by Gili Ostfield
Two soldiers, painted white from head to toe, man a usually unmanned checkpoint in the West Bank just south of Jerusalem. The checkpoint too is painted white. The soldiers stop people – Palestinians, settlers, whoever - at the checkpoint, ask for identification and search their cars.
Meet Yuda Braun, otherwise known as the White Soldier, who took the time to sit with me in his home in West Jerusalem for an interview about his unique take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having grown up in a religious-Zionist settlement of the West Bank and later serving in the IDF, Braun underwent (and is still undergoing) a process of questioning the realities that are presented in Israel on a daily basis. What originally started as his personal art project has evolved into much more than that- it has become an ongoing performance, an exploration, a confrontation, and a challenge. Since 2009, Braun has periodically donned full army gear and patrolled the streets like any other soldier- only his gear is white. This image turns heads and demands questions, and that is exactly what it is intended to do.
Taking part in the dialogue
“It’s not my place to tell you what’s happening. You’ll figure it out,” explained Braun. “What I am trying to say in this performance is that reality here is extremely complicated, we need to acknowledge and comprehend it if we want to reach a resolution somehow, somewhere, sometime.”
Braun made it very clear that he isn’t offering any answers to the conflict- if he was, he would be sitting in Parliament. He describes the very unique emotional dialogue that he participates in. “We’re not having a cognitive dialogue, I’m not conversing with you. I don’t speak, but something is happening. We do have an interaction, a lot of eye contact. A pure seeing eye.”
Braun provided much detail into the sort of symbolic dialogue that his performance entails. As he explained it, “Something here is surreal. And in a very simple action, of whitening the soldier, I surface that surrealism. The soldier is very precise, in its acting and the art, very exact, the way an Israeli soldier is supposed to be, only he’s white. It’s the only difference.” The soldier, who has become a mundane component of daily society, suddenly demands of the viewer to reevaluate his presence once he is white.
“So are you religious? Are you secular? Are you left? Are you right? It doesn’t work like that. What I’m trying to do with the White Soldier is try to piece together an uncolored opinion of reality here, at the end of the day.”
Where politics failed, art will prevail
“I didn’t even thing of the performance, of the impact of the presence of this real character in a real environment, and then it hit me- Dude! You’re on to something!”
When the White Soldier first emerged, Braun had no idea what was in store for him. He was preparing a self portrait for photography class, and he had an image in his mind of a pure white soldier in the Old City. At 6 AM, after painting his army gear all night, he ventured out to realize this vision, and the reactions of bystanders struck him.
As a sort of tagline, Braun states on his website “I believe that where politics failed- art will prevail.” He explained that, in his eyes, politics exceeds the realm of government. Politics dictate the preconceptions and bias that people experience, the general lack of understanding resulting from media outlets’ agendas, and the relative meaning of the presence of a soldier.
“If you are Palestinian [the soldier] means something very different than if you are Israeli. But either way, we’re very emotionally involved with this character, and the white could symbolize many things as well. When you fuse them together, it baffles people.”
Braun provided just a glimpse of the symbolism of whitening the soldier-peace, death, surrender, an angel- but he stressed that this symbolism (and its importance) comes from how the viewer perceives him, and not any certain angle that he presents to the viewer.
An ongoing confrontation
First and foremost, Braun made it clear that there is no one “Palestinian reaction” and no one “Israeli reaction” to his stark white presence. We spent a good half of the interview discussing the sorts of responses he receives when he is “on patrol”, and how he deals with it.
“I’m putting myself out onto the street. I’m not writing poetry and putting it in my underwear drawer. I’m taking my guts and pouring it out in the middle of downtown and whoever wants to come watch the show is more than welcome.”
Braun described reactions that ranged from disbelief (‘Did you just see that?’) to people threatening him with guns (‘Show me your ID!’ – ‘No, you show me your ID!’) to cheering, singing, and dancing; he has been invited into others’ homes and he has had his (fake) gun broken and his gear ripped. He stressed that he welcomes all reactions, and that he has experienced positive and negative ones from all parties involved.
He shied away from elaborating further, but he mentioned that the most violent reactions always come from the police and security authorities, “regardless of what color uniforms they wear”.
When asked how he chose which places to visit as the White Soldier, Braun responded that each had either a personal or national significance – or both. He escorted the parade through the city on Jerusalem Day, and described it as one of the more intense experiences he had had, due to the nature and meaning of that day for Israelis and Palestinians alike. He has also visited the settlement where he was raised, mixed Arab-Jewish cities, abandoned towns, Palestinian villages, and nationally symbolic locations such as Hebron and Umm al-Fahm.
Braun explained the process he goes through when he goes to such places. He treads much more carefully in places that aren’t his “home court”, as opposed to Jerusalem, for instance. He often goes to a location a few weeks before, not in uniform, to talk to the residents and get a feel for the place.
“It’s about breaking the walls of fear and ignorance. I’ve never been to this place, and the white soldier gives me an excuse, personally, to be here, to understand, to confront it, to speak to the people.”
The White Trail and beyond
Braun recently embarked on a ten day journey entitled The White Trail with fellow white soldiers. They went on what he called “more of a guerrilla operation”, traveling from north to south through Israel and the West Bank. It reflected all three components of the White Soldier: the open-ended patrol, which defines itself by interactions with inhabitants, scenes scripted and enacted for the camera’s eye, and a mixture of the two.
Braun has over 450 hours of video footage of his performance from the past three years, which culminated in the White Trail. He has decided to take a break from the performance aspect for at least a year, and is working on a documentary as well as an online series with in interactive map, meant for people both close to and far from the conflict. He’s undergoing a rough process in the editing room: “How do I tell the story to someone who doesn’t know me, who doesn’t know the White Soldier, doesn’t know Israel? How do you convey that idea? That’s what I’m working on now. You’re used to seeing the Mideast conflict through the news? Well, here’s another outlet.”
Braun’s interactive map is meant for people to get a grasp of what’s happening and the “absurdity of the proximity”. His main goal now is simply to tell his story, and he invites anyone who wants to listen.
“A summary of what happened until now: I served in the military; I served in the Special Forces for three years. The White Trail was like a grand finale, and I’m going to let [the white soldier] rest a bit. Who knows, maybe I’ll be called back to the reserves.”
Photo credit: Alexander Janetzko