There’s a contradiction inherent in how Israel reckons with its atrocities against Palestinians. On one hand Israel’s leaders and their supporters call for the genocide of Palestinians, such as this past weekend when Israel’s Defense Minister announced all power would be cut to Gaza, referring to its residents as “human animals.” On the other hand, the grisly truth of Israeli war crimes must stay out of sight, out of mind. Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans, attempts to break the censorship surrounding war crimes against Palestinians with soldier testimony. Nir Avishai Cohen of Breaking the Silence joins The Marc Steiner Show to talk about the work of his organization, the failure of the Israeli left, and his new book, Love Israel, Support Palestine: An Israeli Story.
Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded in September, 2023, before “The Flood of Al-Aqsa” operation by Palestinian armed resistance forces took place on Oct. 7.
Studio / Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you with us, and welcome to another episode of Not in Our Name. Today, we talk with Nir Avishai Cohen, who hails from Moshav Almagor in Israel. He was a major in the IDF which is the Israeli army, he’s a political activist and human rights activist, he used to be a spokesman for Breaking the Silence, who we’ve had on this program before, and joins us here to talk about his book about his life and work, an interesting title as well, Love Israel Support Palestine: An Israeli Story. Nir, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Thank you very much for having me here. Pleasure.
Marc Steiner: This is an interesting… To me, it was a really interesting tale, a really interesting story. And well-written. But it’s interesting because it’s a sojourn that you don’t often hear about in this day which is a sojourn of someone who is on the left in Israel, who’s been an activist, also a major in the Israeli army, and who speaks deeply about the pain of having to be in the army against Palestinians, at the same time wanting to defend your country, and all the contradictions that exists.
This seems to me what you’re doing is, in a sense, peeling the onion of the contradictions and the pain that Israel-Palestine faces.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yeah. It’s important for me, first to say, as you mentioned, I’m an Israeli. I’m an Israeli who basically loves his country. And that is how I was raised, that we need to love our country, we need to protect our country. That’s the basic values that I was educated back in my parents’ house.
Actually, that’s also the reason why I went to serve in the army: not because it’s one of the legal duties, but because I really believe that I’m going to protect my country. Quite fast I figured out this is not what I’m doing. As soon as I arrived in the occupied territories, I understood the picture was different than I thought. Maybe I’ll speak a little bit about that later on. But this story, this book, indeed it’s about my life, mainly about my experiences in the West Bank, but it’s also about the life of many, many other Israelis.
The Hebrew name of the book is, How I Became This Way. So in many ways, I’m asking how we became this way. The book also gives a quite unique perspective out of the eyes of an Israeli officer. Which, I still actually served in the army until a month ago. That belongs to another topic of these days what’s going on in Israel. But I really do love Israel, as the title of the book says, but I really do support Palestine.
Marc Steiner: Interesting, the title of the book is, How Did We Get Here? Is that what it is in Hebrew? Is that what you said?
Nir Avishai Cohen: No, it’s How I Became This Way.
Marc Steiner: How I Became This Way.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: So, let me talk about that for a minute with you. That’s a much better title. How Did We Get This Way? It really is. You come from a semi-collective place, Moshav. Your parents, the history of their family is surviving the Holocaust.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Correct. My grandma survived Auschwitz after she lost all her family over there.
Marc Steiner: Your mother and father are both on the left. Your mother seems to be really on the left, from what you wrote.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Both of them. Both of them are on the left in Israel. Definitely.
Marc Steiner: Let’s take the title as you wrote it. It makes me think of, 50 years ago I wrote a poem called “Growing Up Jewish.” One of the lines in that poem was “the pain of Israel-Palestine is refugees creating refugees” and all the contradictions that talks about. So, talk a bit about that in terms of your book, your life, and the struggle you went through to come to grips with what’s really happening with Israel and Palestine.
Nir Avishai Cohen: My grandma, the one who survived Auschwitz, was a religious person. Even though she was religious, she said that our most important holiday is Independence Day because we – And that’s what her main lesson may be from the Holocaust – That we need to have our own country.
Then while saying that, I don’t think that we should occupy other people. When I was recruited to the army I suddenly understood this conflict between the duty of protecting the country and then the other end, the unnecessary daily routine, the occupation that’s going on in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Marc Steiner: In the book, also to me, one of the most important themes throughout the book is how you wrestled with being in the army for so many years, and in the face of the occupation, and having to be part of that even though you saw the contradictions, and having to go through that for how many years now? 20 plus years or more, right?
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yeah. Yep.
Marc Steiner: So talk a bit about how you go through that and get through that, given the belief system that you have.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yeah. I started in the army, back in ’99 when I turned 18 like many other Israelis. After a few months, in September of 2000, I arrived for the first time in the occupied territories. It was there in the Gaza Strip. Then later on, I arrived at the West Bank, and I served there as a platoon commander for more than half a year. In my book, most of the experiences are from this time.
