The candidness and emotional vulnerability of Israeli soldiers is of such renown today that there’s even a pejorative for it: yorim ve’bochim, shooting and crying. This label is often applied to the work of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israel Defense Forces veterans who speak publicly about the realities of the occupation. In Israel, its work is celebrated as much as it is disdained. They either slander the Israeli military to the non-Hebrew speaking world via their testimonies, with malicious intent, or give the IDF its moral foundation, depending on one’s political inclinations.
The name Breaking the Silence, as Anshel Pfeffer once noted, is somewhat false, given the sheer number of literary and cinematic explorations of the experiences and feelings war dredges up. The Lebanon War produced many celebrated movies, including Lebanon, Beaufort, and the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir, whose subject was angst and memory concerning the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres. 2012’s Rock the Kasbah focused on an 18-year-old conscript serving in Gaza during the First Intifada, sent on an assignment to find his comrade’s killers.
In the summer of 1967, however, as Israel reveled in its astonishing victory in the Six-Day War, the situation was very different—or so an enterprising clutch of writers and educators, historians and politicians believed. Everyone was talking about the war, they observed, but nothing was being done to give space and voice to people’s private emotions. The soldiers had returned from the front and taken to silence. They were living up to the image of the sabra, whose thick skin reinforced with thorns hid a soft center that is hard to penetrate.
The group—which included the novelist Amos Oz and poet and partisan leader Abba Kovner—all lived on kibbutzim. Some indeed had fought in the war. In response to the silence, they set out to create what was, for Israel at least, a new kind of book: part literature, part oral history. They diagnosed that what was needed was not another record of what happened during the war, but something which showed Israelis how its veterans felt.
Hours of conversations with kibbutznik veterans were edited and published in October 1967 as Soldiers’ Talk. It quickly became a publishing sensation, selling five times its original print run in less than a year. It was, in its way, revolutionary. The reading public took to Soldiers’ Talk’s intimacy, the direct and honest way it dealt with questions of war and, perhaps most importantly, how problems fundamental to Israel were discussed without inhibition. Simply put, Daniel Gordis observes, “Israelis heard sentiments they had not heard expressed before.”
Revisiting it today is to see how prevalent fear was among the conscripts. National service could not replicate the uncertainty and expectancy that one feels not only in the midst of fighting but also in the pregnant hours beforehand. “You don’t know exactly what’s in store for you but you know it’s going to be dangerous,” Shai, 27, a paratroop lieutenant from Afikim, says. Asher, 32, of Mishmar HaNegev who served in the regular army, recounts the helplessness he experienced when his unit was strafed by Egyptian planes in the Sinai:
This fear, however, begat comradeship; in that sense the Six-Day War can be said to have made Zionism even more real for many of the interviewees. There was this broader sense that the war was about the defense of the Jewish people, but in the midst of battle soldiers were most acutely aware of their friends, family and communities: the very stuff of nationhood.
The soldiers really wrestle with how to treat the enemy—“what we’ve got to avoid is cheapening life”—and often draw direct lines between witnessing columns of downtrodden Egyptian soldiers marching in the Sinai—“those wretched people streaming along the road, poor miserable souls, carrying their bundles”—and “the Jews wandering through Europe,” as Asher says. The weight of Jewish history was present and relevant to these men.
Portentously, they had to cope with the transition not only from war to ceasefire, but also the reality of being an occupying force. “It’s an absolutely lousy feeling being in a conquering army,” one of them says, and the soldiers clearly struggle with the fact that, quite simply, they were not trained or, as kibbutznikim, brought up to act as victors and subjugators. Dan, an army major from Gat decorated for bravery during the war, recounts:
It is now 50 years since that change: both Israel’s lighting victory and the start of a prolonged military occupation. Anniversaries are moments of reflection when we often consider meaning and consequence, yet there is also a duty consider simply what it was actually like for Israelis during those six days of terror and glory. We who have not experienced it “cannot imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is,” Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. As much as it did for Israelis in 1967, Soldiers’ Talk can open our eyes and help us understand.