There Are Two Sides to Every Wall

Sowetan poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali does not like walls. His resentment was honestly come by, for his experience in the black townships of South Africa made him an expert sufferer in all forms of restraint, exclusion, and incarceration. He gives expression to his bitterness in a short and moving poem entitled -- what else? -- “Walls.”

Man is

a great builder

The Berlin Wall

The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem

But the wall

most impregnable

has a moat

flowing with fright

around his heart

A wall without windows

for the spirit to breeze through

A wall without a door

for love to walk in.

Though the sentiment may be unobjectionable and even inspiring, the poet’s thesis is obviously marred in the development since the two examples he provides are mutually inconsistent. The Berlin Wall and the Wailing Wall have nothing in common with one another, the former a gross totalitarian structure meant to immure and enslave, and the latter an archeological temple remnant signifying the transcendence of faith. But Mtshali’s point is that outer walls are only a projection of inner walls, confining, repressive, and stultifying. They prevent the spirit from animating life; they close off the possibility of love.

All this is no doubt true, so far as it goes. But it is not a sentiment that would have been shared, to give two mural examples of my own, by the inhabitants of St. Augustine’s city of Hippo, whose walls were breached by the Vandal hordes descending upon North Africa and whose citizens -- man, woman, and child -- were put to the sword. And the defenders at the gates of Vienna in 1683 were surely grateful that their walls were stout enough to resist an invading Islamic army -- and so should we be or we might now be praying five times a day to an alien god.

The wall that has galvanized the world’s attention today is the security barrier erected by Israel to defend itself against the incursion of Palestinian suicide bombers. It has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, and the majority of NGOs for whom a Jewish life is a mere penny ante consideration. The reasons for their denunciation of the protective barrier (and, by implication, of the Jewish state) are, of course, political and emotional, not humanitarian as they righteously claim: political insofar as appeasement of the Arab world has become a major component of current Western ideology, emotional inasmuch as current Western thought and practice is dominated by a resurgent anti-Semitism which focuses on the state of Israel as proxy for the “international Jew.”

But objections to the Israeli “wall” derive from other sources and are advanced for other reasons as well. Some of these informal critics purport to understand the barrier’s raison d’être but insist that it should follow the Green Line rather than snake here and there into the West Bank proper. They are apparently unaware of the fact that the Green Line is not an internationally agreed-upon border but only a temporary armistice line reflecting the reality of the end-of-war situation in 1949. Indeed, Clause 5(2) of the Rhodes Armistice Agreement of 1949 specifies that “in no sense are the ceasefire lines to be interpreted as political or territorial borders” and that they do not affect “the final disposition of the Palestine question.”