Something There is that Doesn’t Love a Wall

This column ran as the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on December 3, 2007.

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.

–Robert Frost, from “Mending Wall”

Last week’s meeting in Annapolis, Maryland—in which President Bush convened a host of interested parties to talk about peace between Israel and Palestine—got me thinking about walls.

Of course, given the ongoing construction of the Great West Bank Barrier—a combination of massive wall and fencing that, when finished, will appropriate for Israel an extra ten percent of what remains of Palestinian land—walls are a hard topic to avoid for anyone who is even remotely interested in what goes on in the land that Abrahams’ spiritual heirs call holy.

There are lots of reasons to find fault with the Great West Bank Barrier. It separates Palestinians from their best sources of water, it bisects Palestinian farms and villages, and, in some cases—most notably the little town of Bethlehem—it turns whole communities into Israeli prisons. The route of the wall is immoral, the reality of the wall is causing a humanitarian crisis, and I’m wondering if those who are supporting, financing and constructing the Great West Bank Barrier have ever read history.

Over the years, humans have built lots of walls with which they have attempted to separate themselves from real and imagined enemies, and the walls never work. Walls never improve the lives of those whose communities are separated. Walls stifle economic vitality, they foster suspicion and fear, they provide little in the way of real protection, and they never work, at least not for long.

If you doubt me, go to China. There you will find one very large wall, erected at great expense and over centuries to keep the Mongols from invading China. The Mongols invaded anyway, and ever since the days of Marco Polo, the Great Wall of China has been nothing more than a tourist attraction, and proof that the things we build need not be useful to be beautiful.


(Here are my wife, Anne and my daughter, Mimi on China’s Great Wall)

If China is too far away, go to Scotland and visit Hadrian’s Wall along that fine country’s southern border with England. Another brilliant tourist trap with, I’m told, some great views of the Borders and of Yorkshire, but the Italians didn’t last long on Albion’s shores.

(This is my mom on Hadrian’s Wall a few weeks ago.)

If you prefer bratwurst to haggis, visit Berlin and you will find yet another wall—torn down by Mr. Gorbachev—that now is a curious reminder of a bygone era.

Perhaps you’re an American who doesn’t like to fly. Fine. Visit the 2000 miles of border between the United States and Mexico. There you will find lots of walls and barriers, yet it won’t be long before my Mother’s home town in Iowa will have a majority Hispanic population.

If in human history there is an example of a security wall or barrier that has improved the long term wellbeing and safety of those on one side or another, I don’t know about it.

Apologists for Israel’s great West Bank Barrier will be quick to point out that since the beginning of the wall’s construction, there has been a significant drop in Palestinian suicide terror against Israeli civilians. I say thank God for that, but I wonder how much credit can be ascribed to the Great West Bank Barrier. After all, a similar structure has encircled the Gaza strip for years, and it hasn’t stopped those driven by an unfortunate desire to attack Israel. The Gaza barrier isn’t tall enough to block Quassam rockets, and it’s not deep enough to dissuade tunnel diggers.

The safety of the Israeli public matters to me. Truly I hope no militants decide to attack Israel from the far side of the Great West Bank Barrier, but the minute such an attack is planned and executed, the wall’s futility will be evident.

The fighting in Israel and Palestine has gone on long enough. Too many lives have been lost, too much good will has been wasted. The world is tired and the residents of the region are despondent. The time is long since past to abandon the Great West Bank Barrier in favor of more constructive, comprehensive and long lasting pathways to peace.

I hope the Great West Bank Barrier gets torn down, but not all of it. I’d like for some of it to remain as a testimony to the futility of such walls so that the next time someone decides to build a wall to divide people—along the entire US/Mexico border, for example—they can look to the late Great West Bank Barrier and see that walls are an immoral waste of time.

8 thoughts on “Something There is that Doesn’t Love a Wall

  1. While you are thinking about walls, you might consider that there would be no wall if, over the past 30 years, any element of the Palestinian leadership had possessed the intelligence, integrity and courage to negotiate in good faith. If they had done so at any point, the Palestininians would have had their state by now. But they have not.

