Published in McGill Faculty of Law Bulletin, January 2004.
By Yakov M Rabkin
When I was lecturing in Israel in December 2003, I saw the Wall several times. Its physical traits are well known; it is built of concrete, reaches up to eight meters, and is equipped with high-tech detection devices and the time-honoured watch towers. There is a clear consensus about its aesthetic aspect. It is an ugly scar in the biblical landscape of the Holy Land. It is not so easy to reach a consensus as to the Wall’s effects on the safety of the millions of inhabitants squeezed between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
The Wall, whose official appellation is “Security Fence,” is being built by a decision of the Sharon government but the idea, like Sharon himself, comes from what is called “Zionist Left.” The Wall is an incarnation of the “Iron Wall” first mentioned by Ben Gurion in 1923, and made well known a year later when it became the title of an article written by Vladimir Jabotinsky for the Russian-language Razsvet. The concept of the Iron Wall is simple: to occupy territory and to protect it from Arab incursions. Unlike the Socialist Zionists, Jabotinsky did not entertain illusions about the colonial character of Zionism, and he anticipated violent opposition from the local population. This straight talk is still quite common in Israel. Ehud Barak, when he was running for election, frankly admitted that he would have joined Hamas, had he been an Arab. Many otherwise liberal, left-wing Israelis gripped by fear approve the Wall, which, they hope against hope, will make “the Palestinian problem” disappear.
Yet, the grievance of the Palestinian Arabs is real and, most observers agree, is unlikely to go away. They deplore the Naqba, the collapse of their society brought about by the establishment of the Zionist state and the ensuing hostilities. Israeli Arab citizens resent the structural discrimination they have faced in employment, housing and income since the onset of Zionism. Palestinian Arab refugees resent the fact that they and their ancestors were evicted from their homes and then prevented from returning to the newly established State of Israel. (For an insight into this issue and its contemporary corollary see interview with Benny Morris: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/380986.html) This resentment has engendered popular hatred that has been directed at any Jew in Israel, and to a certain extent, elsewhere in the world. This hatred is blind: it does not distinguish between a Zionist Jew and an anti-Zionist, between a rabbinical student and a Russian gentile teenager who immigrated to Israel as part of a family that qualifies under Israel’s Law of Return.
The three years of the Intifada have made this hatred palpable. Some traditional Jews tend to view grievous violence directed at them as divine punishment for just as grievous sins committed by Jews, Zionism being one such sin in their perspective. However, most Israeli Jews continue to believe in military might, whether it makes right or not. They see this hatred as an inevitable result of the mere presence of the Zionist state. While some agree that a post-Zionist state of all its citizens might assuage Palestinian grievances, most Israeli Jews fear they would be slaughtered in such a non-segregated society. Their only hope is to separate themselves from “the other”, to barricade themselves in what quite a few of them view as “a bloody mousetrap”. Some are resigned to live by the sword, others apply for passports of their, or even their ancestors’, countries of origin. Who would have thought when Israel was established that a Polish passport would become a life saver for a Jew?
Those who stay need protection from terrorism. Most are not inclined to delve into the root causes of the Jew hatred they face. Some remember that prominent Jewish intellectuals had warned that the establishment of the Zionist state by force would not bring the Jews safety and security. As early as 1948, the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1907-1975) wrote :
“Even if the Jews were to win the war … the “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever threatened borders, absorbed by physical self-defence … And all this would be the fate of a nation that – no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how it extended its boundaries – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.”
Sadly, her prophecy has turned out to be true. This is where the Wall comes in.
The Wall is expected to facilitate control of the territory by the Israeli military and to stem the inflow of terrorists (see the Israeli government’s rationale for the Wall at: http://securityfence.mfa.gov.il/mfm/web/main/missionhome.asp?MissionID=45187&). At the same time, the Wall is a political fact that effectively annexes large chunks of Palestinian territories. Critics call it “the greatest land grab since 1948.” Some of these territories have been settled in the last three decades by hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews. In other cases, security considerations separate Palestinians from their fields, offices and schools that end up on the wrong side of the Wall. Moreover, the Wall does not even separate the populations along ethnic lines. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers live on the “Arab” side of the Wall while over a million of Arabs remain on the “Jewish” side. This creates a complex web of regulations that Israeli teenagers in military uniform are expected to enforce. The result of these measures is likely to intensify the hatred on the part of the Palestinians who, as Israeli human rights activists put it, would “need a permit to live in their own home” (for more information see: www. btselem.org). While the Wall may make access to Israeli territory more difficult, it immeasurably increases the number of candidates willing to sacrifice their own lives to climb the Wall in order to kill Jews.
The Wall is also a symbol. It symbolizes the despair of Israeli Jews apprehensive for their future. During the early years of the State of Israel, many Judaic authorities spoke out openly against the Zionist project since they saw in it an act of defiance against Jewish tradition. Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav (1886-1959), a Talmudic genius and a witness to the military prowess of the new Zionist state remarked:
They [the Zionists] believe that by killing Arabs they frighten them […] But they will attack the Jews to the bitter end. The Arabs attack us because they are sent by Heaven. […] A million Arabs will be ready to give up their lives just to kill one Jew.
Coming from a very different angle than the secular Hannah Arendt, Rabbi Soloveitchik foresaw the futility of using force in asserting the Zionist project in the Holy Land. In this light, the concrete construction becomes a monument to the tragedy of people locked in anger and fear, as they continue to mourn their dead and wounded on both sides of the Wall. A measure that makes the Palestinians’ lives even less worth living than they are today is hardly going to make the Israelis feel safer.