Israel’s Separation Barrier: When Something Bad is Good

Sermon delivered June 1, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Last week, I was taken aback by our own Temple’s weekly email announcements. Ironically, what took my breath away was the indication of my own sermon topic! Of course, I knew the subject I had chosen to address tonight, so that didn’t surprise me. I was troubled, though, by the illustration of a portion of Israel’s separation barrier. I did not like seeing that photograph of a high concrete wall.

Please understand: I have been there. I have seen that wall, up close and personal. I have also seen other sections of the separation barrier that look very different. The vast majority of the length of the barrier consists of a series of fences that don’t look nearly as bad as that wall. Fences, even with barbed wire, don’t convey the potential permanence suggested by a wall. Fences, even with frequent military patrols, don’t fully obstruct the view of the land and the people and the trees and the buildings on the other side. Fences, even with sophisticated security cameras, don’t set the world ablaze with anger at our Jewish State.

Geri Gregory, our talented Communications Coordinator, prepares our weekly email announcements. Knowing that my sermon title would be advertised again in this week’s email, I was tempted to ask Geri to replace that photograph for the second week. At a visceral level, I did not like that our own Temple email was publicizing this blight on the Land of Israel, known to others as Palestine.

I did not ask Geri to make the change. The truth be told, the entire separation barrier is as impermeable as that concrete wall. Even though only a small portion is actually a wall, the softer touch of the fences may be more misleading than the wall. People are separated from their trees, from their livelihood, from their communities and from their families. Human beings are suffering on the other side of that barrier. To paraphrase Shakespeare, when they are cut, they bleed.

To many people, the story of the separation barrier is simple.

From the right, we hear about a fence. We are told that the Palestinians are lying in a bed of their own making. In so many ways, I know they are correct. I think back to the days I spent in Jerusalem in March, 2002. The Moment Café was bombed, and scores of innocent Israeli youths killed, just blocks from my hotel. Rabbinic colleagues and their spouses enjoyed an outdoor meal at a popular spot, barely escaping injury when another attack was thwarted. The attacks came almost daily.

From the left, we hear about a wall, symbolizing the harsh repression of the Occupation. We wonder whether they mean the Occupation of Land the Israeli army seized in 1967, protecting its very right to exist. Or do they mean the “occupation” of historic Palestine, the existence of Israel itself?

Whatever they mean, I wonder if we can entirely ignore the argument from the left. Palestinians who used to work in Israel, and make a decent living, now have no source of income. In some places, people live on one side of the barrier, but own property, their only source of livelihood, on the other side. They must wait for hours at checkpoints, after driving significant distances to get there, suffering countless indignities, just to harvest their own olives.

Moreover, the separation barrier may be a de facto demarcation of future borders that Israel hopes to impose. Instead of negotiating, some Israelis may hope to dictate the future with facts on the ground.

Facts mitigate both sides of the argument.

Israel is a democracy. Its government is not a military junta. Palestinians have challenged the placement of the barrier, pleading their cause in Israeli courts. In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that the barrier must be moved, often at significant expense to the Jewish State. The Israeli Supreme Court insists that the placement of the barrier be based exclusively on security needs, and that humanitarian concerns must be taken into account.

Tragically, most of the human beings who are suffering are innocent. Right wing propaganda notwithstanding, “Palestinian” is not a synonym for “terrorist.” “Arab” is not another word for “killer.” Islam is not a terrorist religion. Palestinian Arabs, Christians as well as Muslims, worship the same God that we serve, however differently. The vast majority of them want what we want: a land to call their own, peace and tranquility.

On the other hand, the Palestinian people have failed to govern themselves adequately. Given the opportunity to rule over most of the territory that Israel occupied after the Six Day War, Palestinians have elected a government led by Hamas, nothing other than a terrorist organization. Most voters chose Hamas, not because they favor terror, but because the previous ruling party, Fatah, is notoriously corrupt, and failed miserably to improve the lives of the Palestinian people. Whatever their motivations, though, the Palestinian people put terrorists in charge of their government. A picket fence will not create good neighbors here. No, only a wall or a series of sophisticated fences can adequately protect our people from these most dangerous of bad neighbors.

But is the separation barrier good for Israel? If that photograph troubled me so deeply, imagine its affect on people who don’t share my deep commitment and support for the existence of the Jewish State. That wall looks more like the blight of Berlin than anything else recent history has seen. Surely, Israel does not wish to risk comparison to the East German regime of the Cold War.

Nobody would want that separation barrier on their land. We should all be disturbed that this wall and this series of fences sit on the Land we believe to be the holiest ground on the face of the Earth. At the edges of the sacred city, Jerusalem, the barrier is a wall. Sacred and profane are juxtaposed.

The separation barrier represents one of the most important tenets of our Jewish faith, second only to the affirmation of one God. We Jews affirm that we live in an unredeemed world. Our world is badly in need of repair, so we seek a messianic redemption, requiring our partnership with God.

In this imperfect world, very little is easy and less is simple. The right does not have all the answers, nor does the left. The barrier is blight. Israel has been beset by vile terrorism. The Palestinian authority has done little to stop it. The violence will not end until Israel and the Palestinian people reach a negotiated settlement. We’re not there yet. The world, including Israel, even as a Jewish State, is unredeemed.

Here’s what we do know. In the words of David Horowitz, Editor in Chief of the Jerusalem Post, about 2,500 Israeli men, women and children who are now alive would be dead if the separation barrier had not been constructed. Israeli mothers and fathers no longer kiss their children good-bye in the morning, with the real and present fear that they may not all return safely in the evening.

The wall works. The fence saves lives.

In our unredeemed world, Israel has not found a way to end its occupation of territory that Israel itself does not consider its own. In our unredeemed world, the Palestinian people have not summoned the strength to be partners for peace. In our unredeemed world, a very bad thing – this ugly, forbidding, profanity of a separation barrier – is saving lives. In an imperfect world, that which is bad may also be so necessary as to be good.

We pray for a day when we will have done the work to make the peace that God desires, when humanity will partner with God to build a better future. Until then, for as long as the barrier saves lives, as sad and as terrible and as tragic and as hurtful as it is, that barrier must stand.