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Wailing at the Separation Wall

You have what you desire: the new Rome, the Sparta of Technology and the ideology of madness.
–Mahmoud Darwish

I returned a few days ago from Palestine, where I was part of Lily Yeh‘s Barefoot Artists team recruited to paint a mural in each of three places – the Balata Refugee Camp, the Old City of Nablus, and Al Aqaba, a small agricultural village in the Jordan Valley that has been resisting demolition by Israel for forty years. This was my first trip to Palestine and although I had read extensively about the Occupation, the illegal settlements, the apartheid, the check points, collective punishment, and the Wall, I was little prepared to actually see and feel – to witness – the extent of them.

Even though these various means of ethnic cleansing are parts of the same supremacist project, it’s the Wall I want to reflect on now. I’m not referring to The Western Wall, commonly called the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem. More about that wall later. I’m talking about the other Wall, the separation barrier that Israel has built to separate itself from the Palestinian people while enabling itself to appropriate resources on Palestinian land. I offer here some reflections from my attempts to comprehend it. At times the Wall felt as big and incomprehensible as the cosmos, rolling away beyond words, like a giant gray snake over the arid and rocky land.


We are told that for Zionists this is the Promised Land. A promised land is a garden, a private garden, for the cultivation of one’s unique character. We’ve all seen gardens whose perimeter is demarcated with tin edging, like a miniature wall, that separates the rich garden top soil from the weeds. The wall is like a mammoth, concrete version of that metal edge. The Palestinians are the weeds.


Walls built to separate one country from another, rich from poor, powerful from weak, ideology from ideology, represent failures of both dialogue and humanity. They are anachronisms, medieval. In the U.S. one of our most replayed triumphal moments is Ronald Reagan’s crowing, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” That triumph is framed both in Cold War victory and moral imperative. Walls are abhorrent. And yet, the U.S. government continues to build an enormous wall on the Mexican border and supports the building of Israel’s Wall. If Israel’s Wall were simply a result of paranoia and fear, if it strictly followed the Green Line, the border between the countries, it would elicit one kind of response. But because this Wall is used as a weapon of occupation, apartheid, land and resource appropriation, ethnic cleansing and economic strangulation, it requires a different response.

If Islam and Christianity shared Zionism’s dogma that all land in Palestine is deeded to the Jewish people by God, we would have no problem. But, on the one hand, championing the right of Jews to celebrate their own religion and, on the other, accepting their right to take another people’s land by religious fiat are two very different things. The crime and tragedy of the Holocaust and the sympathy it rightly provokes justify neither imperialism nor fundamentalism. Rather, they cry out for their opposite. The Wall’s ominous guard towers function the same way identical towers do in maximum security prisons. They imply surveillance with impunity, and humiliation as daily ration. Are Palestinians meant to accept these walls, to believe that they deserve them, to perceive them as normal?


Might I assume that, as they do in the U.S., smiling, cheerful teachers teach the kids in Israel’s elementary schools about the value of fairness? Of course, this value hardly needs to be urged on young kids. Kids seem acutely aware of what’s fair and what isn’t, who’s taking more than his share, whose greediness of time or food or art supplies is compromising what’s available for others. At what point do those same cheerful smiles make a distinction between others – like themselves – and “others” – unlike themselves? Some people deserve fairness and some people don’t. This problem is not unique to Israel. Anywhere there is systemic inequality, the value of fairness is taught and then qualified.


A Wall implies its negative. It implies what it hides and what it makes impossible. Therefore, the Wall implies a future; it implies a horizon; it implies expectation and dreams; it implies a journey; it implies possibility, hope, surprise, wonder and development because it denies them all. Many people exist in conditions on this planet that deny the literal and figurative idea of horizon, a horizon that recedes as they move towards it, continually extending the sense of life as quest. But the implacable fact of the Wall says that if you have any ideas about fair access to a shared future and personal dreams, forget them. The Wall says that its builders have both the right and the power to erase the notion of horizon from your experience and that of your children. The Wall replaces horizon with concrete power, concrete finality, the closure of expectation, prison, and death. The Wall says our God instructs us to remove your horizon, and that you, the un-chosen, are squatters on our Promise.


It’s ironic that the color of the Wall is gray. There is nothing gray about it. It speaks in black and white, in absolutes, about good and evil, yes and no, clean and unclean, yes and no, free and not free. It says justice is a one way conversation. The Wall appears to crouch on the land in monolithic silence. But it’s garrulous. It can’t help itself from prattling on and on, justifying its presence. It says beat your head on me and learn who you are in relation to me. It says, when the sun is in the west, you can rest in my shadow; be grateful for that. It says there shall be no other Facts before me.


