A wall can mean many things.
It can divide people who want to be united. It can ensure peace and safety by keeping danger at bay. It can enclose people so they are kept under control.
The same wall can also stand for all these things to different people simultaneously. Consider that most iconic of walls, the Berlin Wall. To most Germans, it symbolized a harsh rupture at the heart of their national identity. East Germans certainly perceived it as the wall of a prison, the far limits of their universe. But for the Communist leaders, it was the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” as it was first known, defending their people against the degradations of the West.
So what does the wall separating Israel from the West Bank mean?
If the question hadn’t occurred to Israelis before, having an answer became a matter of great urgency during the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Palestinian territories and Israel. In an unplanned moment that is sure to be remembered as iconic — that word again — Francis’s caravan pulled over by a section of the wall, the pope placed the palm of his hand on the concrete slab, bowed his head, and prayed. It is exactly the same gesture he performed a day later while visiting another famous wall, the Western Wall in Jerusalem that Jews refer to as the Kotel.
The immediate shock most people felt seeing the image — as I did after I picked up my New York Times — had to do with a sense of preemption. I was prepared for the image of the pope at the Kotel, a staple of all high profile trips to Israel (along with the Yad Vashem museum).
But here was Francis, dressed in his white cassock, clearly moved, but standing at a very different wall.
I couldn’t imagine a more subversive image, or one more beneficial to the Palestinian cause, if I tried. But why? Under the surface, the Kotel has absolutely nothing in common with the separation barrier, built millennia apart with vastly different functions. But icons are made on the surface, not from what lies beneath. And in this case, the more ancient wall suddenly seemed to have its symbolic potency stolen away by the uglier modern structure.
So resonant and potentially disastrous for Israel was the pope’s moment at the separation barrier that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately tried to frame the meaning of that Israeli-built wall. Characterizing the barrier as a “fence,” which it is in parts, Netanyahu tweeted: “I explained to the Pope that building the security fence prevented many more victims that Palestinian terror planned to harm.”