Oct 8, 2016


Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Something there is that does. People there are that do not love a wall. People there are that do. 

One of them is Benjamin Netanyahu, the less-than-loveable Prime Minister of Israel, who in February of this year announced his intention to “surround all of Israel with a fence” to protect the country from infiltration by both Palestinians and the citizens of surrounding Arab states, whom he described as “wild beasts”.

The entire route of the wall – between 423-441 miles (the first is a Ministry of Defense figure, the second B’Tselem’s) is more than twice the length of the Green Line, Israel’s recognized border with the West Bank (199 miles), part “separation fence” with its electric detection, cameras and barbed wire, and part concrete wall, 26 feet high, more than twice as high as the 12 foot Berlin Wall, and like it, studded with guard towers, with soldiers free to kill. The difference between the “fence”s length and that of Israel’s borders is explained by the fact that 85% of the wall snakes around inside Palestinian territory, on Palestinian land, separating Palestinians from their loved ones, their farmlands, their places of work, and any acute medical care. 

To cross the wall, Palestinians must go through checkpoints, experiencing harassment, violence and death via Israeli soldiers suffering from vast indoctrination and incompletely developed frontal lobes.

Yet while the world generally looks askance at this building project, no country has definitively said STOP!, and US taxpayers fund the Israeli occupation to the tune of several billion dollars a year, with an increase on the way to propitiate Netanyahu for the Iran deal. President Obama and all the presidential candidates without exception (Bernie included) insist on the obvious “Israel has the right to defend itself” without extending that notion to its victims. The Israeli army confronts no walls other than its own to limit its roundups, kidnappings, and house demolitions.

One wonders why the gross imbalance of all things on either side of the “separation fence”/”apartheid wall” is allowed to persist. I thought I’d inquire of a particularly prophetic Jew, Franz Kafka, to see what he might have to say about Netanyahu’s wall.

Many of Kafka’s thoughts on walls, wall-builders, and wall-subjects are contained in his short story, “Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer”, usually translated as “The Great Wall of China”, a title which misses the central thought of the original: it is not the wall itself which is the subject of the story -- it is barely mentioned as such -- but rather the building of the wall -- who builds walls and why, and in what manner, and with what result.

And of course, as with all things Kafka, the text narrates merely the surface of situations of great, often comical, but sometimes ghastly depths, situations in which all humanity is embedded in enduring perplexity. The Chinese Wall, our Chinese Wall, Kafka’s Jewish Chinese Wall and especially Kafka’s Israeli Chinese Wall are all in play here.

How can I talk of Kafka and Israel? The poor guy died of TB in 1924, a quarter century before Israel was established. But just as his imagined bureaucratic dystopias predicted the horrors shortly ahead, as his penal colonies predicted the Nazi’s (two of his sisters were later killed in the camps), his thought of a land of builders, Jewish builders, swirled with his post-1911 religious concerns. Though indifferent to Judaism as an assimilated youth, from the age of 28 until his death, he was intensely involve with research on Jewish history, Jewish tradition, Jewish learning, and Jewish literature and myth. His engagement with the Jewish question included an interest in Zionism in the face of European antisemitism. Interested, but critical. Thinking about emigrating, he worried in his diaries about chauvinism, zionists who “have the Maccabees forever in their mouths and want to take after them.”

However many things his 1917 Wall story is about, it is clearly and centrally about religion, about the Church of Empire, with its mysterious founders of old. A major section of the story reports the writing of a book at the archaic time of the planning and beginning construction of the Wall, and its relationship with the biblical Tower of Babel:

In den Anfangszeiten des Baues ein Gelehrter ein Buch geschrieben hat, in welchem er diese Vergleiche sehr genau zog. Er suchte darin zu beweisen, daß der Turmbau zu Babel keineswegs aus den allgemein behaupteten Ursachen nicht zum Ziele geführt hat, oder daß wenigstens unter diesen bekannten Ursachen sich nicht die allerersten befinden.

At the time construction was beginning a scholar wrote a book in which he drew this comparison very precisely. In it he tried to show that the Tower of Babel had failed to attain its goal not at all for the reasons commonly asserted, or at least that the most important causes were not among these well-known ones.

(English translations by Edwin and Willa Muir)

The scholar maintained that 

daß der Bau an der Schwäche des Fundamentes scheiterte und scheitern mußte.

the structure collapsed and had to collapse because of the weakness of its foundation.

