentional breaking of silence is the book The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six Day War.  The idea of arranging conversations among groups of combat soldiers who returned from the Six-Day War stemmed from the realization that these soldiers had kept quiet since coming back from battle.  They had had rough experiences, were feeling the pain of their comrades’ deaths, and were having trouble digesting the violence against the other side.  In contrast to the pattern of silence there emerged the pattern of collective confession, which enabled young people to break free of the burden of their experiences and to mourn their comrades’ deaths openly.  The breaking of silence was the work of a select group of kibbutz veterans, but it symbolized, perhaps, the gradual alteration of the norm of silence. 

Silences sometimes serve to conceal things that ought not to be done.  People are inclined to cover with a veil of forgetfulness and silence deeds that after the war, in the light of day, seem incompatible with the demands of human morality.   The history of Europe since 1945 is the history of silences that have been broken little by little, and in part are not broken at all but go to the grave with the perpetrators.  The difficulties a society faces in coping with a controversial past are particularly striking in the case of Turkey and the subject of the Armenians, for example.  One thinks of the public storm in Poland that greeted Jan Gross’s book on Yedwabne, in which he described how their Polish neighbors killed the Jewish residents of the town.  Since then the dam has burst, and other cases like Yedwabne have risen up from the depths of forgetfulness.  The Poles have found it difficult to come to terms with the moral ambivalence bound up in the passage from a people with a self-image as victims of the Nazi and Soviet conquests to a twofold self-image, as victim and guilty part at one and the same time.  This difficulty also stands out in the partial and slow confrontation of the French with the past of Vichy.  The transition from a self-image as the nation of the Resistance to the image of a nation that initiated and even carried out crimes against its Jewish citizens unreels slowly there, but seems still not to have been internalized.  In the case of Germany, a large number of silent fathers went to their graves without ever breaking through the wall of silence.  But every once in a while someone finds it necessary to remove skeletons from the attic, like the novelist Gunther Grass, who publicly confessed in his old age about his past as a soldier in the Waffen SS.  The length of the silent period is often a function of the magnitude of the crime: the more serious the crime and the more it endangers the picture of the world that took shape after the war, or the more likely disclosure is to bring the perpetrators to a war crimes court, the more the perpetrators hesitate to reveal what they have done.  In general, as the members of the second and third generations begin to dig into the past they evoke the opposition of a large part of the society, which has a hard time accepting the new mirror that is placed in front of it.  

It is possible to identify a similar phenomenon, to a certain extent, in Israeli society, with regard to everything that has to do with the Palestinians.  Even though the evacuation or expulsion or flight of the Arabs from the territories that Israel conquered in the summer of 1948 was something quite well known, and was even the subject of a public debate in the beginning of the 1950s, it fell out of view after 1967, and resurfaced again only as a result of deliberations concerning the territories and the occupation.  It seems that it was only after the first Lebanon war, which created a chasm in Israeli society, that old stories began to appear about the cruelty and brutality of soldiers in the 1948 war.  The long-time silence of soldiers who had had a rough experience was typical of fighters in those days, who identified with the purposes of the war, and if they witnessed impermissible actions they preferred to keep quiet about them.  Despite this, Gouri argues, one can find in diaries, stories, and poems “the unvarnished truth—what they did to us and what we did to them.”  The breaking of the silence was a result of the collapse of the ethos of self-justification.  Those who came to terms with cruel actions, or at least preferred to keep quiet and not to share their experiences with others, no longer saw any justification for doing so.  They also considered it important to disclose them, in view of the rupture resulting from the Lebanon war, which was the first Israeli war that was conducted without a national consensus.  Nations are prepared to come to terms with a disputed past, about which it was once forbidden to speak, when the deeds in question lose their political importance and memory focuses on the moral aspects of the story.  In the case of Israel, the phenomenon is heavily disputed: on the one hand, the readiness of Israelis in the 1980s to reconsider chapters from the past was tied to Sadat’s visit and the Camp David Accords, which seemed to turn a new page in the difficult history of the relations between Israel and the Arabs.  On the other hand, the Israeli-Arab conflict is not yet part of the historical past, and there is therefore a reluctance to dredge up memories that are likely to injure the state. 

