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On Both Sides of Israel's West Bank Wall

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Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies 24 

I have seen The Wall.  Perhaps more accurately, The Wall took possession of my soul.
Sure, I’ve seen photos and videos of it, but there’s nothing like looking at it in the concrete. 
I think of the times I’ve driven in the fast lane of a freeway and there’s no shoulder, only a wall.  The close barrier on my left makes me nervous, makes me a little claustrophobic, and I usually switch lanes just to get away.  Now, imagine such a barrier, but this time it’s gigantic, towering overhead.  And in the distance I can see it following alongside the road without end with watchtowers on the top, close to the side of my car, and traffic is jammed up ahead to get through some checkpoint, and I feel penned in, like I’m suffocating. 
It’s a looming, monstrous scar across the landscape.  It’s a visible sign, an imposing signifier, and the giant (not a genie, and definitely not a golem) says very clearly in a booming voice: “I have two sides. On this side are the privileged, the ones with power, the free; and on the other are the contained, the squeezed, the prisoners. Those who are on the ‘other side,’ stay where you are – or cross me if you dare!”
I was told that The Wall is not so towering in other parts.  Shortly before I left The New York Times ran a photo of The Wall absurdly running down the middle of a highway, one side for Israelis, the other for Palestinians.  In a rare moment of candor, the newspaper actually called it a “segregated” road.  An Israeli colleague told me of one road with walls on both sides, mainly to keep the eyes of Israelis shielded from the messy presence of Arabs.  There are many creative things you can do with walls.
I was being driven from Jerusalem to Ramallah to visit Palestinian professors.  On the way back the traffic jam stretched for miles, as everyone inched through the checkpoint along the broken road filled with potholes.  The Palestinians have committed their own atrocities and accumulated their own absurdities, but I remember the last time I was in Ramallah, during the first intifada, when there were mass strikes, popular committees, and kids throwing rocks – a relatively non-violent uprising. What they received as a result was more settlements, more land confiscations, more travel restrictions, more by-pass roads, more unemployment, more misery, plus the semblance of a democratic government, if the results of elections are approved by Israel and the U.S.  But the Palestinians simply do not have the means to compete with Israel’s relentless colonizing juggernaut.  You can tell just by driving on both sides of The Wall which side is which.
I was invited to present a paper at a highly esteemed Israeli academic institute, and I was honored to participate.  I stayed in the center of Jewish Jerusalem, near the official residencies of the president and prime minister, a neighborhood almost completely free of Arabs.  My colleagues were wonderful, progressive, and many were active against cruel absurdities such as The Wall; they served on committees to observe the checkpoints to prevent abuses or to halt the demolition of Palestinian homes.  But we were definitely on the other side of The Wall.
The institute was not connected to any university, so it was not part of the boycott that some have called of Israeli universities (I checked).  I have mixed feelings about such a boycott, anyway, since so many Israeli academics speak out for reason and peace.  But one Israeli scholar I met outside the conference argued in support of the boycott, pointing out that the people I was meeting were progressives who were mainly involved in the humanities, but that the bulk of the universities – such as the economics, political science, psychology, sciences, and engineering departments – were completely entwined with the military, thoroughly complicit with the occupation, were builders of The Wall.
Recently, an ad appeared in The New York Times denouncing the boycott, featuring a statement by Columbia President Lee Bollinger who said, more or less, that if you boycott them you might as well boycott us.  I actually thought that might be a good idea.  My own university, Stanford, was just given a multi-million dollar contract to head up a consortium of universities to build a supercomputer for the Defense Department.  The engineers working on this project will be assisting in the occupation of Iraq, in the further militarization of American society – they spoke about developing lightweight materials to protect armored vehicles from roadside bombs, and they explained that their work would also have civilian uses.  (Lightweight bumpers to resist fender-benders?)  The supercomputer will be doing work to allow Bush and his successors to continue their policies of domination and stupid disregard for the world.  There seems to be nothing illegal in doing the project – although there are some questions about whether it is appropriate for an open university to deal with military secrets.  Still, maybe President Bollinger is right: the world should boycott U.S. universities, even if Noam Chomsky and other critics of empire are scattered throughout the institutions.
