Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall: Berlin and Israel/Palestine

This video shows Palestinian activists breaking down a section of Israel's "security barrier"/"apartheid wall" (depending on your point of view), on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Never let it be said that Palestinians are ignorant of history!

Ever since first reading Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," I've been thinking about the poem's political implications. The poem is a dramatization of a liberal speaker's attempt to understand his neighbor's conservative (and in this case, seemingly rather unthinking) arguments for keeping the wall between their two properties.

In a simplistic reading of the poem, the liberal speaker's questioning exposes the conservative neighbor's inability to think for himself. In the speaker's mind, really, there is no need for the wall at all. They don't keep animals that should be penned in. The trees won't eat each other. Why the wall? In the neighbor's mind, "good fences make good neighbors." But why, the speaker wonders. And we, too, are invited to wonder. The speaker sees the neighbor as "mov[ing] in darkness...not of woods only." He appears, suddenly, as "an old stone savage armed."

A more nuanced reading of the poem notes that the speaker himself was the one to remind his neighbor that it was time to mend the wall. And also, that the speaker himself turns out to be rather judgmental about the neighbor, creating a metaphorical wall between himself and the other.

Frost's poem, then, does not merely side with either, but dramatizes these two human impulses; the impulse to break down barriers, toward mobility and exploration, and the impulse to protect ourselves from incursion, invasion, and oppression.

The ecstasy of East Berliners liberated from their prison is something undeniable, but its also true that some walls protect and nurture. A wall between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, to reduce conflict, seems to be working, but probably because both sides felt it an interim confidence-building measure. A crucial question might be: who gets to decide the wall is necessary?

Here's the poem:

"Mending Wall"

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

In a recent post, Robert Naiman offers a critique of what some call the "Apartheid Wall" that cuts between and into Israel/Palestine. What's at stake here is not just the wall per se, but where the wall is placed (in this case, often confiscating Palestinian land and between Palestinian towns).

Mr. Netanyahu, Tear Down This Wall
by robert naiman on 9 November 2009 - 4:41pm
On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western leaders are full of self-congratulation. But their paeans to universal freedom ring hollow, when they bear large responsibility for another wall constricting human freedom: the apartheid wall dividing the Palestinian West Bank.

Israeli authorities refer to it as a "separation barrier," but that's misleading. The wall doesn't separate pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank. If that's all it did, it would be an entirely different political object. Instead, the wall cuts deep into the Palestinian West Bank, separating Palestinians from each other and from their land, and signaling to the Palestinians that Israel intends to annex territory that Palestinians want for an independent Palestinian state. The fact that Western countries that support the Israeli government - above all the United States - say nothing about the West Bank wall signals to Palestinians that Western support for Palestinian statehood is merely rhetorical.

Today, AFP reports, Palestinians tore down a chunk of the wall near Ramallah.

AFP notes that 85 percent of the planned wall is inside the West Bank, and it would leave 9.5 percent of the West Bank and 35,000 West Bank Palestinians between the barrier and the Green Line that marks the 1967 border with Israel.

The World Court issued a resolution in 2004 calling for those parts of the barrier that are inside the West Bank to be torn down and for further construction in the territory to cease. Israel and Western countries have ignored the World Court resolution.

Two years ago Israel's own High Court ruled against the route of the wall near the Palestinian village of Bilin, but the Israeli government ignored the ruling of its own highest court.

Today, the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" and the Palestinian Authority are at the brink of collapse, the New York Times reports.

We've reached this point in large measure because of the unwillingness of the Obama Administration to put real pressure on the Israeli government to implement past agreements - in particular, to implement a freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. When the first President Bush demanded a settlement freeze, he backed up his demand with real pressure - holding up loan guarantees to Israel. The Obama Administration never indicated that there was any "or else" associated with its demand for a settlement freeze, leading the Netanyahu government to conclude that it could just wait the Obama Administration out - a conclusion that appears to have been borne out by events.

This would be an especially opportune time for U.S. officials to indicate that they intend to meaningfully oppose the ongoing construction of "facts on the ground" that are constricting the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and undermining their hopes for national independence - facts on the ground like the apartheid wall.

1 comment:

Vancouver BC realtor said...

Hi. Great post. Recently I was thinking a lot about function of walls in the world. But regarding fall of the Berlin Wall anniversary I was persuaded that no kind of wall separating people is not good. However, from history we know that e.g. The Great Wall in China had very important function of protection. Also in Belfast the wall between catholic and protestant neighborhoods has rather positive effect. All in all, I think that there will be always a lot of walls in the world but it will be also very hard to distinguish if they are necessary or not.

Best regards,