And because people in his time knew much better how to build walls than those in Babel time, the new Chinese Wall would

zum erstenmal in der Menschenzeit ein sicheres Fundament für einen neuen Babelturm schaffen. 

for the first time in the age of human beings create a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel. 

And then on top of that sturdy wall, a new Tower of Babel could be built, a skyscraper whose top would reach the heavens

Also zuerst die Mauer und dann der Turm.

So first the wall and then the tower.

Kafka notes that such a wall, built incompletely by plan, and linear, not circular, could not provide the foundation for a tower, so that the assertion 

konnte doch nur in geistiger Hinsicht gemeint sein.

could be meant only in a spiritual sense.

Hold that thought. The Tower of Babel in a spiritual sense.

A second illuminating comment is this

Es gab – dieses Buch ist nur ein Beispiel – viel Verwirrung der Köpfe damals, vielleicht gerade deshalb, weil sich so viele möglichst auf einen Zweck hin zu sammeln suchten. Das menschliche Wesen, leichtfertig in seinem Grund, von der Natur des auffliegenden Staubes, verträgt keine Fesselung; fesselt es sich selbst, wird es bald wahnsinnig an den Fesseln zu rütteln anfangen und Mauer, Kette und sich selbst in alle Himmelsrichtungen zerreißen.

There was a great deal of mental confusion at the time—this book is only one example—perhaps for the simple reason that so many people were trying as hard as they could to join together for a single purpose. Human nature, which is fundamentally careless and by nature like the whirling dust, endures no restraint. If it restricts itself, it will soon begin to shake the restraints madly and tear up walls, chains, and even itself in every direction.

This assertion is almost identical to that to the Passover commandment to remove every jot and tittle of leavening from a Jewish house. What is all that about? 

Yes, there was unleavened bread -- matzoh, the “bread of affliction” -- baked on the run, without time for dough to rise. But is that enough to account for removing from one's house all cereals and grains, all grain alcohol or vinegar, all canned or bottled or processed foods containing cornstarch, or any cosmetics, inks, glues or toothpaste which may be leavened? Out? Nothing that has come in contact with leavening may be spared. The house must be fiercely cleaned so that no particle of yeast might hide among the dust; pots must be boiled so that the water overflows the rim. Such behavior comes from roots thicker than matzoh.

Leaven, Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells us, "is what lifts us up throughout the year -- leads to our working harder, searching deeper, loving more." It represents the yetzer, or rising-impulse of the soul. But allowed to rise without limit, yetzer becomes yetzer ha-ra, the evil impulse which "impels us not only to productivity, but to possessiveness; not only to creativity, but to competitiveness; not only to love, but to jealousy and lust. So once a year we must clean out even the uplifting impulse; we must eat the flat bread of a pressed-down people, we must clean out the pockets of pride that have grown big again." (Seasons of our Joy)

That so many people would be working together on the infinitely huge project of the Great Wall, and then plan to pile on top of it a tower to the heavens (if in Israel with the latest elevator technology, paid for by the US) -- that would be an offense unto God. How did He react the first time? Let’s listen in to Genesis 11:

3 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

4 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.

5 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.

6 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

7 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.

8 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. 

Via this comparison, Kafka’s Chinese God-puppet shakes the Babel stick. Building a Wall is a No-No. Don’t even think about it.

But the Israelis do love walls. If one looks at post-1968 photos of crowds of worshippers at the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, the sacred Wailing Wall, you will see a seven-foot white wall between worshippers with XY chromosomes and those with XX.

In 2013, after much violence from orthodox Jews asserting that the space before the wall is as sanctified as an orthodox synagogue, and objecting to mixed worship, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that as long as there was no other appropriate area for pluralistic prayer, prayer according to non-Orthodox custom should be allowed at the Wall. So now the Israelis are building a separate area at “Robinson’s Arch” for female prayer and other non-orthodox worship. Such as by LGBT Jews.

In 2005, Banksy undertook a Palestinian summer project, decorating the walls in the occupied West Bank, drawing attention to their deeply inhumane existence and purpose. (Drawing western attention that is. Palestinians need no instruction.)

But you can’t please everybody. On his website, Banksy reports a conversation with an old Palestinian man:

Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.

Me: Thanks.

Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.