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21st Century Storytelling: Dani Silberman’s Story (guest post)

Saying diversity is like saying Dani Silberman. This children’s book author that has divided his life between 3 different continents, is the  product of a mix marriage. Born in Chile in 1967 to a Jewish father and an Atheist mother from a Catholic background, Silberman was raised to respect all religions and cultures, but to question everything.  His picture book, The Three Monkey Brothers  is a funny journey in quest of coconuts with a green message.

September 11th.  But not the September 11th the whole world knows of 2001.  I’m talking about September 11th 1973. On this date, the Chilean army interrupted 150 years of democratic tradition by overthrowing the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Violence and uncertainty spread on the streets of Santiago, Concepcion, Valparaiso, Calama, and the all rest of the country. The “Casa de Moneda”, the presidential palace, was bombarded by airplanes from above. The president was later found dead, some versions claiming he was killed, others that he committed suicide, all depending to which side of the political map people identified with. This September 11th, this is just seven days before the independence day of Chile.

On that day, I was 6 and one half years old. My father, David Silberman, engineer by profession and a high official in the previous government, who served as the General Manager of the copper mines in the north, was immediately marked and within a few days he was incarcerated, subjected to military trial and sentenced to 13 years of prison. Ironically, on those days that was considered lucky, as many others less fortunate, were shot in the streets: Journalists, political activists, civilians that simply lived in the wrong (poor) neighborhoods, civilians of indigenous descent, even soldiers that opposed the violence and human rights violation, tens of thousands of people, all were subjected to beatings, public humiliations, incarceration, unimaginable tortures, executions and unaccountability of their whereabouts, essentially becoming “desaparecidos”, missing people.

For me, my world was rocked. That day not only I lost the presence of my dad, the sense of security, the comfort of our socio-economical wellbeing, but also my basic trust in human beings. At that age, one is not supposed to see neighbors, friends, even family members turn your back on you, either out of fear, opportunism or judgment. At that age, one is not supposed to see secret police agents become residents in your neighbor’s house and track all your moves. In the mornings, on our way to school, my siblings and I used to wave our hands at them, and they, out of embarrassment, learned with time to greet us back.

So we were considered lucky, and my father was transferred to the central penitentiary in the capital of Santiago, and my mother was allowed to visit him every Monday morning, accompanied by one child. During this time, he was subjected to frequent torturing, sometimes by adversary wings in the army, competing for any information they thought they could subtract out of him. This relatively safe situation, meaning him being alive and accounted for, was suddenly interrupted in October of 1974, one Monday morning when my mother showed for the weekly visit, and she was informed that my father was taken from the penitentiary. By whom? When? Why?  No answers were provided.

On that moment our mother started a new struggle, one involving legal actions, diplomatic efforts and endless requests to the international press to create pressure to release her husband; to prevent him from becoming another one of more than 3,000 people unaccounted till today. All efforts in vain. At that age, one is not supposed to hear calls in the middle of the night, claiming that the horrific screams on the background are of my father being tortured that very moment. Not at any age, for that matter. So in 1977, with no official knowledge but with 99% probability that my father was not alive anymore, we left the country for good. We had many offers from countries around the globe to receive political asylum. But my mother chose wisely to migrate to Israel. She was not Jewish, but since my father was and we – their children – were raised within the Jewish tradition, she knew only there we will be able to develop a new identity, to adopt a new nationality, instead of becoming eternal political refugees; to be able to heal our wounds instead of covering them with hatred.

So on my 10th birthday exactly, on February 24th, 1977, we arrived to Israel. Adjusting was difficult, learning a new language, culture, and above all coping with the guilt, that my father somehow will survive, will be able to escape, only to not be able to find us. But time is a great healer. We coped, we adjusted. Only to find myself only 8 years later, at the age of 18, called for 3 years mandatory army service. The year is 1985, just months before the first “Intifada”, the Palestinian uprising. During boot camp training, we are sometimes brought to refugee camps during weekends, as back up force, so other soldiers, more veterans, can go home. Somehow, every time this happen, psychosomatically, I am sick: Fever, diarrhea, every time something else prevents me from arriving to these camps and witnessing the occurrences.

