Hitting the wall

The walls of cruelty must be torn down. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)

About a year ago, I had a vivid dream. Somewhere in the West Bank, on a hot and dusty day, I was standing with a news team filming a story at the Separation Wall. A correspondent with a microphone in his hand was watching in astonishment as a long line of young Palestinian men ran up and forcefully threw their bodies against the towering concrete barrier, followed by dull thud after dull thud.

The reporter turned to me in the dream, pushed the microphone into my face, and asked, “Can you tell us what on earth they are doing? This is senseless! No one can break a wall with his body!”

Just as I was about to respond, a young man hit the wall and it cracked open. Everyone shouted for joy and began pouring through the fissure like a rush of water.

For exactly half my life, I’ve been angry and outspoken about the tragedy of Palestine. It seems like I’ve been shouting at a wall for the better part of three decades. Like others Americans who call attention to the illegality, immorality, and illogic of unconditional US support for Israel’s treatment of the people displaced by its national project, I am familiar with “hitting the wall.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to say walls — concentric walls.

Most salient is the wall of apathy. If you haven’t been to the Middle East, if you’ve never known a Palestinian who’s been dispossessed, occupied, and dehumanized, if you’ve never heard an Israeli express horror at his or her army’s actions, you probably haven’t had the occasion to be outraged by the daily violations of international humanitarian law in the West Bank and Gaza.

An even more imposing wall is an edifice of fear that halts many from voicing criticism of Israel lest they be labeled anti-Semitic. And after the 11 September 2001 attacks, criticism of America’s unwise adoption of Israel’s unilateral militarism and defiance of international law meant one risked being called anti-American, too.

In academe, few dare to say anything too publicly about the suffering in Palestine until they have tenure. Even then, it’s risky: if you want that grant, that fellowship, that book award, you’d best watch your tongue. In two job interviews for academic positions I heard some version of the question “We see you have been very outspoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would you continue this if you were on the faculty here?” This is not a question one would get for being outspoken (as indeed we all should be) about massive human rights abuses in central Africa.

The wall of ignorance exists, too, of course. But it is less solid. Once people begin to see the misery in Palestine not as a battle of good against evil, or an example of identity politics gone wild, or a clash of civilizations, it’s not very hard to begin to think, feel and act. If ignorance were not such a weak wall, Israel would not be so keen to deport anyone, including UN representatives like Richard Falk, who try to see the situation for themselves at first hand. Nor would it be so vigilant in barring foreign correspondents from Gaza.

Now we reach the most implacable wall of all, which is constructed of very resilient stuff: unacknowledged but formidable boundaries of cognition, emotion, and axiomatic suppositions that “go without saying because they came without saying,” in the words of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. These walls are constantly under construction and reconstruction; they set the parameters and moral cartography of our social reality by demarcating the orthodox from the heterodox.

I discovered these walls in myself in the early 1980s as a college student working on an archeological expedition in the southeast Dead Sea region of Jordan. There, I gradually became aware of the fact that the wonderful older men from the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities who taught us to be patient excavators, who made sweet tea for us every morning over small, carefully tended fires, who taught us to sing “Yaa Mustafa!” and clapped and sang when it was anyone’s birthday, and who showed us how to dance to “banaat al-Iskandariyya” (the girls of Alexandria) with scarves tied around our hips one evening around a bonfire, that these men were all Palestinians from Hebron and Jericho.

I was taken aback. Although I had not realized it, my middle-class American worldview apparently included, as a key foundation stone, the assumption that Palestinians were evil and mean. Weren’t they terrorists? Did they not want to destroy Israel and finish off the job Hitler had started? How could I possibly like them?

One of the first phrases I learned in Arabic, besides “shway, shway!” (“slowly, carefully! Don’t erase half of the early Bronze Age trying to get that pottery shard loose!”), was “hadha wad’a sa’ab” (“This is a difficult situation”).

So I learned from Muhammad, a son of Jericho who’d learned archaeological techniques as a child in the famous Wheeler-Kenyon expedition at the edge of his hometown years earlier.

One day, as he was helping me graph the emerging contours of a stone wall in my quadrant of the dig site, the air reverberated with the sonic booms of Israeli air force jets across the Dead Sea. Muhammad sighed, told me it was nothing dangerous, and muttered that Menachem Begin (then Israel’s prime minister) was crazy. Over the next days, we talked about Palestine and Israel, and I told him that several of us were going to go see Jerusalem after the dig was over, two months hence. He said, “You will see how the situation is so difficult — hadha wad’a sa’ab.”

He was right; I did. And that was more than 26 ago, when life in the West Bank was a paradise compared to what it is now.

Today, striving to focus on other work as the television spews scenes of carnage, I am hitting another wall — one of anger, frustration, outrage, and astonishment that this situation can continue and worsen yet still garner the endorsement of the US Senate, still be presented by the US mainstream media as a necessary evil, still be dismissed by pundits as something Israel was forced to do, so please don’t think about this. Please don’t speak out about it. Please don’t push beyond the walls of thinkable thought. And please don’t imagine that you can knock down concentric concrete walls with your body or voice.

I hear another sound, though — not the thud of falling bodies, but a subtle cracking. I hear it in the comments of friends, relatives, neighbors, and even a few journalists who are alarmed that something stunningly disproportionate and unfair is happening. Maybe the Lebanon war of 2006 wore down the walls of silence and shook the architecture of axiomatic assumptions, maybe there is a limit to swallowing lies.

Maybe Americans are astonished that, even with the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, their government can still afford to give millions of dollars a day to Israel as it digs a deeper hole for itself, the Palestinians, and America.

These walls have to come down. They are killing Palestinians, deforming the Jewish people, and preventing the American government from staying true to the founding documents of the United States and the principles of the Geneva Conventions.

For nearly 30 years, I’ve been watching this ugly barrier grow. I’ve seen it devour lives, hopes, dreams, and ideals; farms, towns, friendships, and families. I’ve seen people driven up walls of acute psychological suffering as they try to live their lives in spite of, beneath, or in opposition to these imposing monoliths of injustice and cruelty.

Mr. Obama, please, please, tear down these walls.

Laurie King, a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, was the North American Coordinator of International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila (http://indictsharon.net) from 2001 until 2003. She is now the managing editor of The Journal of Palestine Studies in Washington, DC.

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