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.”
Netanyahu hurriedly asked Francis to visit another wall, one at a memorial for the victims of Palestinian terror attacks. Francis went and once again stood in prayer before a wall. But this was one too many walls for a single papal trip. That image was ignored, more an illustration of Marx’s famous dictum about history repeating itself first as tragedy and second as farce.
Truth is, all walls built by states are not alike in meaning and function. The Western Wall was once part of the outer perimeter of the Jewish Temple, presumably meant to delineate sacred from profane space, and also to keep out unwanted visitors. As a symbol it came to stand for redemption, a physical place where Jews concentrated their longing for a return to Zion.
This has nothing to do with the separation barrier, which broadly symbolizes oppression to the Palestinians and their supporters. Redemption is not really what it represents — the keys to their pre-1948 homes serve that iconic function for Palestinian families.
But it’s in the nature of an icon that much of this murkiness of meaning gets overlooked.
The separation barrier for many years now has been compared to the Berlin Wall — another patently false analogy. First from a technical point of view, the separation barrier, when it is completed, will only have a wall on 10 percent of its path (albeit a wall that is a monstrous 26-feet tall) and otherwise is and will be more like a fence bordered by wide trenches and much surveillance. So it’s only partly a wall. But, more importantly, whereas the Berlin Wall kept a people that wanted to be united separate, the separation barrier keeps divided two peoples who have no interest in coexisting in the same land. There is a certain absurdity to talk of “tearing down the wall,” when resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict couldn’t be further from the ecstasy of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the joyous reunification of Germans popping champagne and hugging each other.
But that hasn’t stopped the analogy. It makes its ways into the graffiti that covers the wall portion of the barrier and into the language of activists like Roger Waters. The Pink Floyd front man performed his rock opera “The Wall” along the remnants of the Berlin Wall in 1990 to celebrate reunification. And now he talks of tearing down this wall. “It may be a lot harder to get this one down, but eventually it must happen,” Waters recently said.
There are good reasons to hate the wall, but Waters seems confused. Palestinians understand what the separation barrier really is, what it means: another form of land grab. The barrier was built not along the 1967 green line, but in such a way that it makes incursions into the West Bank, including large settlement blocs on Israel’s side, sometimes cutting Palestinians communities in half or depriving them access to their fields. That’s probably the most factual sense in which the wall represents oppression.
Most Palestinians might not have a problem at all with a wall that ran directly along the green line. But the slogan, “move the wall over to the green line” is not quite as resonant as singing along with Pink Floyd to “tear down the wall.”
The separation barrier draws its meaning not out of its specificity but because it is a wall, and at the most basic level, walls are physical manifestations of power — from the Great Wall of China to Hadrian’s Wall to — yes — the Berlin Wall. Regardless of who they keep out or keep in, they stand in for the state that put them there and the power that state wields over individual lives.
But there’s a flip side. This also makes them very good sites for opposing power, for making what would otherwise be nebulous and hard to illustrate quite literally concrete.
It’s difficult to make checkpoints dramatic. But a wall is a wall. It is imposing, a colossal structure only a state could build and that insists on its existence. You can also throw things it at. It can become a canvas for expressing all that is crushing and inhumane about state power, especially when forced on unwilling non-citizens. And the Palestinians seem to understand this, either consciously or viscerally, giving them a huge weapon in the battle of international public opinion, which might be the only battle that really counts when it comes to this conflict.
It doesn’t matter that this wall shouldn’t really be compared to other walls. A wall is a wall. The portion of the barrier where Francis stood to pray was covered in graffiti. And just above his head in black spray paint were scrawled the words in broken English: “Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto.”
This is absurd and repugnant to most of us. How can anyone possibly compare a wall constructed by Nazis to pen in Jews eventually headed to mass slaughter with the concrete slabs that skirt Bethlehem? And yet, it persuaded the pope to stop his car.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s opinion editor and writes a regular column about the media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @galbeckerman
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “ When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, ” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman