Bitter Faces in the Holy Land
[This article originally appeared on the New York Review of Books blog. The United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have each adopted resolutions on Israel’s separation barrier. They can be accessed by clicking for the UCC resolution, “Tear Down the Wall,” and the Disciples resolution, “Breaking Down the Dividing Wall.”]
One evening in what must have been early 2004, I drove with my friend Edly to see the section of the Wall, or the Separation Barrier, as it is officially called in Israel, that had recently gone up in Abu Dis, a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem. I knew Abu Dis as it had been before, and I was well aware that the Wall was dividing families and making access to hospitals, schools, markets, cemeteries, and offices difficult or impossible for much of its population. (In general, in the Jerusalem area, the Wall mostly separates Palestinians from Palestinians, not Palestinians from Israelis.) Yet nothing quite prepared us for the sinking feeling of finality, of a psychic and corporeal dead end, that hit us as we suddenly came face to face with these nine-meter-high concrete slabs. For some minutes after reaching the barrier, we sat and stared. Then Edly said: “One day this monstrosity will come down, as happened in Berlin, and when it does people on both sides will dance in joy.”
We tend to imagine the Wall as a single, monolithic structure. In reality it is a set or system of walls and fences within walls and fences, a recursive infinite regress of barbed wire, rock, and cement that turns inward as it slithers over the hills, enclosing most Palestinian villages on the occupied West Bank in non-contiguous enclaves even as it incorporates into Israel as many Jewish settlements as possible. Upon completion, its dizzying route is expected to run for over 700 kilometers. If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes but would like to know what it is like, your best option is to study Wall, Josef Koudelka’s new book of eloquent black-and-white photographs, taken over four years in repeated trips to Israel and Palestine. Koudelka, famous for his classic photographs of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, has won many prizes, including the Grand Prix Cartier-Bresson (in 1991) and the Medal of Merit of the Czech Republic (2002). This, his eleventh book of photographs reveals a Biblical landscape ravaged by greed and by the desperate illusion that safety, at least some tentative and temporary form of safety, can be found in a big fence.