Walls keep people out. Walls keep people in. Walls are revered – think of the Western or Wailing Wall, the Kotel, in Jerusalem, the remaining structure of the Hebrews’ great temple to their God. What is often forgotten in the reverence for any wall is why it became sacred. As told in the Book of Ezra/Nehemiah in Ezra’s story of the return of the exiles from Babylon under the protection of Cyrus the Great, and as retold by the prophet Nehemiah, the Jerusalem wall was not only an instrument for physical protection but was viewed as a way to separate Jews from gentiles given the rate of intermarriage that Ezra and Nehemiah found upon their return.
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found that, “the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the land…they have taken from their daughters for themselves and for their sons, and mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the land.” (Ezra 9:1-2) This is how chapter 13 of the final book of the Torah ends, in praise of a wall of ethnic and linguistic separation and division.
|1.On that day they read in the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever;
2 because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them; howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.
3 And it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the alien mixture.
For Nehemiah saw that: “(23) the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; (24) and their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.”
Nehemiah, a former assimilated Jew and high official in the Persian imperial administration, returned to the land of Judah for three reasons: 1) to ameliorate the deplorable physical conditions of both Jerusalem and its Jewish community; 2) to provide physical protection from, not only the Ammonites, but also the Samaritans who had not been deported to Babylon and saw themselves as the true heirs of Torah; neither group viewed Jerusalem as the capital. Perhaps most importantly, Nehemiah returned 3) to re-establish the ethnic identity and purity of the heirs of Judah. (Ch. 13)
The building of the wall around the Temple was viewed as a physical, religious arrier and a demographic barrier. Nehemiah “built with one hand, while holding daggers in the other” (Nehemiah 4:11) while resisting what he saw as the challenge of intermarriage to the ethnic purity of the Jewish people. Ironically, the book Ezra/Nehemiah was written in Aramaic; the only other book of scripture not written in Hebrew was the Book of Daniel. Yet, Nehemiah raged against what he insisted was the widespread inability of the children of intermarriages to speak Hebrew.
Is this reminiscent of some contemporary populist nationalist politicians? “We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.” (Viktor Orbán) Can bans on intermarriage be far behind?
Walls are so often symbolic. I know it is almost a cliché, but Robert Frost in Mending Wall is always worth quoting, if only to ensure even more that he is not endorsing the phrase he quotes from his next-door landowner, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
“Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
In Toronto, we built a drywall between our lawn, which is about 30” higher than the street, and the sidewalk. People passing sometimes stop to sit on it. I do not mind, except when they leave their coffee cups behind. Or their bags of dog pooh. That wall does not divide but reinforces. It is not massive like the brick retaining wall that supports the terrace in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Carlton D. Wall House in Plymouth, Michigan, but it is a fortification rather than a separation barrier.
Think of how walls are now denigrated for dividing what people currently believe should be united. Frank Lloyd Wright was a different kind or architectural prophet in introducing the open plan for the modern home in places where functions should be linked rather than separated. In contemporary housing design, we have taken the walls down between our kitchens, our dining rooms and living rooms. What walls do is never unite.
Walls fail to protect all the time, even if at first they appear to do so. I am in Mexico and I am reminded that,
“Hernán Cortés’ men met a wall
of arrows, then turned and ran.
Montezuma’s men met a wall of armor,
wept, then stoned their chief off the wall
for helping the conquistadores.”
The Walls by Ray Gonzalez
The reality is that humans build too many walls and not enough bridges. Haruki Murakami said it well in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009. “We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us — create who we are. It is we who created the system.”
The introduction to Virgil’s great twelve-part epic poem, the Aeneid, that serves as a fictional justification (or condemnation?) of the Roman Empire, ends the verse referring to the “lofty walls of Rome.” Or is it the “walls of lofty Rome,” as the great classicist Daniel Mendelsohn would translate it. If the first, walls were revered in Rome to keep the barbarians out. That is how Hadrian, the emperor who succeeded his cousin, Trajan, read it. Further, he first confirmed to himself that he would be Trajan’s successor by using the Aeneid to predict his fate when he read the line at which he arbitrarily opened the poem, “I recognize that he is the king of Rome.”
In the second century AD, he built the 73 mile Hadrian’s Wall through what would become northern England to keep the Picts, the wild men further north, from invading southward. Hadrian believed in lofty walls, not a lofty Rome, for civilization needed protection from barbarians rather than further extension to spread the sense of law and justice to the rest of the world that so elevated the Roman people. For Hadrian never felt secure either in his personal role, earned by inheritance and good fortune rather than merit, or in the mission of Rome to spread civilization to the rest of the world. Hadrian, believing that his mission had been imposed upon him “by divine instruction” focused on keeping the empire intact.
Walls can be monuments to insecurity, perhaps initially justified, as with the walls that separate Israel from the West Bank, Israel from Gaza and Israel from the Sinai and the threat from terrorists, and, I would add, illegitimately, from refugee claimants from Sudan and Eritrea. The Great Wall of China in the end never kept the Mongol hordes from invading and conquering China. Over six decades in the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan swept into China, crushed the Yuan Dynasty and established the Mongol Empire.
Walls are not only built to keep people out. They are built to keep people in. Think of the Berlin Wall the construction of which started on 13 August 1961 to prevent the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from fleeing to the West. This symbol of the Cold War and of communist oppression was dismantled on 9 November 1889.
Walls are not just physical structures. They serve as barriers to ideas and values that threaten a military order built on sand. Walls surround prisons and concentration camps. Walls restrict freedom of movement physically and mentally. They are not just barriers against the threat of violence, but are ways to keep those outside walls from looking in and observing the coercion, the exploitation, the outright sadism, that goes on behind those walls. (See Shane Bauer’s American Prisons.)
However, not all walls are imposed from without to imprison those within. Some erect walls around their minds to keep new ideas out. These are often the strongest walls, the ones placed within one’s own head and heart. Then you live a life of nostalgia carrying every memory, both small and large, like stones and building blocks in a wall. That wall is stronger than one built of masonry. It is very difficult to breach and often impenetrable. The best that one can do is not butt your head against the wall directly, but rather pull the stones out from the bottom that support the wall.
“Today, we have a true democracy in Iran. Parties, newspapers and the media are free in this country, and all authorities must approach elections with an open mind. The more our mind is open, the readier we will be to prepare the groundwork for the presence of all thoughts, parties and factions.” The latter is a sentiment with which I fully agree. If only the facts on which it was premised were accurate! If only President Hassan Rouhani sincerely meant the words he uttered in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square when he addressed the Iranian people on the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini coup!