In the past we have documented several cases in which the BBC has amplified the messaging of what it labels an “Israeli activist group” or a “human rights” group but failed to comply with its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by informing audiences of the agenda and ideology that lies behind the political NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’.
Last July, during a ‘Hardtalk‘ interview with Israel’s former minister of defence, BBC presenter Stephen Sackur used allegations made by that political NGO to advance the notion of moral failures in Israeli society.
“I’m trying to dig to something deeper about the morals, the values, the cohesion of an Israeli society that has always prided itself on having the very best of humane values. And I’m putting it to you, if you listen to Israeli soldiers who have served the occupation like Yehuda Shaul of ‘Breaking the Silence’ – a group that is now opposed to the occupation of former IDF soldiers – he says this is the moral consequence of prolonged occupation of the Palestinian people; that is, the corruption of young Israelis who serve that occupation.”
Sackur returned to that theme in another ‘Hardtalk’ interview which was aired on the BBC World News TV channel on February 15th (available in the UK here) as well as on BBC World Service radio on February 16th. The programme was also made available as a podcast.
“The Israeli Defence Force sees itself as an institution that binds the nation together. Most young Israelis serve in its ranks after leaving school. It claims to combine defence of the state with a sense of moral purpose. Avner Gvaryahu served in the IDF but he sees an institution in denial – corroded and corrupted by the military occupation of Palestinian communities over a fifty year span. Avner Gvaryahu and like-minded soldiers turned dissidents say they are breaking the silence. Are they patriots or traitors?”
In his introduction, Stephen Sackur told audiences that Israelis ‘enroll’ for military service rather than being conscripted. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]
Sackur: “My guest today is a young man whose experiences as a soldier changed his life in ways that have severely tested his ties to family, community and nation. Avner Gvaryahu was brought up in a suburb of Tel Aviv; an ordinary Israeli in an Orthodox household who, like pretty much all young Israelis, enrolled for military service after leaving school. He served as a sergeant in a unit of paratroopers deployed in the northern West Bank. He was part of Israel’s five decade-long military occupation. What he did and saw on active duty deeply disturbed him. After leaving the army Gvaryahu shared his feelings about the occupation and its corrosive impact on the Israeli army with other former soldiers. They formed a group – ‘Breaking the Silence’ – which gave voice to the troubled consciences of soldiers who recounted stories of harassment, intimidation and violence. It was time, they said, for Israel to confront the corrosive reality of the occupation and end it. The Israeli government reacted with fury. The dissident soldiers have been called traitors, puppets of anti-Israel interests, even aiders and abeters of terrorism. Avner Gvaryahu broke his silence but has it made any difference?”
Sackur’s framing of the story is of course patently obvious in that introduction – and it continued with more promotion of Sackur’s basic – but unquestioned – premise of Israeli wrongdoing.
Sackur: “I think it’s fair to say the IDF is probably the most sacrosanct institution in all of Israel. Was it hard for you to cross a line, to break the taboo and speak out against what the IDF is doing?”
Sackur: “Are you saying that the very act of going into the house of an innocent Palestinian family to you was, and is, totally unacceptable and corrosive and doing serious damage to the sort of moral values of Israel’s army and indeed the nation-state? Or are you saying that that’s just the tip of an iceberg of behavior, much of which is worse than that?
After Gvaryahu had cited “the flying checkpoint or entering houses for searching or checkpoints or making our presence felt” as additional examples of what he described as “instilling fear into the Palestinian population”, Sackur moved from asking questions to making pronunciations.
Sackur: “It’s the imposition of a basic power dynamic, the message being we are in control, we’re in charge of you and your lives and we, in essence, can do what we want.”
While mirroring Gvaryahu’s messaging – with which he clearly sympathises – Sackur made no effort to introduce audiences to the history and context of ‘the occupation’. Neither did he bother to remind them – or his guest – of the pertinent fact that when Israel withdrew all its forces and civilians from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinian terrorism did not come to an end.
Sackur: “… what you’re outlining as your critique of what is happening in Israel and that the IDF, as the agent of occupation, is doing, is essentially political. I mean you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, that the very act and policy of occupation is corroding Israel’s values and must end. But the truth is time after time the Israeli public votes in elections for parties which sustain and believe in that occupation.”
Gvaryahu: “That’s true but when you look at this democracy, it’s basically a democracy that is controlling and ruling millions of people that don’t have a right or a say in that democracy. So between the river and the sea we have about 13 million people where half of them do not go and elect anyone. So a big part of our mission – and that’s where we spend as ‘Breaking the Silence’ the vast majority of our energy and our time – is speaking to our fellow citizens all across Israel.”
Sackur made no effort to challenge that latter claim from Gvaryahu by asking him why his organisation has been conducting foreign speaking tours since shortly after its founding or why 40% of its activities in Israel are with non-Israelis.
Sackur also did not bother to point out to BBC audiences that Gvaryahu’s claim that Palestinians “do not go and elect anyone” is misleading because the vast majority of them have lived under Palestinian Authority or Hamas rule for over two decades and have the right to vote in PA elections which have nothing to do with Israel at all. He did, however, go on to promote at length his own ideas about Israeli soldiers – as we shall see in part two of this post.