Later on, while I was a deputy of a company commander during two stints in the reserve army, I also served in the West Bank. I must say that in the beginning, it was a process for me to understand that I was not willing to serve in the West Bank. Then only in 2010, around 10 years of serving in the West Bank, I decided that, on the one hand, I would keep serving in the army but then on the other hand I’m not willing to serve in the occupied territories.
Fortunately, I had the chance to do that because my battalion was sent to the frontline at the border with Egypt and Jordan. Definitely, I can see that it was a process. I needed to understand it with myself, and it was a process that took years. I admit to understanding that I’m not willing to serve in the West Bank.
Marc Steiner: There are two parts of the book here I want to talk about in terms of the struggle that you went through. I’m going to read this piece that you wrote about, about your own feelings about the word “Zionist” and being an Israeli.
You wrote, “I can love this country, be invested in its existence, and even be willing to die defending its borders without being called a Zionist. I’m an Israeli by national identity.” Then you talked about, in another piece of the book, because you’re an athlete, running across a marathon finishing line, carrying both an Israeli and a Palestinian flag.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yes, it was an Ironman, but yeah.
Marc Steiner: An Ironman. I’m sorry, an Ironman, excuse me. An Ironman. Sorry. I didn’t mean to belittle you down to a marathon runner. I’m sorry. [Both laugh]
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yeah. It’s a very wide topic about what is Zionism these days, but definitely, as I said, these days in Israel, Zionism, or being a Zionist, the first meaning is the supremacy of the Jews over the Muslims or the Arabs in the state of Israel, and obviously in the occupied territories. I don’t feel supreme of anyone and I don’t want to feel like that. That’s why I decided not to have this definition as a Zionist but I really can define myself as a person that loves his country. My 24 years serving in the army prove that.
Still, the fact that I love my country doesn’t mean I cannot criticize it and doesn’t mean even the opposite. If you love your country, if you love Israel, you should criticize the occupation. If you want Israel to try to be a democracy, you should demand the end of the occupation by the name of democratic values. That’s what I’m doing.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to come back to how that might happen. One of the things that I want you to describe for us and people listening to us is that you went through a lot, and different organizations in your fight to figure out how you best fight, politically and socially for a different future for Palestinians and Israelis living there together.
Let’s talk for a moment about Meretz and describe what that party is in Israel, and your work for them, and the state of the Israeli left in the Knesset, and why you were done. Why do you say enough with Meretz? Talk a bit about that part of your struggle.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Yeah. First, unfortunately, I must say that the left in Israel is dying. Okay? Not in their best days. The situation of the Meretz party proved that. I was a part of the Meretz party. I was a consultant to a parliament member, and to a Knesset member back in 2017 and ’18, but Meretz, like many other Israelis – Or maybe it’s a reflection of the movement that’s going on in Israel, instead of raising the flag of anti-occupation by the name of loving this country – Meretz changed its way and decided to put away all the anti-occupation struggle.
When I realized that this was the direction, I understood I could not be in this party. So this is the main reason why I left Meretz. I must say that I’m not sad that Meretz is now not in the Parliament because I really do believe there is a time and a place for a new party. Also, I speak about it in my book, a Jewish-Arabic party which will represent much better, the Israeli left public.
Marc Steiner: Let’s explore that for a minute. I was really curious, towards the end of your book you talk about, what you think should be the future. I’m curious, a, how you think you can get there… I was talking with a friend the other night, who’s a colleague, who’s Israeli. He lives in Germany. One of the things we talked about was that close to 6% or more of the Israeli population has left Israel, the Jewish population, and many of those who left were on the left, not all but many.
How do you build what you would like to see in Israel-Palestine? How do you think that happens? Why do you think the left fell apart?
Nir Avishai Cohen: The left fell apart… That’s a great question. It’s a process that’s been going on for about 20 years, unfortunately. The main reason is the huge success of the settlers’ movement that managed to convince, not only the right side of Israel but also the central group or the central camp in Israel, that there is no partner with the Palestinians; There is no hope for peace.
Then, also the left – I talk about it in my book – Doesn’t know or forgets how to speak with youngsters. We as the left camp lost, maybe a whole generation of youngsters. We saw that lately in the elections with the huge numbers of youngsters that voted for Ben Gvir and Smotrich.
Unfortunately, the agendas of the left in Israel are not very popular among youngsters. That was one of the main reasons why I decided to write my book. I did it in a very, I would say, simple language because I wanted the book to be read by as many youngsters as possible.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about that, that particular thing, because you do write about that extensively. As part of your book, you write about young people and how they’re disconnected. I’m curious, in much of the world, a huge portion of the young are on the left.
