Tear down the wall . . . metaphor

Last week I had an opportunity to put feet to some of my pro-Israel advocacy, and it centered on the “wall,” the Israeli security barrier, which has become an icon for everything wrong with Israel among those who can’t remember what everyone was complaining about before the barrier was built.

The University of New Mexico (my alma mater, by the way, so I’m not an outside agitator) was the scene of a “Mock Wall Campaign,” hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine and a bunch of other campus groups, which employs a model of an ugly wall to promote “building bridges by tearing down walls.” Of course, the wall metaphor turns out to be mostly about Israel and its security barrier–along with everything else they can toss in  that’s wrong about Israel.

So, on the day before Yom Hashoah, I decided to join with the UNM Israel Alliance and help man the counter demonstration, a “Wall of Truth” that lists ten myths about Israel that are widely accepted on college campuses like UNM around the world. You can read the list at http://www.wall-of-truth.org/myths/.

Soon after I arrived, a bunch of students gathered in front of our Wall of Truth banner and spent a good amount of time reading  and commenting–in Arabic! They didn’t seem convinced, but some of them did seem pretty thoughtful.

A little later, I had the chance to engage with a guy who said Israel just kept building this wall so it could steal Palestinian land, like it had been doing for decades. He retreated as soon as I mentioned that the wall was only started in 2003 and was already finished.

Then another man came along, a more sophisticated guy who had traveled extensively in the Middle East, had first-hand experience, and was troubled by things he’d actually seen in the West Bank.

He opened with the statement that it was a wall, not a fence, and I gave him that one. It is a wall, at least in a lot of areas, and it’s an ugly and tragic thing. (Myth 5 on “The Wall of Truth” says that only 3% of the barrier is concrete–i.e. a wall–and the rest, 97%, is chain link fence. I’m going to have to fact-check that one.) It’s dishonest to soft-pedal this thing, and also a bad tactic. The anti-Israel forces want to oppose it just because it’s a WALL, and they want to oppose Israel because it builds walls. My goal is to ask why Israel had to do it. I think it’s a bad thing too (see my blog Justice and the wall), but what’s the background?

We live in a day when people weigh the justice of a cause more by image than by rational argument. Israel’s security barrier is a negative image, a metaphor for everything our tolerant and barrier-free society loathes. My hope is to get people, just a few people probably, going beyond the metaphor to consider the context, the background, the reasons why it is there at all.

My sophisticated friend wanted Israel to give up on any kind of special treatment for Jews and just be one state for everyone who happened to be within its borders, or who could lay claim to it. But then he also mentioned his travels in various Arab countries and the oppression and poverty he saw there, especially under the Wahabi regime in Saudi Arabia, which he felt the Saudis were trying to export through the unrest of last year’s Arab Spring. I said that the Israelis look around them, see the kind of life their neighboring states have created, and don’t particularly want to tear down their metaphorical wall and let it all in. He responded with a remark that everyone just has to learn how to live together and sadly walked off.

To be honest, I don’t relish the role of defending a wall. I believe that the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is unsustainable and new solutions must be found. But I’m also proud to join the effort of helping to reverse Israel’s negative image on our campuses and telling anyone who will listen that justice requires more than deciding who has the most appealing image.

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