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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

“Breaking the Silence” in Zurich, Betraying Swiss Values

Filed under: Europe and Israel

This week (June 4-14, 2015) a controversial exhibition by the Israeli NGO “Breaking the Silence” (BtS) will open for the public in the Swiss city of Zurich.  BtS presents cases of alleged war crimes and misconduct by the Israeli Defense Forces featuring pictures, videos, and testimonies of anonymous Israeli soldiers.

The event is advertised by its sponsors as revealing “structural repression, army cooperation with extremist settlers, and daily harassment of Palestinians,” much to the concern of many in Switzerland who understand the intricacies of Israel’s combat against Hamas, the fact that BtS doesn’t identify its “witnesses” to unverifiable incidents, and the dubious practices of BtS which is funded by numerous biased sources.1

However, the most frustrating aspect for friends of Israel is the fact that the exhibition is funded not only by the city of Zurich but also by the Swiss foreign ministry (EDA) to the tune of more than $150,000.  In a country that prides itself on its international neutrality and pragmatic, down-to-earth-mentality, one is left to wonder what kind of ideological machinations influenced the decision-making process regarding this distribution of taxpayers’ money.

BtS appearances in the U.S. and Europe, but not in Israel. (credit: NGO Monitor)
BtS appearances in the U.S. and Europe, but not in Israel. (credit: NGO Monitor)

The more worrisome aspect is that the public funding by a allegedly neutral state gives credence to the distorted exhibit that carries a powerful narrative: Israel is portrayed as deliberately committing war crimes.  According to this narrative, if not for these “brave dissenting voices who break their silence,” the world would remain oblivious to Israel’s alleged atrocities.  Some may reason that if neutral and liberal Switzerland feels the need to give these voices a platform who would dare to challenge this view, especially when the state-funded Reformed Church and numerous so-called peace-initiatives also host the exhibition.

Consequently, Israel’s ambassador Yigal Caspi rightly sent a formal complaint to the EDA and pointed out that BtS is encouraging widespread anti-Israel bias in Europe by moving a critical domestic Israeli debate to a location where the real context of the allegations is absent and cannot be judged fairly.  There are abundant mechanisms within Israel’s civil society and the defense forces to conduct critical investigations into possible wrongdoings, as enumerated by the Jerusalem Center.2 By funding the exhibition, the EDA supports BtS’ dubious and malicious approach in stark contrast to its claim to be “committed to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

“Propaganda and Disinformation”

Members of the Swiss-Israel parliamentary group also issued a statement strongly condemning the public financing of the “propaganda, disinformation and ideology opposed to any peace.”  By contributing to the funding, the EDA “is betraying human rights, democracy and the peaceful coexistence of people, as well as the values it is allegedly promoting.”3

The distortion in BtS’ narrative is evident in its self-immunizing strategy. Public complaints by Israel and friends of Israel are deflected with charges of “silencing brave critics” of Israel. Some news outlets have already spun the story to that effect. The Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger (the second largest of the country and notoriously critical of Israel) published an article about how Israeli “right-wing nationalists” have seized the Israeli foreign ministry and have attempted to suppress criticism of Israel worldwide. The complaints against BtS revealed only “the growing isolation of Israel,” the newspaper asserted.4

The aim of BtS’ sponsors is not an honest debate to correct perceived wrongs, but to defame Israel abroad and thus add to the increasing international pressure on the Jewish state. In that sense, BtS is in line with the international anti-Zionist movement spearhead by BDS.

The BtS narrative that portrays the IDF as a cruel war machine attempts to be influential, but it can be challenged by facts. At a time when even Amnesty International cannot remain silent any longer about the appalling practices of the Hamas regime in Gaza,5 it is clear that none of the BtS sponsors in Switzerland are really helping to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict by relocating a domestic Israeli debate.

The EDA has commented that Switzerland remains committed to the peace process and to a two-state solution. However, the $158,000 donation to BtS from the EDA from 2012-2016 belies these claims.

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