Empty Polemics

Expertise as an architect or planner may not qualify you as an astute political analyst.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to unhinge even the most sober of observers. For Israel’s supporters, Jew and Gentile alike, the Jewish state is a hardy outpost of democracy that flourishes—like the prickly sabra plant from which native-born Israeli Jews take their collective nickname—in the otherwise barbarian environment of the Middle East. For many nonreligious non-Israeli Jews, Israel offers a replacement for the collective bond that was once provided by the synagogue, by Yiddishkeit—Yiddish for Jew-ishness—and by the ethnic coherence that the startlingly high rates of intermarriage among secular American Jews has done so much to undermine. And for many of Israel’s Christian Evangelical admirers, the country’s existence is a theologically ordained and necessary precursor to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the End of Days.

This is heady stuff, but certainly no headier than many of the characteristic views of the pro-Palestinian side, which is mostly grouped on what, for lack of a better term, one would call the “international left” (though today’s progressives tend to emphasize anti-globalization and anti-imperialism rather than class struggle as defining perspectives). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict occupies the central place that Vietnam did in the 1960s and early 1970s, and Central America and South Africa did in the 1980s. It’s the identification of Israel as a so-called apartheid state, quite literally walling itself in and the Palestinians out—and like South Africa, as an indefensible regime in moral terms—that has made the Palestinian cause seem so pressing to so many decent people.

Against the Wall: Israel’s Barrier to Peace—urbanist and critic Michael Sorkin’s collection of essays by various writers on the wall Israel is building around and within the West Bank—is an ardent recapitulation of this position. As Sorkin declares in the first sentence of his introduction, it is “frankly polemical.” But it’s more than that. Despite the polemical value of the apartheid analogy, most critics and opponents of this wall—which the Israeli government calls the “security fence”—have emphasized its particularities. They have rightly pointed out that it represents Israel’s unilateral (and probably illegal under international law) redrawing of its own borders to both cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and to “wall in” the three major blocs of Israeli settlements in the West Bank—something that amounts to a de facto annexation.

A number of contributions to the volume—notably those by Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel, Israeli architect Haim Yacobi, and Palestinian sociologist Sari Hanafi—are written in this vein. But Sorkin’s purpose is wider than that of documenting the separation wall or even offering an indictment of Israeli policy. As he puts it in his introduction, the wall Israel has erected “joins a repertoire of ‘wallings’—from Berlin to Nicosia to Kashmir to the 38th parallel in Korea to the U.S./Mexican border—that is an indelible part of the everyday landscape of the modern world.”

For Sorkin “the truly invidious character of the Israeli wall can only be unpacked” in the larger context of borders meant to keep the poor out, what he calls the “historic spatial arrangements of apartheid” South Africa and the “policing of virtual space.” That Sorkin and his colleagues would be drawn to such an understanding is hardly surprising. A number of the contributors are well-known urbanists, architects, and designers. From their professional perspective, the similarities be-tween these various boundaries may well be what is most striking—doubtless all the more so since, on the evidence of their pieces, all but the Israeli contributors (and, it seems, Sorkin himself, who is far more conciliatory on the subject than many of the others) share a near unanimous hostility not just to current Israeli government policy but to the overall Zionist project. Once one identifies Israel with privilege, American power, and the racist apartheid regime, evenhandedness must seem like a moral solecism.

Emblematically, Against the Wall features a blurb from Noam Chomsky, who praises the book for “placing [the wall] in the context of the global programs to separate wealth and privilege from those outside the innumerable walls that are being erected—some physical, some virtual, all intended to be impermeable, except at the will of the powerful.”

Of course, you’re likely to agree with this proposition only if you already believe Israel to be an apartheid state and divide the world up in a starkly Manichaean way (Chomsky’s forte) between a party of the oppressors and a party of the oppressed. The idea that to be a victim does not necessarily make one an innocent (something one would have thought events in the Middle East demonstrated daily) never appears to occur to the contributors of Against the Wall when they are talking about the Palestinians.

The political and moral simplicity of this view is combined in the book with an extraordinary degree of theoretical abstraction. Sorkin and his colleagues appear to believe that their qualifications as urbanists and architects give them an especially acute way of explicating the wall. But in fact it is politics, not architecture and design, that lies at the heart of their arguments. That’s fine—they’re more than entitled to their views. What they are not entitled to do is to claim, as Sorkin does, that there is a “special connection” between architects and urbanists to the issue of the wall because “the language of the conflict is often that of planning.” Unfortunately, expertise is not insight. The fact that you may be qualified as a geographer emphatically does not qualify you as a political analyst. You may be good at both, but if you are, it will be fortuitous: they’re clearly separate talents.

Indeed some of the political conclusions (not to mention the sweeping historical generalizations) of Sorkin’s contributors make one wonder if actually they are less qualified to speak on nondesign matters. Some of the authors’ confidence in their own judgments about areas far removed from their areas of specialty is breathtaking. For example, Dean MacCannell, professor of environmental design and landscape architecture at UC Davis, appears to believe he is also a military historian and pontificates confidently that Field Marshal Rommel failed to stem the D-Day invasion of France in World War II because “he set his green recruits to building ‘impenetrable’ fortifications along the coast to repulse the Allied invasion.” The fact that a) Eisenhower fooled the Germans about where the landing would be, b) the Allies had complete control of the skies, and c) as any veteran of the landing will tell you, the Germans were anything but “green” does not deter him.

If you’re going to be a prophet, you have to get it right. But most of the contributors here seem to think their speculations have the authority of fact. Mike Davis, for example, does his usual dystopic thing. ” ‘No Border’ activists in Europe,” he writes, are “probably correct” when they argue that “the Orwellian data systems used to track down and de-port non-EU aliens will inevitably be turned against local anti-globalization movements as well.” How does he know this? He certainly offers no proof. And sometimes Sorkin’s contributors write things that are simply beneath contempt. Slovenian writer and postmodern darling Slavoj ?Zi?zek ends his essay with a rhetorical question: “Do we in the West have any right to condemn the excluded when they use any means, inclusive of terror, to fight their exclusion?” What’s next? Conditional support for Osama bin Laden?

In fairness, there is a good book about the separation wall within Against the Wall. But it is far overshadowed by nihilism of the Zizek type and, more frequently, by the aesthetics masquerading as radical politics of most of the contributions. And then there is the question that the book never addresses: Why does Israel’s separation wall arouse such passion when, say, the war in Congo, which has killed more people in the past decade than there are people in the West Bank, provokes almost no outrage in the West—and certainly does not impel distinguished professors to put together collections that publishers like the New Press agree to publish in elegant postmodern formats? Caveat emptor.

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