While serving on a military base in the West Bank, Benzi Sanders recalls opening his eyes one morning and being struck by the sight of a tattered Israeli flag caught in the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Jewish settlement just across the way.
“I couldn’t help thinking about how that flag, torn into shreds, symbolized what had become of my romantic vision of Zionism,” says the former New Yorker. “So I got up and took a picture of it.”
Sanders, 28, is part of a first-of-its-kind delegation of Jewish-American veterans who are returning to their communities to share their not-so-happy stories of serving in the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank.
Rebecca Strober, Benzi Sanders and Nathan Hersh discussing their experiences in the West Bank during a Breaking the Silence event in Philadelphia, November 13, 2019.Breaking the Silence
The two-and-a-half-week tour, which kicked off in Philadelphia last Wednesday, is sponsored by Breaking the Silence — the Israeli organization of former combat soldiers dedicated to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Founded in 2004, the group gathers testimonies from soldiers about their experiences serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and organizes tours highlighting what it sees as the injustices of the occupation. Its activities have stirred considerable controversy in Israel, and members of the group have often been denounced by right-wingers as “unpatriotic” and even “traitors” for speaking out against their country.
– Breaking the Silence tweet
#OurSoldiersTour: US-born former IDF soldiers tell the communities where they were raised what serving in the occupied territories is like.
We got off to a great start in Philly and NYC. Now we're on our way to St. Louis, Boston & DC. Join us: https://t.co/9EwmtBBGip pic.twitter.com/vTiYmoLWV8
— Breaking the Silence (@BtSIsrael) November 10, 2019
Breaking the Silence regularly brings delegations of Israeli army veterans to the United States to share their experiences. This tour, however, is the first one in which it is bringing a group of so-called lone soldiers — the term used to describe army recruits whose families reside outside of Israel. Some 3,500 of them serve in the Israeli army at any given point in time, with about one-third coming from the United States.
Six former lone soldiers — all of them originally from the United States (some have since moved back there) — are participating in this East Coast and Midwest tour. They have 20 events scheduled at Jewish community centers, synagogues and campuses in cities such as St. Louis, Boston and Washington.
Sanders, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, attended MTA (aka the Yeshiva University High School for Boys). After graduating, he spent three years in Israel attending yeshiva programs before gaining Israeli citizenship and joining the IDF in 2012. He was stationed in the West Bank for most of his three years in the special forces unit of the Nahal Brigade. Although he remains observant, he hesitates to identify any longer as “Orthodox,” he says, because the movement in Israel has become so aligned with right-wing politics.