What To Do With Walls
With their project WACtheWall, four Washington College students presented a central issue in the conflict between Palestine and Israel and asked their fellow students to get involved intellectually and physically.
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.
By their very nature, walls divide. Even Robert Frost, in his iconic poem about mending stone walls in spring, can’t get past this basic truth, though his neighbor repeats to him that “good fences make good neighbors.”
In the case of Israel and Palestine, though, it is fair to say that what is known as the Israeli West Bank barrier has done little to make good neighbors. Built by Israel, ostensibly to protect the country from Palestinian terrorist attacks, the wall will be about 430 miles long when it’s finished. Controversial from its inception in 2000, the barrier has angered Palestinians who argue that it is a form of land grab, and that its presence disrupts their daily lives and economy, even making it hard to get to their jobs or hospitals and schools.
In one picture on Wikipedia, graffiti on the barrier announces in huge, black, block letters “Ich bin ein Berliner”—I am a Berliner—a direct reference to the infamous Berlin Wall that bifurcated East and West Germany after World War II.
Washington College students in a class led by Christine Wade, associate professor of political science and international studies, wanted to raise the question of the Israeli West Bank barrier as part of a project on human rights. So the students—Emma Buchman ’17, Sara Murad ’18, Elizabeth Twigg ’17, and David Weighart ’15—built their own wall on Martha Washington Square and invited their fellow students to write whatever they chose on each side.
Then, with shovels and hammers, they invited students to smash the wall.
Buchman says their aim was to raise awareness among the student body about the wall’s existence, to provoke a conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to acknowledge that both sides bear responsibility for it and suffer for it.
“We wanted to come at it with a neutral point of view,” Buchman says. “One side was to represent the Israeli side, the other was the Palestinian side. We were thinking about the Berlin Wall, and we made the point that not only was the Berlin Wall shorter in length but also shorter in height than the wall in Palestine and Israel. All of us shared the same thing in caring about the people who are affected by this situation.”
From the start, Buchman says the group was concerned about offending people—which could undermine the project’s effort—and their initial ideas were much more conservative.
“I, frankly, tried to talk them into a less controversial topic,” Wade says. “When they insisted on sticking with it I said, ‘Well if you’re that passionate about it, don’t make a mock wall with paper and hide it in the dining hall, build yourselves a real wall and stick it in the middle of campus.’ So they did.”
Over the course of the day, curious students and others stopped to examine the wall, which was built of two-by-fours and drywall. Some of them wrote or drew on it; nearly all of them asked about its purpose, which led to conversations about the conflict. After several hours, the students finally tore down the wall.
Buchman says she knew very little about the West Bank barrier or even the conflict between Israel and Palestine until her classmate Sara Murad presented in class on it. One of the reasons she wanted to do #WACtheWall is because she’s sure other students are as uninformed as she was.
“So many people think ‘Israel-ally, Hamas-terrorists.’ And that’s what I thought, until Sara’s presentation,” Buchman says. “There are always two sides to every argument, and this is not something that is skin deep, and you can’t treat it like it is. It’s never just that, and that’s what we wanted to do, make that point. It’s never just one way or the other.”