What happens — psychologically — when you build a wall

My friend Yaakov and I sat on a low concrete wall in the West Bank, peering into the darkness. When the twin beams of headlights appeared around a hill a few hundred yards away, we would squint. Then Yaakov, whose eyes are better than mine, would call out “Yellow!” or “Green!”

If the call was “Yellow!” — meaning the licence plate was yellow, belonging to an Israeli driver — we would stick our fingers out, waving them to attract the attention of the drivers. When the cars passed without stopping, we let our hands droop to our sides.

If the call was “Green!,” meaning it belonged to a Palestinian driver, we would tense our whole bodies, preparing to roll backward behind the wall to protect ourselves from the threat — real or imagined — of someone shooting at us. There had been several widely-reported incidents in the previous month of drive-by shootings on groups of Israelis at bus stops in Palestinian territory.

Every time a car passed, I let out the breath I had been holding, and one of us would crack a joke. We were 18 and 19, an American Jew and an Israeli Jew hitchhiking back to Jerusalem after Shabbat in the Fall of 2010. The low wall was several hundred yards outside of a fenced-in and guarded Israeli settlement deep within Palestinian territory.

Every green licence plate, every Palestinian vehicle, passing with its driver shrouded in darkness, seemed to us like a potential enemy. We were very stupid and very young, and to our surprise, not a single car took any overt notice of us until an Israeli woman pulled over to give us a ride.

This Election Day in America I’m thinking about that night six years ago, and the fear I felt on the wrong side of a wall.

The Republican presidential nominee launched his campaign with a promise to build a wall along the border between Mexico and the United States. There’s been a lot of writing about the impact of such a “big, beautiful” project on immigration, the economy, and the environment. But I think it’s worth taking the time today to think about what the psychological impact of such an edifice would be.

That Saturday night was not my first or fifth or fifteenth visit to the West Bank. But it was my first time beyond the walls that separate Israeli and Palestinian societies: bulletproof Israeli-only buses, high fences around settlements, and the “separation barrier” between Israel and the Palestinian territories. I had felt like I had stepped onto another planet.

I’m under no illusions that my very limited time in that part of the world offers me deep insight into the experiences of people who spend their lives there. It certainly left me with no more knowledge of Palestinians than I could have picked up in the American news.

But my experience, shared in one form or another by many of the Israelis and Palestinians I’ve spoken with in the years since I was a dumb teenage seminary student, is that whichever side of the wall you come from, the other side is alien territory. And the people there are terrifying.

Yaakov, whose name I’ve changed for this story, grew up in that settlement. He’d never set foot in any of the Palestinian villages nearby. He had never played with the Palestinian children who grew up within a few miles of his home. Those places were as far away to him, and to me, as Australia. But they seemed much more threatening.

My experience of moving through the heavily-armed Israeli bubble on Palestinian land was like a grim game of “The Floor is Lava.” You hop from settlement to settlement to Israel proper, making an effort to never let your feet touch the ground in between.

Palestinians are forced into a far more difficult mirror-image exercise, waiting in lines at checkpoints and travelling along designated roadways so as not to interfere with the perceived safety of the Israeli expansion project.

Walls impact and reshape our minds.

A study published in 2005, which I first spotted in an excellent Tom Vanderbilt essay for The New York Times, looked at the lasting psychological impact of another border — the far simpler Berlin Wall.

In that study, conducted fifteen years after that wall came down in 1990, a group of 83 Germans raised in West Germany guessed the distances between 11 cities on both sides of the former border.

The researchers found that Germans systematically overestimated the distance between cities that had been in opposite halves of the divided country. And it wasn’t an issue of simple ignorance; Germans who opposed reunification overestimated the distances more wildly. The effect was strong even in people too young to have built their mental maps of the world before the Iron Curtain’s fall.

In other words, even once the wall between neighbouring places ceased to exist, people still conjured the divide in their heads. The other side remained far away and, presumably, more difficult to reach.

Would the same effect appear between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, in some distant future where the walls dividing Israelis and Palestinians came down? What about fifteen years after the rise and fall of a border wall between the US and Mexico?

Unfortunately, there does not seem to have been much direct follow-up on the effect uncovered in the 2005 study. (And of course one study alone should never be considered scientific gospel.)

But whether or not we live to see answers to those questions, it seems at least worthwhile to think about what happens to people’s minds when you divide them with concrete.

My experience and impression is that people who have moved through the world almost entirely on one side of such a wall are blinded in a way. There’s a mental block that makes it difficult to account for the full humanity of people on the other side of the giant slab — or even to recognise that you should try. Those people, and their lives, just seem so far away.

It’s a mental model I’ve learned to find terrifying in myself and other people.

I don’t think this idea will surprise anyone really. We all know that the folks next door have fuzzier, less important-seeming lives than those who share our homes, and that we’re most likely to think of them if they have hurt us.

But this Election Day, as Americans vote yay or nay on a candidate who built his campaign on the promise of a new wall, I’ll be thinking about the fear I learned to feel around an older one.

This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.

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