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Behind Berlin's and Israel's walls

  • 22 August 2011

Walls are not merely concrete manifestations but cultural and psychological ones. Such barriers can be external or internal. In the case of the Berlin Wall, which began construction on 13 August 1961, it was both the symbolic site of conflict between global ideologies and systems, and an actual manifestation of brutal state fear.

'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall', encouraged US President Ronald Reagan before it in June 1987. President John F. Kennedy proclaimed his allegiance to the city as a Berliner before it in 1963: 'Ich bin ein Berliner'.

When it began to fall to the hammers of the Mauerspechte in November 1989, its physical destruction did not erase the Wall's legacy. On the contrary, it affirmed it as the high point of government policy in controlling mobile populations.

Such walls are part of the modern state, precisely because the idea of 'open borders', while desirable economically, is notably feared when it comes to people. The modern state apparatus busies itself with erecting and preserving barriers against enemies known and unknown while also keeping its residents closed off in the name of security. Mobility is highly circumscribed.

When the Second World War ended, Winston Churchill alluded to this trend when he spoke, in his speech of March 1946, of an 'Iron Curtain' descending on Eastern Europe 'from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic'.

The Berlin Wall was designed to keep people in, and the strict instructions to shoot anyone escaping the East were indicative of that. As the East German leader Walter Ulbricht explained on 3 August 1961, 'active measures for ending the recruitment of people [by West Germany] from our Republic are necessary'.

This was a dramatic reversal from such political contexts as those of the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall, both built in the name of keeping the 'uncivilised' out rather than subjects within the borders of the realm.

When Israel began constructing a wall around Jerusalem, the then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat referred to it as a 'Berlin Wall'. The current West Bank barrier is some 760 km in length, made of part electric fence, part concrete wall, part razor wire.

The linguistic relevance here is important. To many Israelis, it is a mere fence. 'It is a security fence,' claimed former Defence Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. 'It is not diplomatic. It is not political.' The Berlin Wall was similarly rationalised at times as a security barrier —