Recently in Israel, there were massive demonstrations against the right-wing government. So, where do you think that goes? How do you begin to organize what should happen? A, you talked in your book about a Jewish-Arab party and an Israeli-Palestinian party that could come together, and you talked about the dislocation of young people. How do you get beyond that? How do you organize that?
Nir Avishai Cohen: Definitely, if I knew the perfect answer for that, maybe the situation of the left among youngsters would be better. Yeah? But I can say that we need first to understand where those youngsters are at right now, meaning in social work and also in primetime. I can speak for myself; I went to a reality show in which I was considered trash because I wanted to speak on occupation in that reality show. I’m talking about Big Brother.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Nir Avishai Cohen: We saw the result of it. I cannot say that I changed the political map in Israel. Obviously not, but I can say that many, many, many youngsters didn’t even know what Breaking the Silence is. Because of this reality show, they for once understood that it’s an important organization. They got quite a lot of supporters, new supporters, after the reality show.
So that’s an example. I can give you another example of what I’m doing, which again, it’s a really small contribution. Every year I go to dozens of pre-academy cadets. They invited me to speak with them about the occupation. I do it voluntarily. I’m going all over the country, talking with those young guys who are about to serve in the army about my experiences. We need to work hard and we need to speak in the language of the youngsters because on the other side of the political map, they’re doing it very well, we have to admit.
Marc Steiner: Well, they’re doing it well, and also there’s been this huge growth, as you write about. What did you call them in the book? The Messianic Settlement approach? But that’s huge. The super-religious Israelis have a huge amount of power, more than they had when I was young, but it’s a huge amount of power.
Something really shifted when I was a kid, and I’m older than you. When I was a kid in the ’50s, the Orthodox Jewish political power was there and did have an influence, but it wasn’t as massive as it is now. This influx of many American Orthodox Jews into Israel and into the West Bank is part of that.
Nir Avishai Cohen: The Americans need to understand that Israel has changed. Correct. Israel is not the Democratic state it used to be. Definitely, it’s different than in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It’s a different state. Unfortunately, it’s a country that, in part of its regime, has an apartheid regime. This is the truth and we cannot avoid it and everyone needs to understand it.
Marc Steiner: Years ago I also covered what was going on in South Africa when apartheid was falling apart. There was a minority of white people, many of them who were Jews in South Africa, who fought against apartheid. So the push that you write about in your book is the push of a minority inside of Israel itself.
I want to talk about how you thought about your own history and how you ended the book by talking about your vision of a Jewish-Arab party. And how you see that coming about. And what it takes to make that happen at this moment in history.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Look, I’m not very optimistic for the near future, I have to admit. There are several tryings of establishing new parties. In a few of them, I’m taking part, but it’s very, very, very difficult. There is one party that actually exists, called HaAvoda. It was created by Avrum Burg, who was a Parliament member and a very well-known character in Israel. We are facing huge barriers and huge difficulties. But that’s the direction that we need to go. We have no choice.
I really do believe that the future of a democratic country is in this party but this is only the seed. It will take, as I see it, a long time to get those seeds to grow and to be a real plant.
Marc Steiner: A couple of things while we have time together. I want to go back to the heart of the book before we conclude. For me, the heart of the book was your own personal struggles as a young Israeli in the army, leading men, in part guarding the borders, but in part being part of the occupation. There were clearly pieces of it where you became very emotional about what you were doing, and the contradictions that you faced. Talk a bit about how you lived through that, how you persevered through that, and what it did to you.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Definitely, my personal experiences in the West Bank affected my whole life till this day. I’m sure it will keep affecting me until my last day here. Unlike most of the Israelis, and unlike, definitely the rest of the world, I saw with my eyes what was going on, boots on the ground. With these experiences, I understood that I needed to do something. Again, I’m not doing enough, and even I’m not doing much, but I’m doing something.
I can give you the example of my testimony that I gave to Breaking the Silence, or even the year that I was working there, but the most important thing, or the first step to end the occupation, is that the people will really understand what’s going on over there on the daily routine, every day, and also today. Israel, the Israeli government, and the Israeli hasbara is very good at hiding it. I’m part of a group that’s trying to show another angle. I can say that we were trying to show the reality of what’s going on until today in the West Bank.
Marc Steiner: Let me take a quick digression before we come to a conclusion. To describe to our listeners what Breaking the Silence is, why you joined them, and what your role was. I want some people to understand that.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Breaking the Silence, it’s an organization of veteran soldiers who served in the occupied territory from the year 2000. Actually, the goal of this organization is to tell the Israeli public and also the rest of the world what is really happening in the occupied territories out of, again, the eyes of the soldiers who were there. This organization is doing it mainly with the testimonies of soldiers and officers like me, and also with tools that they’re making in the West Bank. Yeah, so that’s Breaking the Silence, one of the most important anti-occupation organizations that exist in Israel to this day.
