Critics of the State of Israel are often faulted for failing to appreciate the dangers that country faces and for ignoring the burdens that those who risk their lives to defend it bear. But even Israel’s staunchest backers would likely hesitate before leveling these charges at the men and women whose photographs and video testimonials were recently on display at The Rotunda, an arts center on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibit, which on March 1 will open at the Harvard University Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, catalogs the daily routine of life in the West Bank city of Hebron, as seen through the eyes of Israeli soldiers who’ve been dispatched to serve in an occupation now in its forty-first year.
The soldiers are members of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli combat veterans who, upon being discharged from the army, decided to bear witness to the moral cost that the politically incendiary occupation has entailed. To judge by the montage of images in their exhibit, the toll has been as internally corrosive as it has been externally damaging. Some of what’s in the photos–the rubble and garbage cluttering the streets, the settlers strolling around in yarmulkes and guns, the racist graffiti (“Arabs Out”) scrawled in Hebrew on Palestinian shops–will be familiar to anyone who’s been to the West Bank. And some of what’s not in them may strike some viewers as exculpatory: there are no blood-splattered walls, no mangled corpses, no children cowering in fear as tanks roll by.
But it is precisely the banality of the images, the sense they convey that what’s being documented is numbingly routine, that ought to unsettle anyone who claims to care about Israel. In several pictures, we see soldiers standing watch over Palestinians with their arms tied behind their backs and blindfolds over their eyes. As the blasé expressions on the soldiers’ faces (and the accompanying testimonials) make clear, these are not terrorists but “dry outs” being taught a lesson for transgressions as mundane as violating a curfew or walking down a street where only settlers are allowed. In another photo, a soldier on a couch smiles as a soccer game flickers on the television behind him. The house was raided and its Palestinian inhabitants evacuated, the caption informs us, not for strategic reasons but simply because it had a TV and the World Cup was on.
In other pictures, soldiers who look no older than college freshmen are shown posing next to their blindfolded captives with preening smiles on their faces. The glint of elation in their eyes calls to mind the celebratory thumbs-up flashed by Lynndie England and Charles Graner at Abu Ghraib, where, as Luc Sante has observed, the Americans in charge “felt free to parade their triumph and glee not because they were psychopaths but because the thought of censure probably never crossed their minds.” In the West Bank, too, the opportunity to wield unchecked power over a faceless enemy with no rights proved, for some, intoxicating. “I thought I was immune…. Suddenly, I noticed that I’m getting addicted to controlling people,” one soldier confesses. “I remember doing it with such a smile,” another recalls.
It is not hatred but the toxic blend of apathy and condescension in an environment where an unbridgeable wall separates “us” and “them” that fuels such conduct, the testimonials in the exhibit suggest. “He is not a dog, he is not some animal, you don’t think of him as inferior, he simply doesn’t exist,” a soldier explains, beneath a photo of a blindfolded Palestinian youth propped up on a chair. In another photo, we see a boy on a rooftop tending to some pigeons, unaware that, as the horizontal and vertical lines crisscrossing the image indicate, he’s standing in the crosshairs of a sniper’s scope held by a soldier who presumably snapped the picture (and who, the thought can’t help but occur, could at any moment pull the trigger of his gun).