In the course of the War of Independence both sides performed cruel deeds.  The Jews downplayed the cruel deeds of the Arabs, in order to avoid panic and perhaps also to prevent the development of a hatred for the neighboring people.  This was already the practice during the period of the Yishuv, when most of the Hebrew newspapers shrank from a description of the horrible deeds of the Arabs in order to prevent provocations and even violent reactions.  The Arab press, for its part, and rumors that spread from mouth to ear in Arab society, presented horrible pictures of Jewish conduct and also caused panic, which encouraged flight in the early stages of the fighting.  The Palestinians tended not to put their wartime experiences into writing.  Only a few diaries and collections of letters were published.  In the course of the years, the Palestinians undertook a project of documentation, which was designed to record what had happened to them.  Oral documentation gives a voice to populations that are not able to write and whose voices have consequently been absent from the historical record.  It is possible to see this documentation as the breaking of the silence of witnesses with respect to experiences that had hitherto remained unrecorded.  But because these witnesses represent a very one-sided testimony in a war in which there were two sides, it is hard to assess their reliability.  Unlike the Jews, who revealed the crimes their people committed, the Arabs avoid telling tales of the immoral deeds perpetrated by their own people, and they present themselves solely as victims.  They are still caught up in a struggle to define their national identity, and therefore they avoid breaking silence with regard to these actions. 

Oral documentation has become an integral part of the historical research on the Holocaust, and the thousands of testimonies that were assembled and recorded constitute a very important means of giving a voice to the survivors.  Many historians were dubious with regard to the reliability of these testimonies and treated them dismissively, even if the scholars took care to match testimonies and utilized all the most up-to-date research techniques in order to guarantee their authenticity.   Only with the opening of the archives in Eastern Europe did it become clear that the testimonies of the survivors, in large part, present a picture of reality that the documents confirm.  The project of assembling testimonies that took place mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, almost at the last minute before the disappearance of the survivors, was no doubt one of the important factors in motivating them to unlock their memories, to involve their family members in the past, and even to show their children and grandchildren the terrain of memory. 

Today, silences have gone out of fashion.  This is a generation of “breakers of silence”: this slogan belongs to a non-governmental organization that was established in the course of the second intifada and that collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers relating to looting, cruelty, and theft that they have witnessed.  It breaks in real time the conspiracy of silence that continues to exist in Israeli society with respect to everything connected to its system of relations with the Palestinians.  It serves as an example of the silence that continues to exist, for the political problem to which it is related hasn’t been resolved.  There is a high price tag on the breaking of silence in this instance.  As we have already noted, societies are in general prepared to recognize the wrong that they have done to others and to acknowledge it publicly only after the subject has lost its contemporary relevance.  

But the present generation is a generation of silence-breakers in more general cultural respects.  This is a generation of ceaseless chatter, whose members share with each other on Facebook every hint of an experience.  The media’s tireless search for sensation generates more and more disclosure and the intensification of guilt, sin, pain or loss.  Since the first Lebanon war, there haven’t been any wars in Israel that have been accompanied by a broad civic consensus.  As a result, there is no readiness to come to terms with moral ambivalence, to say nothing of actions that are in fact illegal.  The silences, to the degree that they exist, have more to do with the fear of war, betrayal of fear, failure of nerve in battle, and mistakes that cost human lives.  They also have to do with the resilience of brotherhood of arms in crisis conditions.  In civil society today it is hard to find silences that are outside of the realm of family drama.  The privatization of silences goes hand in hand with the weakening of the collective ethos that accompanied the creation of the state.  And in general, why be silent?  The norms have changed; the ethos has shifted.  The era of silence is over.

1. A: Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, translated from the Yiddish by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 138.  

2.  Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation,” quoted in Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny (ed.), Becoming National: A Reader, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 45.

3.  Efrat Ben-Ze’ev, Ruth Ginio and Jay Winter (ed.), Shadows of War: A Social History of Silence in the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

4. No Rattling of Sabers: An Anthology of Israeli War Poetry, translation and introduction by Esther Raizen (Austin: University of Texas, 1995) p. 18-19.

5. For an extended discussion of these memorial booklets and books see Emanuel Sivan’s article “Private Pain and Public Remembrance in Israel,” in Jay Winter and Emanuel Sivan (ed.), in War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 177-204.

Anita Shapira is professor emerita at Tel Aviv University and author, most recently, of Israel: A History.  Her essay was translated from the Hebrew by Allan Arkush.

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susan march on April 15, 2013 at 6:45 am (Reply)
exceptionally well written and well researched. thank you for putting into words the heretofore oftimes unexpressed and unspoken. saying it aloud matters; thinking it is NOT enough.

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