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.”
a great builder
The Berlin Wall
The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem
But the wall
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.”
Aside from this, the pre-1967 borders to which the Arab world and much of the international community have committed themselves are not realistically viable and, from the Israeli standpoint, scarcely defensible. Lord Caradon himself, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations and one of the framers of UN Resolution 242 adopted in the aftermath of the 1967 war, stated in the Beirut Daily Star for June 12, 1974, that “it would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.” It follows that the fence must trace the contours of realpolitik.
Others object to the fence on aesthetic grounds — it is an “ugly scar” cutting across the face of the Holy Land, a disfigurement of the sacred. While this may be the case, the argument can be maintained only by those who live at a safe distance from the scene of the conflict and who can thus indulge their delicate and privileged sensibilities at no cost to their survival. Or, of course, by ideological zealots in the Jewish community who can be counted on to work against their own best interests.
Curiously, some Jewish Israelis are offended by the “wall” as a tangible expression of the ghetto mentality which Israel was founded to lay to rest. For them, the barrier invokes the memory of the mellahs of the Orient, the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia, and the ghettos of Europe, behind which an impoverished and terrified community cowered in abjection. But Israel, they assert, no less than America, is “the land of the free and the home of the brave” for whom walls are presumably anathema.
These same people, however, hold no brief against the IAI/Boeing Arrow and the Iron Dome missile defense systems that may be fairly described as invisible walls erected in the air. Intercepting incoming rockets is essentially no different from walling out terrorists and neither has anything to do with the supposed continuation or revival of the ghetto mentality, any more than carrying a weapon in a free-fire zone has anything to do with faintheartedness. Rather, these expedients represent precisely a determination not to succumb to the abuse, injustice, and persecution suffered by the Jewish people throughout their long history of oppression, humiliation, and slaughter.
There are two sides, as well as two ends, to every wall, the adentellata or “toothing-stones” that also bracket the human psyche: that which imprisons, that which protects, each of which can be extended indefinitely. The Israeli “wall” is an embodiment of the latter. But it should be immediately obvious that the Israeli barrier would be dismantled the moment it becomes feasible to allow “the spirit to breeze through” and “love to walk in,” as Mtshali would have it. Windows and doors are all very well when one need no longer fear a terrorist breezing through and a suicide bomber walking in, intent on carrying out missions that bear no relation to spirit and love.
Meanwhile, in the comfort of our untested convictions and the security of our uninfiltrated homes, we can all savor and appreciate Oswald Mtshali’s poignant little poem.