Fences, barriers, and walls: A personal rabbinic reflection

We’ve tried barriers. Now it is time to try bridges.

A Palestinian woman leans on a fence (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian woman leans on a fence
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Imagine a fence separating Jews and Arabs, not too far from the Old City walls of Jerusalem. An eight-year-old boy approaches the fence. He has been taught that he has a connection to the other side. He sits by the fence and reaches through it, grabbing a blade of grass that he brings over to his side of the barrier.
Let’s give the boy a name. Muhammad, Suleiman, Omar come to mind.
But that is not his name. His name is Michael, and that is my story from 1966.
For decades, both sides in the conflict have built barriers. It is time for both Palestinians and Israelis to try a different approach.
A year before the Six Day War, I visited Israel for the first time. Jerusalem then was divided between Jordanian East Jerusalem and Israeli West Jerusalem; people could cross only via the Mandelbaum Gate. I remember standing there, puzzled. Why? Because I was a Jew; I could not go to the other side and see the Wailing Wall, as we mostly called the Western Wall then, and other Jewish sites.
That incident took place on Mount Zion, the nearest Jews could approach the Old City from 1949 to 1967. I also remember the anti-sniper walls, placed to reduce the Jordanians’ ability to shoot at innocent Israeli citizens.
Those barriers were not always enough; Israelis continued to be shot at and killed during this time. Prime Minister Netanyahu referenced those snipers in his remarks at the dedication of the US Embassy in Jerusalem recalling childhood memories of walking near that spot along the then-armistice line.
Only England and Pakistan recognized the Jordanian occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank; the rest of the world wanted that land not to become part of Israel but as part of a Palestinian state.
Now, 50 years later, walls and barriers are still being built. In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
This sentiment crosses cultures. Norwegians say, “There must be a fence between good neighbors,” and in Germany, “Between neighbor’s gardens a fence is good.” In Japan there is the expression, “Build a fence even between intimate friends,” and in India, “Love your neighbor, but do not throw down the dividing wall.”
The idea behind fences and barriers is to clarify where properties begin and end, to eliminate confusion of ownership and responsibility. We understand this idea as a support of the social contract that binds us together. We also erect them to protect from danger, to keep others out, to imprison. Fences and barriers, like human relationships and politics, are complex.
Walls and barriers also keep us apart physically and intellectually. In Frost’s poem, he actually voices opposition to the building of walls: 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.
Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope speak about psychological distance that can play out physically – as social distance – and in time and imagination.
Barriers can exacerbate these dynamics, leading to heightened conflict.
Albert Bandura writes about “moral disengagement,” in which one side justifies its actions committed against the other, by comparing it to something they perceive as much worse that the other side has done to them.
Similarly, barriers make it easier to use euphemistic labeling, diffusion and displacement of responsibility, minimization and ignoring of consequences, and dehumanization.
We can also understand barriers in light of Gordon Allport’s “contact hypothesis,” which says that negative views and attitudes increase between groups when there is less contact between them.
Since the end of March, Palestinians have engaged in the “Great March of Return,” a six-week campaign along the Gaza fence. In response, Israelis have killed more than a 100 Palestinians and wounded more than 7,000.
Both sides have used many arguments to justify their actions, including moral disengagement.
One of the great ironies of this conflict is the many similarities between Palestinians and Israelis. They both have been tenacious in their respective quests for independence, the former forced to live in refugee camps and the latter in ghettos. Both circumstances contributed to strengthening their identities. Both peoples have experienced victimhood at the hand of the other, as well as oppression by others, and both are scarred and traumatized by those experiences, creating a black-and-white reductionist view and approach to the other.
In the Koran (5:32) we read, “Whoever saves a life, saves the entire human race,” while the Talmud (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a) states, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
The psalmist (118:22) says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Perhaps we do not shun a specific stone; perhaps instead we shun the stone for the perceived intended results of its labor.
Rather than barriers, Israelis and Palestinians need to take those abandoned stones and build bridges. In “A Future for Israeli-Palestinian Peacebuilding,” his in-depth study on Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people NGOs (such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the many organizations of the Alliance for Middle East Peace), Ned Lazarus highlights the positive impact those organizations have on their participants.
Referencing a report by USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, Lazarus found: 80% reported greater willingness to work for peace; 77% percent reported increased belief in the possibility of reconciliation; and; 71% reported improved trust and empathy for the other in such dialogue groups.
This underscores the invaluable role of these transformational organizations as a tool that should be better utilized in this conflict.
In addressing the snipers in his remarks Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I would approach this place right here, but only so far, because my mother told me, ‘You can’t go any further.’ This was near the border.
It was exposed to sniper fire.” The Prime Minister followed by highlighting that the snipers were gone and Israelis are safer by saying, “That was then. This is now, today.” That may be the case, but the physical and psychological obstacles remain.
We’ve tried barriers. Now it is time to try bridges – to lessen the distance and create healthier forms of contact – so that a Muhammad and a Michael can meet and have a chance to lessen the otherness of the other, and end the ongoing dance of death.
For those who question such an approach, their caution is correct. But as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught, and as President Roosevelt echoed more than a century later, “The world is a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to be afraid.”
The writer, a rabbi, teaches conflict resolution at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action of Bennington College.