Marc Steiner: Reading that part reminded me of a group that we had back in the 1960s here: The Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It became one of the most effective organizations of people fighting against the Vietnam War, to end the Vietnam War, where the men coming back from that war and still say no, which is what you’re talking about, trying to build in Israel through Breaking the Silence.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Correct. The thing that has poisoned the environment in Israel in the last 20 years… Myself and people like me in many, many places in Israel, became like traitors because of the poison propaganda against us unlike what happened back in the ’60s and ’70s in the States.
Marc Steiner: I’ll tell you a funny story before I ask you the last question here. When you said that, it also happened here. In 1971, I was part of Shalom Achshav, and for people who don’t know was Peace Now. I was in a debate with a Zionist, a conservative Zionist on a stage, and he called me a Judenraete. My response to him, and we can bleep the language. I looked over at him on the podium in front of the audience and I said, what the fuck did you say? And he said it again, and I went over and knocked him out. I told him I’m not talking anymore. I’m done.
The intensity… I’m saying that because of the intensity of the situation, the intensity of the divide inside the Jewish world is really profound when it comes to the future. I can see among a lot of younger Jews in America, the opposite of what you see among younger Jews in Israel, which is that people are beginning to question what’s going on.
Nir Avishai Cohen: It’s very important that those youngsters demand the American government to understand that it has to oppose the occupation because of the relations the State has with Israel. This is maybe the next step that we need to get in.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that you write about in the book, and I concluded this, and if you want to read part of the book after this, that’s fine, before we go. You write this about the settlements in the West Bank, and this is really important. I’ll read it here. These are your words from your book on page 158: “As I’ve mentioned before, the settlements are doing the exact opposite. They’re endangering the state of Israel. Furthermore, the settlers are endangering IDF soldiers. Our military and civilian cemeteries are full of soldiers and civilians who died at the altar of this lie. As long as the settlements exist, we cannot form a clear border between us and Palestinians unless it’s impossible to allow security forces to properly defend against…” You went on.
So the question is, and that is really critical: How do you see political forces in Israel developing, that actually can confront that reality? Do you see it happening?
Nir Avishai Cohen: As I said before, I don’t see it happening in the coming, or in the nearest future, but I really do believe that, maybe in a few years, maybe with the help of the world that, maybe will hold some sanctions against Israel. The Israelis need to understand that there is a price for occupying other people. We have to admit that the Israelis don’t really understand it and we don’t pay any price, or barely any price for it.
It might start to happen when the international situation of Israel starts to change. Maybe that will be the first step that will push the mainstream, or the central camp in Israel to understand what’s going on in the West Bank, and our duty to finish the occupation, or to end the occupation.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to end this way… First of all, thank you. Nir Avishai Cohen, the book in English is called Love Israel Support Palestine: An Israeli Story. Nir, as I said earlier, was a major in the Israeli Army. He’s worked in many other capacities in Israel, Breaking the Silence, which is soldiers saying no to the occupation, and it’s an important read. It’s an emotional read. It’s full of facts and reality. It’s a story of traveling through a nation that you love and trying to change it. It reminds me in many ways of when I was a civil rights worker in the South as a kid, of the white people in the South, who stood up against segregation and said no. It’s the same standing up.
Nir, I’m going to thank you for the book and thank you so much for being one of the people standing up to say Not in Our Name. Nir Avishai Cohen, I really do appreciate the book and I encourage everybody to read it. Love Israel Support Palestine. It’s really well worth the read. Thank you so much, Nir for being with us.
Nir Avishai Cohen: First, thank you very much for hosting me. If I may say that the book is available on Amazon, so every American can get it very easily. I hope it will spread because of the message, as I said.
Marc Steiner: I hope so, too. We will do our best to push it out there. It’s well worth the read and really well-written. Nir, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Nir Avishai Cohen: Thank you very much, Marc.
Marc Steiner: I hope you enjoyed the conversation we had today with Nir Avishai Cohen, who was our guest. His book, Love Israel Support Palestine, is really well worth the read. Again, let me say that Nir was a major in the Israeli Army, in the reserves. He stood up against the occupation. He’s a human rights activist and former spokesman for Breaking the Silence, which was a really important organization of former Israeli soldiers saying no to the occupation in Israel and ending that apartheid oppression.
We want to thank you once again, Nir Avishai Cohen for joining us. Love Israel Support Palestine. Of course, I want to thank you all for joining us today. Thanks to all the folks here at The Real News who made this happen: Kayla Rivara for doing the stuff behind the scenes, making this work. Adam Coley and Cameron Granadino behind the glass. Everyone here at The Real News for making this show possible.
Please let me know what you think about what you heard today, and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. While you’re there, stay a minute. Go to www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us. For Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino, Kayla Rivara, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.