Late 1986, the uprising officially breaks, thousands of Palestinian demonstrators run to the streets, releasing years of bottled anger and throwing everything they can find on the soldiers. The IDF is taken by surprise, and unprecedented numbers of forces are sent into the occupied territories to patrol the streets. This time no mysterious sickness can spare me, and I’m sent in along with my unit. I consider refusing to go in, even at the price of sitting in jail. I am torn between my moral code and my fear from jail, with all the connotations to my father’s imprisonment, even though that the conditions in the army jail are more like a vacation than anything else, but the feeling of being deprived from my freedom is the one that frightens me.

In the first days the army orders the soldiers to avoid confrontations at any cost, thinking these are only riots and things will quiet down within days. The soldiers patrol the streets, absorbing curses and stones, bottles, blocks and without anywhere or way to channel the aggressions directed at them. Than, when the policy makers start comprehending that the intifada is the result of 20 years of occupation and that it will not quiet down so fast, they change direction, and offer a harsh reaction, which can be reflected in the miserable quote of Itzhak Rabin, then the minister of Defense: “I want you to break their legs and arms”.

In the meantime, I made up my mind to refuse the orders and accept the consequences, but one of the officers in my unit – a religious settler of right wing opinions – but somebody that I have much respect for him as a human being, convinces me that my commitment is to stay put, to accept my post and my duties in order to become the watchdog for all the soldiers in our unit, be a constant reminder to behave humanly and with respect to the population while the army tries to tone down the situation by arriving to the responsible ones agitating the winds.

So I find my self in a nightmare really, walking the streets of my September 11th, only this time I’m the one wearing uniform and chasing after my father’s friends. Only most of them are young teenagers, 15, 16 years old, throwing stones at us. Stones that can potentially do serious damage, or even kill, but it doesn’t ever happen.

During the days we patrol the streets, chasing kids, it really looks more like a game of cat and mouse among children. During the nights we secure Special Forces performing arrests. This activity really kills me. I’m arresting my father! When we do arrest somebody, I rush to him to be the first soldier next to him and escort him to the patrol car. My look is impossible to be mistaken: don’t you even dear to dream of mistreating this person, of letting out one kick of frustration, one push with the riffle into his ribs. The arrested individual, I recognize the fear but also the acceptance of his situation in his eyes. This particular person is suspected of writing pamphlets to encourage the youth to continue the riots. When my eyes meet his eyes, I don’t give him any signs of sympathy or hate, or any other emotion, really. I’m like a robot performing my job, and I cannot transmit weakness. But he knows. He understands, when he sees the first soldier approach him with the intention of gifting him with a good hit, and I block him with my riffle and my look. I help the detainee climb to the back of the truck, and I sit next to him. We drive about 40 minutes, all the way to Jerusalem, where we are supposed to deliver him to civil police, since apparently he is an Arab Israeli citizen and posses an Israeli identity card. After about 15 minutes of this ride, one of the soldiers with us on the back of the truck, cannot take this tensioned situation and asks me directly, flat out, to allow him one hit, just one good kick. I shout back at him that I will kick him back out of the truck if he even tries. Nobody dares to move and I thank the darkness that hides the tears running down my cheeks. Nobody sees my tears, except my prisoner, my father, now lying on the floor next to my feet. I see the white of his eyes. His eyes are thankful. That irritates me. What do you thank me for, I shout at him inside my head. I hate him. I hate myself.

I could tell you the end of the incident, I could tell you of other incidents, but none of them offer a happy ending. To anybody involved. Today, 23 more years of occupation later, 9 years after the September 11th that everybody else in the world relates to, we haven’t advanced one step towards peace in this region. Forget peace, I’ll settle for stability, or dissolving hatred, not raising another generation on hatred. In other places in the world, massacres for political / ethnic / religious reasons are still happening. It is disheartening, to think humanity is so cruel, to think we have learned nothing. But then I remember my commitment, to keep shouting when I see injustice, to keep convincing we can conduct ourselves differently.  These days I find myself writing a workshop on Human rights intended for Israeli soldiers. My writing is A-political, and carries no agenda other than respect for human beings. The Israeli forces will not leave the territories this year. I can not change that. Israel cannot change that alone, without the Palestinian leadership. But maybe I can affect the behavior of one individual in that chaos situation.