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Behind Berlin's and Israel's walls


'Walls' by Chris JohnstonWalls 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 — an 'anti-fascist' barrier.

For others, the West Bank creation is an amorphous thing. Most in the Western press use the more benign term 'separation barrier'. Walls do not merely have ears — they have distinctly different meanings to barriers.

A similar disagreement on what role the Berlin Wall played in history featured during this year's commemorations. Norbert Polster, a 37-year-old East Berlin native recalled that his mother 'cried for hours when the wall fell'. Her wall was her belief, a construction of ideology that was a reassurance.

Little surprise then at the results of a survey reported in the Berliner Zeitung showing that one in five East Berliners, who make more than a third of all Berliners, felt the building of the wall was justified.

In building such a structure, Israel was facing a host of issues as complex as those facing East Germany, if not more so. It was enacting a doubly negative policy.

In one sense the state enclosed the Palestinians through what the International Court of Justice termed in 2004 to be a de facto annexation. But Israelis were also sealing themselves off not merely from potential suicide bombers but Palestinians in general. A wall of concrete and razor wire often begins as a wall of the mind, an idea that spawns awful progeny.

The Berlin parallels have also appeared to the north of Israel. In the town of Ghajar, which lies in the border drawn between Israel and Lebanon, Israelis haven taken moves that supposedly follow the Berlin formula, retaining soldiers in the southern part, and keeping the city divided. Deputy Director of the village council Ahmed Khatib drew the lines with starkness. 'Civilised Europe destroyed the Berlin wall. Now it will be rebuilt in Ghajar.'

While Israelis and Palestinians continue to struggle with current narratives of security and separation over an all too genuine barrier, the memory of the Berlin Wall has become a classic case of how capitalism can assimilate all forms of life, including the cruel and grotesque. The eastern part of Berlin is becoming a horror theme park, a place where memory is up for sale.

André Prager, for one, has established 'Trabi Safaris', where tourists in Berlin traverse the route of the old wall: 'Discover the last relics of real-life socialism.' Vegas meets a trivialised terror on the strip. Memory here is not merely desensitised — any trace of a sting is removed.

Not that Prager cares, having himself inverted the meaning of the Trabi. 'The Trabi isn't a symbol of oppression', but rather, the object of a simpler world.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Berlin Wall, Gaza Strip, Israel, Palestine



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Existing comments

Having gone through all the Gymnstics of "Theology Think", exactly what has Binoy Kampmark said that is intelligible to average man in the street? Does his verbal gymnstics have any relevance in the reality of the "Real World?" Would he utter the same words when another human, indoctrinated and dedicated to his death, was slicing his throat with a blunt knife in an orgy of hate? I think not.

Josh Poznanski | 22 August 2011  

There is absolutely nothing “romantic” about the murderous Nazi, Fascist or Communist regimes in Europe. Mass killing, mass imprisonment and total control by these regimes are the darkest days of human history. In Germany, out of the ashes of these regimes, we have seen the development of one of the strongest and most open democratic Governments in the world. Brutal dictatorships can only develop if “political correctness” remains unchallenged.

Beat Odermatt | 22 August 2011  

I found this morning's publication particularly relevant to some of the basic borderland concepts(would be great for anyone doing projects on Berlin or Israel).

Kim | 22 August 2011  

Whether we admit it openly or not, we all accept barriers to some degree.
We have 'fences' - not necessarily physical - around our homes.
Australia has the natural 'wall' of oceans. And most countries have border controls and immigration laws.
The problem is easy to solve in words but difficult in practice: the aim should be fairness and getting the balance right.

Bob Corcoran | 22 August 2011  

I found this article thoughtful and educational. I had not considered the role different barriers play in different regions both physically and in terms of their long lasting effects on people's mindsets. I find Binoy's article highly relevant to us as we navigate the contentious issue of detention centres in Australia and it reminds us that we can try and learn from past tragedies by taking note of his point that 'A wall of concrete and razor wire often begins as a wall of the mind, an idea that spawns awful progeny'.

Lizzy | 22 August 2011  

Thanks to Binoy for this thoughtful article. I was really taken with his idea of the possible "awful progeny" of barriers between people.

Christine Wood | 22 August 2011  

Binoy is quite right. The fence/wall dividing Israelis and Palestinians should be torn down forthwith and Israel should issue an open invitation to anyone to enter its territories and murder anyone of its citizens that the murderer feels inclined to. No penalty, of course, will be inflicted in the name of complete human freedom.

Saul | 22 August 2011  

I have to admit the wall built by Israel is an ugly affair. But it is very hard to argue against success as the wall has stopped bombers entering Israel and detonating themselves in public - which is what the wall was supposed to do.

Bill Spence | 24 August 2011  

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