Outside the little town of Bil’in we participated in a demonstration against the Wall. It was hot, the sun intense, the dry land rolling and rocky with sparse vegetation, a few olive trees. Just visible over the top of the Wall were the red-tiled roofs of an illegal Israeli settlement. As the small group of protesters – men and women, Palestinian and Israeli, local and international – approached the Wall, the confrontation, absurd in its asymmetric power, seemed to strangely mix historical eras. The Wall is a like a medieval fortress. The Israeli soldiers clustered on its ramparts were decked out in the black paraphernalia of high tech storm troopers, as anonymous as futuristic robots. The demonstrators, in tee shirts and jeans, bright bandanas and a few gas masks, looked like a lost remnant of the 1960s. They chanted and shouted at the soldiers. Some young boys in the black and white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, the symbol of resistance, used slings to fling stones. The soldiers shot tear gas. The puffs of blue-gray gas blew down along the Wall away from us. I noticed then that the ground was littered with spent teargas canisters. Some were hung up like netted birds in the rolls of barbed wire. I picked one up – hard black rubber, the shape and size of a pear, or maybe a heart. Made in Pennsylvania. Not surprising to see there were Americans on both sides of this issue, some profiting from it. I sat under an olive tree and held the black heart in my left hand while I drew a picture of it in my journal.


We met Amer Amin, a handsome young Palestinian graphic artist, in a coffee shop in Bethlehem. The shop was exhibiting a selection of his political posters. One poster was dominated by a picture of the Wall with a thin strip of blue sky above, the perspective of a person standing close to it. In that strip of blue sky Amer had written a line from a song by the great Lebanese singer Fairouz: “You see how big the sea is! That’s how much I love you.” The sad irony is that Palestinians on the West Bank, exiled from their homes near the sea after the 1948 Nakba, may never see the sea again. This metaphor of love is denied to them by the Wall as is the experience of salt water. As I read this quote, I imagine another, “You will never see how big the sea is! That’s how much I _____ you.” I’m not sure what word to fill in there.


Think of Israel’s Wall in relation to art and imagination, the ability of a massive human undertaking to inspire awe. The artist Christo’s 1976 art installation, Running Fence, was 26 miles of 18-foot-high white nylon, bellying in the wind and making what many people thought was a beautiful statement, a flowing white line on the golden contours of California hills. Many other people objected to the even transitory existence of the Running Fence because it blocked the free movement of animals. It was taken down after 14 days. Art can be controversial. Or, think that the Great Wall of China, built for security concerns now irrelevant, is considered one of the wonders of the world. Its architectural achievement, even more than the Great Pyramids, raises it to the level of art. The Israel Wall, though, a relentlessly ugly, relentlessly cruel solution to a relentlessly unjust condition could never be considered as art. The Great Wall of China was defensive. This Wall is aggressive. It is appetite. It is a relentless refusal to talk, to consider peace, to consider an antagonist as human. It is a 400 mile long diatribe of justification for supremacy.


As this Wall dehumanizes the Palestinians, it ultimately questions the humanity of the author even more than the victim. The Wall reduces Israelis to this one colossal concrete fact of national hatred. It says the Israelis do, in fact, believe in a one-state solution: the state will be theirs and the Palestinians will be gone.


What the Wall cannot do: It cannot suppress the vivacity of the people, their love of life, their friendliness, their pride, their outrage at injustice, their thoughtful means of creative resistance. The Wall was meant to kill their spirit. It seems, rather, to have concentrated it. Rather than teach Palestinians a lesson in inferiority, it teaches a much sadder lesson about those compelled to build it.


The holiest Jewish site in Jersualem is The Western Wall, the remaining section of the Temple Mount destroyed by the Romans in 70 BCE. A prayer uttered in this most sacred place is thought most likely to reach the ear of God. It is often referred to as the Wailing Wall because of the nature of the prayers – loud lamentations over the destruction of the temple and the centuries of discrimination, pogroms and the Holocaust. It seems to me, though, that the lamentations ought to be concentrated now at the other Wall, the Wall that does not symbolize the theft of Jewish sacredness, but the Wall that epitomizes its forfeiture.


Many Israeli citizens are distressed about the separation Wall, the settlements, and apartheid – just as many Americans were opposed to slavery. In both cases the numbers were small at first but inevitably grew. I have read numerous times – hard to believe in such a small country – that a large proportion of Israelis don’t even know about the extent of the Wall and the harm it does. I want to envision a day when Israel and Palestine jointly establish the RPPA, the Reconciliation Peace Project Administration, which will employ equal numbers of Palestinians and Israelis to disassemble the Wall and reassemble the pieces into houses, schools and bridges of understanding. The solution must be one state because a state of mutual and integrated respect is the only state that makes survival possible. Without that respect, without justice, survival may be possible, but it is an existence in which everyone’s humanity is slowly extinguished.

This article was first published on Common Dreams.

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