    Instead, we have Hamas and Hezbollah vowing to continue the war until Israel is exterminated. We have the Fatah faction telling the West they want to “negotiate” a solution, while telling Arab audiences that any such outcome will be only a truce. Meanwhile, school textbooks used to teach Palestinian kids in the West Bank sport maps that show a “Palestinian entity” from the Jordan to the sea, while officially denying the existence of Israel.

    If there is anything “immoral” about the wall, it is the necessity for its existence. And that is not the fault of the Israelis, it is the fault and responsibility of the enemies that surround them.


  2. The Dutch would say that their sea wall that holds back the North Sea is good thing…only time will tell.
    Non physical walls, those in our mind, are also counter productive. Ego, prejudice, and even religious walls prevent the openness of exchange that is necessary for peaceful coexistence.

  3. Nice column, Ben! I am looking forward to visiting a taqueria the next time I am in western Iowa!

  4. Ha! H.N. Lalor wins the award for finding a useful wall! And I agree–the invisible walls we erect are just as serious a problem.

    Tom, we must eat carne asada in Crawford County. Actually, the Mexican community in Dennison was the subject of an NPR report about a year ago, the big deal being that a building once belonging to my uncle, the brother of Donna Reed, now belongs to and is being renovated by a man who once was an undocumented immigrant. I guess that’s one sign of the times–Donna Reed’s brother’s building now belongs to a guy from Jalisco. Aunt Donna, by the way, would have approved.


  5. And Bill has raised an important issue, namely what about Palestinian culpability in the hostilities that have, in the mids of many, made the wall a necessity?

    My response is to say that if you use the logic that moral failings on the part of a people’s leadership makes it OK to punish the whole people, then we are in trouble. That, by the way is the same rational used by terrorists: “the US government is corrupt, so we can blow up the federal building in Oklahoma city.” I just don’t think it holds water from a moral point of view.

    Regarding the issue of maps and textbooks, the next time you are in my office, let me show you the map I have on my wall, which was given to me by the Israeli government when I visited the Holy Land. The map is an excellent resource for Bible study because it is a satellite composite which shows the topography in great detail, but as a political map it is curious in that it shows all of the modern political entities except for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    Keep in mind, this was given to me as a Pastor to use when talking to my congregation about Israel. The Israeli government clearly doesn’t want American Christians thinking about the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as real political entities. And this was given to me in the late 90’s which was one of the most peaceable times in recent memory.

    So there’s enough bad faith to go around…


  6. Ben,

    As I read Frost’s poem, the “something” that doesn’t love a wall is the natural order of things. Men (humans) build monuments, towers, palaces, etc., and in time they all come down, thanks to entropy, time, weather, whatever you may call it (including God). In Frost’s case, it is weather, those harsh New England wet winters, where the water between the stones feezes and topples the walls (or stone fences). So they must be mended.

    Why must they be mended? And why must they exist in the first place? Frost wonders himself, but the neighbor has the answer: good fences make good neighbors. They were built in the first place because the Yankee farmers needed someplace to stack the granite boulders they were clearing out of their fields for farming; but they served the purpose of delineating property lines, by agreement, to prevent disputes or unintentional encroachment. Knowing the boundaries makes good neighbors.

    The important thing is: these fences are symbols of agreement, not discord. they don’t keep people out (most of them are only three feet tall). They were built by both parties and are maintained by both parties. They are a granite handshake, not a barrier.

    If a wall is built by the Israelis or the Americans to keep enemies out, it won’t work. If agreements are made to respect each other’s space, they will be building fences to be good neighbors.

  7. Ben, it is not a matter of ‘punish the whole people,’ it is a matter of perceived need for self-defense. One may question whether a wall is a useful self-defense tactic — but not the Israelis’ right to do whatever they deem necessary to protect themselves, absent real evidence of a change of heart on the part of both the leadership and the so-called Palestinian people.


  8. John,

    Thanks for your post. It is most evident that in the Occupied Territories as in the Sonoran Desert, no one is asking who might take offense. I wish they would!


    I believe that Israel has a right–a responsibility, even–to protect the Israeli people. But I don’t believe that right constitutes a privilege to to anything it deems necessary. Moral constraints and common decency must remain in tact. Or so it seems to me.

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