The Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance and J Street U Harvard—an on-campus political group pushing for peace and security in Israel—hosted a panel yesterday featuring four American and Israeli soldiers in a discussion of military occupation and its impact.
Held at Harvard Hillel, the panel included Oded Na’aman and Simcha Levental of Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans with experience in Israeli-occupied territories, as well as Jenn Blain and Ted Goodnight of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
After a five-minute video depicting the day-to-day operations of Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the West Bank, the speakers launched into an hour-long conversation moderated by Zara B. Bohan, a Harvard graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies who works with J Street U.
“I joined the army thinking it would make me more of a man, but I found that serving in the West Bank was really the opposite of who I am,” said Na’aman, who is also a Harvard graduate student in philosophy.
All of the speakers focused on the differences between the public perceptions of military involvement and the harsh reality of any occupation.
“People really don’t know what we’re doing,” said Levental. “Through telling our personal story and bringing it to the Israeli and American public, we can go back to our true values, and the values on which we were founded.”
“By focusing only on security, Israel is giving up much of what makes it a good place,” said Na’aman. “We as a military culture have lost our humanity.”
The discussion also highlighted the ways in which an occupying military force tends to dehumanize its enemies in a conflict.
“In occupation, there exists a disparity of power, with both sides immersed in fear,” said Goodnight. “Things get desperate, and the first thing you lose when things get desperate is your humanity.”
Blain echoed Goodnight in recounting her service experience.
“[There] was a deliberate effort, even from basic training, to constantly dehumanize the enemy,” said Blain. “It was a system designed to get us to stop feeling.”
The speakers also touched upon the lasting effects of their involvement in the military.
“You lose a sense that there’s an order to your civil life,” said Na’aman. “You lose a sense of law and that the law can have authority over you.”
Roughly 75 people turned out for the event in an audience largely composed of Cambridge residents and graduate students.
“I learned a lot from watching their reactions to each other,” said James D. Reich, a Harvard Ph.D. student and member of J Street U Harvard. “It was really an emotional and insightful event.”