Letter from a Military Jail

by Yigal Bronner

Dissident Voice

November 11, 2002



Dear Friends,


I would like to share with you some of my thoughts as I pass the long hours peeling bags of onions, washing dozens of large oily pots, or when I am asked to explain myself to those around me, people who find it difficult to understand my motives. Why does a man of my age -- married with two children -- "need all this?"  Why is it "worth my while" to refuse serving the occupied territories?


Such questions have forced me to examine my actions from the perspective of the other prisoners.  Here is a man, 36 years old, who is imprisoned with soldiers half his age.  He is separated from his family, forbidden to take off his hat (even when sitting in his cell or while eating), forbidden to use a pillow or sheets, to wear a watch, to eat in the dining hall (rather, he eats on a folding table in the hallway near his cell  all the while behind bars), and to speak while working or while eating.  He is forced to work 14 hours a day (in the kitchen or cleaning the bathrooms on the base), to stand at attention and yell, "Attention!" every time an officer passes, and to obey a long list of other commands and prohibitions, whose sole purpose is to humiliate him.  Why would anybody in his right mind subject himself to this?


In order to answer the above question seriously, one has to recall the alternative, what it was I refused to do.  There is indeed an effort to humiliate me through a variety of regulations.  But I believe that humiliating another human being is more humiliating by far.  To look, for example, into the eyes of a Palestinian at a checkpoint and prevent him/her from reaching work, school, or the hospital.  To look into the eyes of the residents upon whom I have just imposed another day of curfew -- a curfew that seems to have no beginning and no end.  To look into the eyes of a farmer whose orchards I am ordered to uproot -- or in the eyes of a family whose house I am about to demolish.  And to see my reflection in the eyes of these people: A despised soldier in front of trembling people who beg for his mercy.  This, to me, is much much more humiliating.


There are, of course, those who claim that the presence of people like me in the Occupied Territories can make the occupation more humane.  Indeed, it cannot be denied that one can uproot an orchard politely, demolish a house quietly and in a civilized manner, and perhaps even expel an entire population from their village -- as has been done in South Hebron -- in an organized and less violent way.  It is possible, it seems, to calmly dispossess and oppress an entire people.  The question, however, still arises: can a person who wishes to retain his humanity carry out such actions?


For me, the answer is clear: No.


So when we, the refusniks, declare that there are certain things that a just person simply does not do, we do not mean working in a kitchen since such work is dignified. We mean actions that humiliate and deny the humanity of the Other.  There is no doubt that it is better to sit in jail, isolated, wearing a hat, silent, washing dishes, and peeling onions.


I prefer -- by far -- to shed tears when I cut bag after bag of onions over the tears that arise whenever I conjure up images of the occupation.





Dr. Yigal Bronner teaches Indian studies at Tel Aviv University, an activist in Ta'ayush  Arab-Jewish Partnership, and a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.  He was sentenced to 28 days in prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories.