I have been following the election in Israel, and it has caused me to think back to the times I have visited the Holy Land. It has been many years now since I traveled to Israel. The last time was in the year 2000. I still have a sun-faded cap with the words “Jerusalem 2000” on it. There are many reasons I have not returned, but now I have one more. It would break my heart to see the wall.
I am referring to the security wall built between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israel had already built a wall around the Gaza Strip in the 1990’s, but now a wall has been built around the whole West Bank. It is a serpentine scar on the landscape of this beautiful land.
In 2013 a 145 mile fence was constructed at the Egyptian border, and a new fence was built in the Golan Heights at the border with Syria in the same year. Now all that remains is to construct a barricade at the peaceful border with Jordan. Then the Israeli fortress will be complete.
I have been told that this wall adjoins Tantur, the Ecumenical Institute where I and my whole family lived for a semester in 1991. In those more peaceful times we had only hand-thrown stones, rubber bullets and tear gas to contend with. Yet we were unafraid to walk regularly over the border into Bethlehem.
We used to walk unobstructed from our flat at Tantur into Bethlehem to shop for pita bread and fruit at a nearby market. We would walk past Rachel’s tomb, all the way to Manger Square to visit the Basilica of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’s birth. That experience made such an impression on me that every Christmas Eve I still remember the smell of the incense in that church.
To take that journey into Bethlehem now, one would have to go through a military checkpoint. My experience contrasts sharply with that of my brother-in-law, who is presently visiting a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. I have urged him repeatedly to visit the site of our Savior’s birth, but it is not as easy as it used to be. Here is a Christian walled out from a holy site.
Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.” That something that doesn't love a wall lives in me. Part of me want to shout a paraphrase of JFK, “Ich bin ein Bethlehemer” and Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall.”
Robert Frost wrote:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
The stated purpose of the wall is to wall out terrorists. They say it has worked, pointing to the fact that there has not been a suicide bombing since 2009. If I was a Jew in Israel, I might see the wall this way also – as a protection from terror. But I know that something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down.
I also know that the wall has stopped ordinary commerce and interactions between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians are severely restricted in their travel to Israel. Israelis are banned from entering Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Many young Israelis have never met a Palestinian face to face, and vice versa.
This lack of social contact between the two peoples breeds ignorance, which breeds fear and hatred, which breeds violence. It is easier – on both sides - to dehumanize a faceless, nameless enemy, whose only identity is formed from our own imaginations and government propaganda. Perhaps the wall has decreased one type of violence, but I fear it is also planting the seeds of another type of violence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
I pray for a ground swell in the Holy Land.