The Mural-Covered Wall: On Separation and the Future of Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine and the Diaspora

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In Memory of Edward Said "until the end"

Some time ago, the New York Times featured on its front page a picture of an Israeli woman walking her dog in a Jerusalem neighborhood. Her dog was on a leash; she walked behind it on a newly paved sidewalk. To her right was the countryside, with the beauty I have often experienced in my journeys to Israel/Palestine. Yet when I studied the picture more closely I felt something was amiss. When I read the caption beneath the story, I discovered what bothered me: "The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has altered lives on both sides. An Israeli woman recently walked her dog in a Jerusalem neighborhood near the barrier separating it from a Palestinian town. Artists painted the barrier to make it blend in with the landscape." The beautiful landscape existed right behind the wall; it had been replaced by a mural covering the wall.1

Several pages later, I read a Jewish New Year statement from the Jewish Theological Seminary. It began with an ancient prayer: "May God who makes peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon Israel and all the world." The statement continued:

In this season of divine judgment, the ancient message of the Jewish High Holy Days rings with relevance. We are judged not in aggregate but individually, one at a time. Each person merits the undistracted attention and boundless compassion of God. To bow our heads in contrition is to affirm life and self-worth. We intone Judaism's most heartfelt prayer with still greater fervor: That God grace us here on earth with the enduring harmony that reigns on high.2

I was sure that this statement of affirmation included the Israeli woman on the bench; I was pretty sure that the affirmation included me. Was it also addressed to the Palestinians on the other side of the mural-covered wall, indeed all those within the wall that is being built to encircle the Palestinian population of the West Bank?

The most obvious consequence of the Wall of Separation is that it divides peoples and communities, but this may not be its most lasting effect. The separation of Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine is in any case impossible to achieve. The formative years of the state of Israel saw a resident Palestinian population invested with citizenship emerge; the Palestinian population now numbers more than a million persons, and the extensive permanent settlement blocks and corridors make a clear border closer to a desert mirage than an achievable policy. Only a massive transfer of millions of Palestinians would permit Israel and the territories it has conquered to separate the two peoples. Then a wall of separation would not be needed within an expanded Israel but around it, the borders now stretching from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River.

Yet in reality, this is not a practical future. Already we have this expanded Israel with two subject Palestinian populations within those borders: the remnant Palestinians who were not expelled in 1948-just over a million in number-and Palestinians on the West Bank who are being walled in as I write-almost two million in number. Over a million Palestinians in Gaza are already segmented within Gaza by settlers and the Israeli army and are barricaded in by two powers hostile to each other-Israel and Egypt.

The impossibility of separation in the expanded state of Israel makes the wall even more ominous. For a large segment of the Palestinian population is being walled into a ghetto that is sustained by twenty- to thirty-foot high barriers with advanced technology and sniper towers functioning as agents of permanent closure.3 The ghettoization of a people has consequences beyond the act of physical separation; a ghettoized people suffers, and those who build and maintain those ghettos suffer. Like the effects of occupation, the particular histories of the ghettoized and those who ghettoize have less to do with the long-range effects of such a reality than with the general rules that we can study throughout history, be they Jews, South Africans, African-Americans, or Palestinians. …