Thursday, January 03, 2008

Another Brick in the Wall

In the infinitely-sized and ever-expanding book describing the history of civilization, the heading of Chapter LCIVM, Volume 6,371 (or maybe its Volume 6,372) is only one word long and is printed in large bold typeface so that it immediately captures the reader’s attention: WALLS the chapter title proclaims. Turning the pages, the reader is treated to a historical narrative featuring names like the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall, the walled cities of medieval Europe and Germany’s Berlin Wall. Combined, these names tell a story of how walls have been used to establish the borders of city-states, to force the separation of groups of individuals and to provide for strategic defense. And, even once the walls no longer serve their original purpose they have become silent testaments to a peoples’ history.

Reflecting on my most recent trip to Israel, which I just returned from, I’ve realized that a new paragraph has been added to this particular chapter of civilization’s history book. Until now only one wall, the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall and the Kotel), has symbolized Jerusalem’s paramount significance to the Jewish people and to Israel’s identity. The Western Wall formed a part of the retaining wall for the Second Temple until the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E, and today it is considered the central symbol in Jerusalem towards which Jews from all over the world pray. On the ten or so trips I’ve been to Israel, I’ve visited the Kotel every time. Though I don’t personally ascribe religious meaning to the wall itself, some of my most spiritual moments have taken place there – seeing thousands of people flock towards the Wall before dawn on the holiday of Shavuot, for example, or meditating as I lean my head on the stones that have been touched by Jews dating back 2000 years.

In the last five years, a second wall has been raised in Jerusalem that, like the Western Wall, has become central to Jerusalem’s identity in the Middle East. Several days ago, I had the opportunity to travel alongside the West Bank Wall that Israel has constructed to separate Jerusalem and the areas outside of it from the Palestinian West Bank territory. The wall was begun under former Primer Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002, and its stated intention was to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering into Israel. Since its construction (it’s now about 95% complete) the number of suicide bombings in Israel has declined dramatically, a result at least partially attributable to the wall’s presence.

Besides its stated purpose, the West Bank Wall has had several other consequences. For example, it represents an attempt by Israel to set the parameters of a two-state solution to the Middle East peace conflict and to define the border between itself and any future Palestinian state. For the most part, that border runs alongside the 1949 Green Line between Israel and then-Jordanian territory, but the wall extends beyond that line to ensure that some of the highly populated Israeli settlements in the West Bank are on the Israeli side of it.

In addition to the polis boundaries that the wall establishes, it has raised a host of complex humanitarian issues. For instance, the wall runs through Palestinian-owned fields. Though Israel has offered compensation for taking the land, the owners have refused to accept money from the Israeli government. Palestinian towns and villages have been literally cut in half by the wall, and as a result people have been forcefully separated from their families and friends. Moreover, Palestinian access to emergency medical treatment in Israel has become more difficult because ambulances must first pass through one of only a few open checkpoints along the wall before they’re allowed to enter Israel.

A series of conflicted emotions ran through me as I stood alongside the West Bank Wall a few days ago. I was perhaps most struck by the fact that the West Bank Wall has become a popular tourist destination, and I saw no less than 5 other tourist groups in addition to our own taking a tour of the wall on the morning we were. Was the Berlin Wall also a site of perverse curiosity when it was first built? At times I felt like an awed spectator to history, walking alongside a structure that, though inanimate, has not yet been set in stone (pun intended), and whose ongoing changes directly affects peoples’ daily lives.

I also felt a spark of hope. One of my life dreams is to see peace and security in Israel finally achieved. Since the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, however, I long ago became frustrated and disillusioned with the bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that have been characterized only by their remarkable and repeated failures. Though the wall is an eyesore, seeing it raised a glimmering chance that Israel’s unilateral actions may let the people of Israel live without the daily fear of suicide bombings or rocket attacks threatening the country’s very existence, and may set the parameters for a successful two-state solution to peace.

Lastly, standing alongside the wall’s spray-painted décor, I felt anguish. Anguish because the wall makes concrete that Israel is not the role model I expect it to be in treating other peoples inside and outside of its borders, even when those peoples are its enemies. Anguish because once built, history teaches us that a wall is almost impossible to take down without physical violence or revolution. Anguish because two walls have come to represent Jerusalem, where before there was only one.