Former University Sanskrit scholar and Israeli citizen, Yigal Bronner, was transferred from a remote desert military base for confining conscripted soldiers that have broken the law to a prison for reservist soldiers yesterday morning. He had been held since October 28 at the facility, where he reportedly worked 14 hour days and was forbidden to wear a watch, take off his hat, use a pillow, or speak while working or eating.
Bronner was sentenced to 28 days by the Israel Defense Forces for refusing to fight in the West Bank. Every Israeli male is required to serve as a reserve soldier when called to duty after serving as a conscripted soldier for three years at the age of eighteen.
Bronner has been a vocal advocate of the movement to refuse to fight when called to duty in the occupied territories for reasons of conviction.
“I suspected this was coming. I think he knew it was coming,” said Sheldon Pollock, professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Bronner’s Ph.D. advisor when he was at the University of Chicago between 1993 and 1999.
According to Pollock, Bronner was called to serve in the West Bank last year, the first time he refused to serve as a reserve soldier for his tank unit in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I think he suspected that the next time around things were going to get worse, and they did,” Pollock said. “It was a surprise that he was imprisoned under the conditions [that have been reported].”
Bronner’s imprisonment has been closely monitored and reported by Neve Gordon, lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, and David Shulman, professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as a network of scholars, activists, and close personal friends.
Israeli males are traditionally called to serve for one month out every year.
“It depends on what role his unit requires. Basically the average is around 30 to 45 days a year,” explained Amir Segev, press officer for the San Francisco Israeli Consulate. “It depends what the assignments are.”
Refuseniks, a title which refers to those who refuse to fight in the occupied territories, have not always been imprisoned. The movement to imprison Israelis who refuse to serve in these territories began to take shape during the past year.
“In the past six months they’ve started to imprison the refuseniks,” said Daisy Rockwell, visiting professor at Loyola University in Chicago, who was a graduate student with Bronner at Chicago.
“I think it’s really clear that [Yigal’s] particular case shows a big, big change in the way the government is dealing with the opposition,” Rockwell said. “I don’t think it’s the end of the story at all.”
The Israeli government defends its incarceration of Bronner at the site for conscripted soldiers although there is currently a legal battle over whether it was lawful for the military to detain Bronner in such a facility rather than with reservist soldiers that objected to fighting.
As it stands, there is no legal category of conscientious objection for an Israeli male.
“It’s disobeying the law if you refuse to serve somewhere or refuse some legal assignment,” Segev said. “There are a few that are refusing to break the law in what the law requires. They are going to be prosecuted for that. It’s as simple as that. After all they broke the law.”
The total number of conscientious objectors is presently estimated to be somewhere between 50 and 150.
“There are very, very few events of such refusal. I know they get a lot of headlines and publicity, but they are very marginal,” Segev said. “All the Israeli citizens are required and the huge majority of them want to help and take part in the routine effort.”
Bronner is the first refusenik to be set apart in another facility. The Israeli government has maintained that his case was unusual and that the base he was sent to is no worse than any other detainment center.
“The military has its own facilities. There’s nothing hidden or dark or weird in it. It’s a very known and open process,” Segev said. “There are no underground or backyard facilities that no one is aware of.”
A petition started on Bronner’s behalf by Pollock and Gordon makes clear, however, that many object to this assessment. The petition, posted online at www.seruv.org.il, has garnered significant attention from scholars and activists across the globe.
“500 signatures in support of the petition were collected in a three day period from all over the world,” Pollock said.
“I have read many of the letters that people sent when they signed the petition. It’s heartening to see the support that these men and women are receiving. It’s very remarkable,” Pollock said. “Public opinion does have a role to play in affecting policy around the world.”
International publicity may have had something to do with Bronner’s move from the facility for conscripted soldiers. The fact that Bronner could have been detained as a result of a personal grudge by a general has recently been raised.
“Somebody wanted to make an example of Yigal. That’s my view from the sidelines,” Pollock said. “Refuseniks have not been subject to the harassment and humiliation that Yigal Bronner has received.”
The international attention on Bronner’s confinement is due in part to the particular details of his case and Bronner’s vocal refusal, but also because he is well-respected by his peers.
Bronner was one of three people to be awarded a prestigious Giles Whiting Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2002 at the University of Chicago, an honor he turned down in order to continue his activism in Israel.
Additionally, Bronner’s work at the University of Chicago earned him high praise from those who knew him; many of them, like Pollock, who is currently working on an academic project with him, have stayed in close contact with him.
“He’s a gentle scholar. He’s an old-fashioned scholar,” said Wendy Doniger, professor of South Asian Languages and Civilization. “He is a great translator of poetry…He wrote a brilliant dissertation on metaphor [in Sanskrit poetry].”
Others spoke to his resolve and sincerity. “If you know the guy, he’s just the most principled person,” Rockwell said. “We believe in Yigal…We just jumped on this so fast because we knew that he must be doing the right thing. To us, he’s our hero.”
“He’s a man with a very strong social conscience, and he speaks out against injustice,” Doniger said.
Two days before he was moved from the facility, Bronner sent a letter to The Nation, posted on their Web site on November 5 as “Letter From an Israeli Jail.” Such moves, Rockwell noted, may lead to further uncomfortable conditions in the future.
“He wants there to be a lot of noise, and he may be punished for this,” Rockwell said. “His principle is that the world should know about the refusenik movement.”
“Theoretically there could be a cycle of punishment,” Rockwell said. “We don’t even know the defense minister…It’s much more likely that he’ll be hard-line,” she said, referring to the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.
“I think that if the right amount of publicity can be generated for this kind of story internationally we’re going to find a better conversation going on over there,” Rockwell said.
Though it has seen little support from most of the Israeli population, the refusenik movement has supported as much as possible those individuals who have been incarcerated. One organization, Yesh Gvul, for example, has supplied funds for Bronner’s refusenik lawyer who has taken the case pro bono.
“Bronner didn’t do this on his own. He was part of several groups of Israelis,” Doniger said.