I’m also wary of the boycott as one more vehicle for smug Americans to get on their high horse about academic freedom when competent scholars not approved by pro-Israel organizations (the armies of Dershowitz, Perle, and the rest) are regularly attacked or hounded out of the academy.  I doubt if most of the people in Britain and elsewhere calling for the boycott are anti-Semitic (unless you consider any criticism of Israel’s policies as anti-Semitic) – but they are angry over 40 years of Israeli settlements, land grabs, home demolitions, refugees, assassinations, and, of course, The Wall. They will be scandalized as anti-Semites, nonetheless. One Israeli activist thought this was not a bad thing, actually: Let them cry anti-Semitism, like crying wolf; the more they cry, the weaker they will become.  I’m not so sure, and I wonder if the whole thing is a distraction from the role of the U.S. government in giving Israel free reign.
One of the Palestinian professors I met with on the other side of The Wall shared some of these same concerns, and he floated an idea as an alternative campaign: Stop the Boycott of Palestinian Universities.  He enumerated all the ways Palestinian higher education is thwarted: students from Gaza are completely cut off; students and faculty crossing from one part of the West Bank to another are humiliated, hindered and sometimes prevented from traveling through the frequent checkpoints; he was invited to give a lecture in Jerusalem the next day, and he was still waiting for his permit to cross The Wall after applying three weeks before, and it may never come; universities cannot buy books from Beirut, the center of Arabic academic publishing; foreign visiting professors are denied visas – I heard the story of one professor who went to Amman with papers to grade, was denied a visa to return, had to mail the papers back, and someone else had to complete the course.  The Wall even cuts through the campus of Al-Quds University.  True, the Israelis moved it a little, but it’s still there. The list goes on.  No matter what people decide about Israeli universities, the campaign to end the boycott of Palestinian universities does make sense.
After the academic meeting, I traveled with an American colleague who was doing research on how Americans perceive the Middle East, and she had arranged for a tour of the Christian shrines with an officially licensed Israeli guide.  We traveled by car to the Galilee by way of the Judean Wilderness, circling around Jericho on an Israeli by-pass road.  No traffic jams, smooth sailing on a modern highway, easy passage through checkpoints, with our guide proudly pointing out all the settlements along the route.  We were definitely on the other side of The Wall.  There was much more to the tour, but I’ll leave that to my colleague.
For my last day in Jerusalem, I spent hours at the shrines in the Old City, dozing off in the heat.  I sat at a table in an outdoor café drinking Turkish coffee and watching Moslems stream from the Damascus Gate to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque, crowds pushing through the narrow streets, endlessly it seemed.  I dozed off before my coffee, and I dreamed of The Wall looming up before me.
I sat in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as pilgrims knelt down to the rose-colored Stone of Unction, the slab of limestone commemorating the original stone upon which Jesus was laid out to be washed after he was brought down from the cross.  One after another, they kissed the stone overhung with lamps, and they prayed, they cried, they put their rosaries, candles and other religious objects on the glistening pink stone so that some of the holiness would rub off.  Sitting on a bench, I watched for hours as one pilgrim after another filed through, and once again I dozed off, and I dreamed of The Wall.
I sat in the air conditioned cave on the men’s side of the Wailing Wall for hours watching the pious sway back and forth in prayer. The dovening and mumbled prayers in Hebrew filled the cave like the buzzing of bees.  There was something exciting about their dedication, like the Christian pilgrims kissing their rock, and the fact that day after day the same supplications and adulations would rise up from their lips against the side of the old temple’s wall. But I dozed off there, too, dreaming of The Other Wall, the one I really wanted to wail at.
Many Israelis expressed their sadness that The Wall had to be, but they acquiesced because they were afraid, and they said they had no choice. Always no choice.  They live in a world Kafka would have a hard time inventing, and yet they accept it as normal.
But there is a choice. From now on, I’m boycotting The Wall.

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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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