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Letter to Yair

A conscientious objector reminds us that it takes courage to refuse weapons.

Joe Lockard

Yair Halper
Military ID 7237405
Military Prison 4
IDF Postal no. 02507

Shalom Yair,

Today news arrived about you in an e-mail circular. As I read, my heart grew sick.

Your father circulated the news from Israel that you are now sitting in Military Prison 4 at Tzrifin as a conscientious objector to military service. I read the letter you wrote before entering prison.

We have not seen each other for a half-dozen years, but I have heard occasional word about you. My memories of you begin as a child, from before you could walk. There is a bitterness to think of you sitting in prison for refusing to hurt other people or deprive them of their share of the sun. Yet, though it is small comfort, sitting in prison is only brief suffering. Too many continue to suffer far more, far longer, at the hands of those -- on both sides -- who refuse co-existence in Israel/Palestine.

Years ago I listened to a friend tell me of how he had put on a uniform and had gone to fight in 1967 "so my children would not have to put on a uniform." Your parents have done much the same for you, as I have done for my own children. Somewhere, sometime, we must stop wearing uniforms and carrying weapons in our children's names.

A conscientious objector reminds us, particularly those of us who profess ourselves peace-lovers but willing to hold a weapon if necessary, that it takes courage to refuse weapons. A conscientious objector holds up those principles of peaceful co-existence that we claim and asks us to honor them with more than words.

So, after I swallow back my bitterness at your imprisonment, I am pleased that your principles have translated into principled refusals. Palestinian parents do not want Israeli soldiers standing guard atop their roofs. Israeli parents do not want their grown-up children to threaten Palestinian children in the streets. Many Palestinian and Israeli parents have great esteem for those who refuse to harm others.

When you were in sixth grade I was your literature teacher once a week. Hannah, the school principal, anxious to encourage a literature class, gave up her office and we sat down together there to read novels by Twain, Hawthorne and other writers. I was especially proud of your small class because you were reading the same books I was teaching that year to college students. The level of discussion was sometimes better than that of the college students.

Primary school students are the unrecognized cutting edge of social thought because 'fair' and 'not fair' have yet to be layered over with social rationalizations. The sixth-grade students saw and sympathized instinctively with the unfairness and cruelty that the black slave Jim endured in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. False imprisonment for seeking freedom, such as Jim experiences, is the grossest unfairness.

I smiled slightly and grimly while reading your going-to-prison letter where you quoted Dostoevsky "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." In adversity, literature is comfort. In prison, stories are the remaining core of civilization they become the reminder of a shared humanity inside and outside prison walls. I have never been to prison the closest I came was army basic training, where my greatest comfort was reading a thick copy of Wole Soyinka's prison autobiography, The Man Died. Dostoevsky knew prisons well, as you may too. I wish you the comfort of your education in these days.

Reading someone else's story, as we once read American and English stories, is an effort to understand over distances of space, time and cultures. A story, for better or worse, speaks a truth that it cannot conceal even if it tries. We ask "Does this story respect other human beings? Does it treat them with decency and equality? Does the story look honestly at its world?" To refuse to look at another story is to deny others the right to tell their own stories.

In your letter you write that you refuse to contribute to "the complete disregard for Palestinian human rights." Palestinian stories have been denied their equal hearing, their equal claims, and their equal humanity. Your act of refusal echoes a truth within those stories; it supports an end to an occupation that has defined unacceptable terms of life for both Israelis and Palestinians of your generation.

Outside your prison, the news is bad. American warplanes send steel through the bellies of children who have never heard of Osama bin Laden, a man who spews religious hatred against infidels. Atrocious people fill envelopes with death powder and send them to others they despise without just cause. A political Arab-hater has been murdered in a Jerusalem hotel and two peoples -- both led by violent and criminal men -- are at the brink of war. Religious war is spreading across the world, and its consequences are unimaginable.

To refuse at this historic hour to accept such permanent antagonisms, violence and pain is honorable.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. May you pursue justice with justice.


This letter is addressed to Yair Halper, a conscientious objector who went to prison in Israel on October 17. Letters of support can be sent to Yair Halper at the above address.


Yair Halper's Letter

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.