Letter From an Israeli Jail
The Nation by YIGAL BRONNER November 5, 2002
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 in 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), 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 eating. He is forced to work fourteen 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 refuseniks, 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.