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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 30, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 27

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Don't forget that it's your wall, too

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I came back from Jerusalem with more questions than answers. For instance, whatever happened to make us, as Americans, change our minds about walls? And should we?

The poet Robert Frost posed the dilemma. In one part of his famous poem, "Mending Wall," Frost wrote: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." But in another part of the same work we hear his neighbor muse again and again, "Good fences make good neighbors." Which is it? Do walls keep peace or do they remind us only that down deep we are, nevertheless, secretly, sullenly, at war?

In Israel right now the question is a real one. Israel is building a wall, a 20-foot wall, all around the Palestinian territories. And because we are providing the loans that will complete this more than $1-billion wall, it is our question, too. The important thing to remember is that the question is not a new one for us.

Follow these links to read other columns that Sr. Chittister has written about Israel and Palestine and the group of religious leaders she has traveled with.

Is there an American alive who does not remember or has not heard about Ronald Reagan's ringing challenge to the Soviet Union as he stood on a speaker's platform in Berlin in 1987, his face to the crowd in the piazza, his back to the scarring bulwark that divided that country: "Mr. Gorbachev," he shouted, " tear down this wall." And as the crowd in front of him, separated for years from loved ones and land, roared its approval, the whole world round erupted in agreement.

The wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin offended every human being in the entire Western world, it seemed. It denied every principle of democracy upon which the free world made its major claims for liberty, human rights and equality. It stood like a pustule on the soul of the planet, a sign of enmity and rejection and, in the face of a world newly linked by the glories of technology, an obstacle to the coming of peace. The Berlin Wall was an affront to humanity. The United States of America wanted it down, wanted families reunited, wanted openness between nations, wanted trust to reign where terror had been, wanted Communism and Capitalism, whatever their ideological differences to live in peaceful co-existence.

It was a noble cry. It took years and years of negotiation to achieve the unity the wall made impossible but once politicians really wanted to achieve it, achieve it we did.

The resistance then seemed right to us. It stood out in our minds as a most "American" thing to do. But now, not too many years later, we ourselves are helping to build another wall. Now we must ask ourselves what happened to the idea that walls destroy human unity, make enemies of us all, keep a people in as well as keep intruders out.

The new attempt at this type of national security is a breathtakingly simple one: Israel, stunned by the almost 1,000 deaths inflicted by Palestinian resistance to Israeli control, has begun construction of a 224 mile-long wall whose purpose is to fence 2.5 million Palestinian people into the West Bank to keep suicide bombers out of Israel. To do it, Israel will annex even more Palestinian land and build over the Palestinian aquifer, thus affecting the flow of water into the territory, as well. The wall is more than 20 feet high, surrounded by a moat six feet deep, electrified and fortified by guard towers and cameras. It will be three times the length and twice the height of the Berlin Wall.

To the Israelis, it's nothing but a national border. To the Palestinians, it's a prison.

The only remaining debate is simply whether or not the wall shouldn't also scoop the unauthorized Israeli settlements on the West Bank into Israeli territory as it goes or leave these Israeli citizens themselves behind the wall in Palestinian Territory. This abandonment of Israeli settlements behind the wall would be the greatest irony of them all, perhaps, after years of encroachment designed to make the point that "possession is nine-tenths of the law" -- as in, those who have a thing own it.

Which leaves all of us with the same dilemma. Should George Bush say, "Mr. Sharon, tear down this wall!" Or should the American people provide the money for it as planned? And if he doesn't say anything and if we do put up the money for it, what is the difference between this and the Soviet attempt to separate East and West Germany?

Israelis who support the project say that a wall will enable both peoples to live in peace, give Arab exiles the "right of return" they have insisted on over the years of Israeli occupation and provide clear territorial boundaries for both groups. And there is surely some truth in that. The Palestinians, of course, would lose any hope of regaining their 1967 boundaries and have little enough territory to support themselves now. On the other hand, Palestine would be safe from incursion by the Israeli army and bulldozers and tanks.

Palestinians and Israelis who oppose the project say that it will limit Palestine's trade routes, obstruct their access to the Holy Places in Jerusalem, threaten their water supply, strip them of farmland and olive orchards necessary to their agricultural development as well as take even more territory away from a rapidly growing population. Palestinians see themselves as being punished as a people for the actions of a few, an action in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. They seethe inside, helpless, yes, but more hostile to the present situation than ever.

So, is the wall the beginning of peace or the beginning of the mass imprisonment of a whole people? Do fences really make good neighbors? And how did we ourselves get to be on the side of those who build walls rather than dismantle them?. The question is bigger than either Israel or Palestine alone. It sets precedent for us all. It puts every weaker people at the mercy of more powerful ones who want more to keep them in than to keep them out.

One thing we do know even now: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Someday, whether we like it or not, I have a feeling that, just as in East Germany, this wall will come down.

From where I stand, it looks to me that being on one side or the other of that wall when it falls may well decide the place each of us holds in history -- oppressor or oppressed -- when all of this is over. Or, as Frost puts it again: "Before I built a wall, I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out."

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