"Tear Down This Wall"

By Rich Harwood

Just last week I was in Israel and visited the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where a young Palestinian man, Noor, took me around. As we turned a corner in the city, all of a sudden I confronted the wall that separates the West Bank and Israel. Up close, it is huge, imposing, cold and haunting. Here in the U.S., the federal government shutdown enters week three, locked in a showdown over a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. I wonder, what is the meaning of such walls?

I recognize that walls that seek to separate people—whether in Israel, Europe or here in the U.S.—are initially built out of fear, constructed based on events that can seem beyond anyone’s control. So we build. We make walls that are 10, 20 or 30 feet high, topped by barbed wire, where police or soldiers in towers loom over those wanted kept on the other side.

There are at least two questions for us here in the U.S. First, is a wall really the best option for solving the problem at hand? Second, and the issue I wish to address, what happens when our public discourse becomes consumed by building a wall?

In the U.S., “the wall” is not only a potential physical barrier, but it has become a new national metaphor for our lives. If only we can separate ourselves from “those people” on the other side of the border, then we will be safer. If only we can make the wall high enough, then we can end the flow of drugs from Mexico and the scourge of drug addiction at home. If only we keep others out, then those of us here can live in prosperity.

For sure, people on different sides of the wall debate have legitimate concerns. I do not wish to demonize anyone, nor dismiss anyone’s concern. Border security is important and vital. But we are not well served by trying to close ourselves in, as if to hermetically seal ourselves off from the rest of the world.

If there is one challenge I consistently encounter as I travel across the U.S., Israel, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, it is that so many people feel that their dignity has been stripped from them. They feel neither seen nor heard. What matters to them, does not seem to matter to others. They are viewed to be “the other.”

Such challenges cannot—will not—be addressed by building concrete walls sky-high, seeking to keep us apart from each other. If anything, our central task today is to create more links and connections to one another. This we must build, now.

Make no mistake: the debate over the wall in the U.S. is much larger than simply a policy argument. It is about how we choose to live; how we see ourselves. Will we hunker down, pull inward and cower, or will we be filled with confidence, an outward view and an outstretched arm?

When walking along the wall in the West Bank, I came across a hand-made poster that reads:

 
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What Unites
Human Beings Is
Huge & Wonderful
What Divides
Human Beings
Is Small And
Mean

Sure, when we build walls—whether as a country or in our own lives—we can feel safer in a moment of time. But, over time, walls divide us. And lest we think that those of us who build the wall are protected, think again. For whichever side of a wall one lives, everyone is imprisoned by it. Walls keep us apart. They diminish everyone’s dignity. They deny us the possibility to discover the huge and wonderful things that unite us.

Perhaps the greatest moment of Ronald Reagan’s presidency was when he went to the Berlin Wall and challenged his Soviet Union counterpart: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I can hear Reagan’s words echoing today.

I can also remember vividly when I left Noor on the West Bank. I got to drive away. He was stuck on the other side of the wall. I still see his deep brown eyes staring at me as our van pulled off and we were once more divided.