On Western and other walls

Erecting barriers and building walls to protect us is very much in the news these days. It is also in the daf yomi for the week.

Larry Gordon,

OpEds Larry Gordon
Larry Gordon

Interestingly and fascinatingly enough the Talmud tractate of Baba Basra discusses in part in the daf yomi (daily page of Talmud studied all over the Jewish world) for this week the matter of building walls and who has the obligation to pay for such a necessary and protective wall around a city or a property.   The tractate that we began to once again study about ten days ago is about real estate, properties, partnerships and the inevitable disputes that result.  And wouldn’t you know it and who could have hypothesized that one of the earliest subjects to be tackled is about building walls to protect people and their land and who is required to pay.

In fact as you know, erecting barriers and building walls to protect us is very much in the news these days.  President Trump has been talking about building a wall on this countries southern border with Mexico for quite some time.  More controversial than the pressing need for such a wall to keep out drug dealers and other criminal types is the matter---as addressed by the Talmud in a somewhat different circumstance---the matter of who is going to pay (isn’t that always the problem?)

Last week somehow, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu became embroiled in the US-Mexico diplomatic tug of war when he chimed in that he was in favor of the Trump southern border wall which to put it mildly, incensed Mexican officials.  It all started when President Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News last week that a border wall “is good for the heart of the nation because people want protection and a wall protects. All you have to do is ask Israel,” he said.

Then the President added:  “They [the Israelis] were having a total disaster coming across and [then] they had a wall; it is 99.9% stoppage; a proper wall, not a wall that is this high like they [US border authorities] have right now; they have little toy walls... I am talking about a real wall. And even that, of course, will have people violate it, but we will have people waiting for them when they do.”

Sinai border
Walter Bingham

That was all fine and good until over last weekend Mr. Netanyahu added to the ongoing conflagration by telling a reporter that he agreed with Mr. Trump.  And then it was learned that an Israel company that builds precisely these types of tall impenetrable walls is the frontrunner in the bid to build the wall between the US and Mexico that the cost of such a project can run as much as $10 billion. 

And that wasn’t Israel’s only wall problem this week.  Sixteen members of Israel’s religious parties in the Knesset have offered up legislation that wants to eliminate the possibility that the government will set aside any area at the Western Wall for egalitarian services which in other words means that a section of the Wall will be set aside where Jewish denominations---Conservative and Reform Jews---can hold services that include men and women praying together.

The new law if passed would prevent any religious practices that “offend worshippers at the place.” This means it would continue the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s rabbinical court's sole jurisdiction over the Western Wall.  Violators of the new law would face heavy sanctions including six months in prison and a 10,000 shekel fine.

If this legislation passes it would signal a major defeat for the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.  Even though this struggle and debate has been going on for years with the group Women of the Wall leading the way there is still no organized mixed prayer services at the Wall.  Over the last several years there have been unofficial mixed prayer groups holding services at the upper plaza where many thousands of tourists and locals gather on a daily basis.  The new legislation would outlaw these informal groups of non-Orthodox Jews who prefer a mixed prayer service from doing so on the lower plaza.

Women of the Wall at the Kotel
Hadas Parush/Flash 90

The new bill was initiated by Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party. It was signed not only by all the members of the two haredi parties in the Knesset – Shas and United Torah Judaism – but also by three members of the Likud, Oren Hazan, David Amsalem and Miki Zohar, and by three members of the religious Zionist pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi, Bezalel Smotrich, Motti Yogev and Nissan Smoliansky. 

Another dimension of this Western Wall issue that may be reaching its zenith is that it serves to alienate large numbers of American Jews in particular who do not identify with Orthodox Judaism.  While this overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox American Jews are significant economic supporters of various projects in the state of Israel, this kind of legislation potentially jeopardizes that vital financial support for the Jewish state.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu would like to tip toe around this wall issue, he is not faring much better than he has over the last week with the wall going up someday at the US southern border with Mexico.  The Prime Minister is walking a fine line here as he needs the support of the religious parties in the Knesset but at the same time does not want to insult or offend millions of American Jews and Jews in other countries as well, no doubt.

And Israel’s wall problems did not conclude with the above issues this week.  For some reason the new Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guteres, said last week that in his estimation or his opinion or maybe it’s a matter of history, the ancient Jewish Temple that we know as the Bet Hamikdash once stood on the area above the Western Wall known as the Temple Mount or Har Habayit.

And all this after UNESCO declared both The Temple Mount and the Wall below as Islamic religious sites which was just another way of communicating to the world that today’s Israel is not only a military occupier but also a force and a presence illegally sitting atop Muslim holy sites.  Most reasonable and honest people understand and know well that there is an irrefutable connection between these sites, the city of Jerusalem overall and the Jewish people.  But when we refer to the Palestinian Arabs and their leadership in particular the idea of honesty unfortunately does not enter into the equation.

It’s not a secret that President Trump has an affinity for Bibi Netanyahu and the state of Israel.  The President respects and admires success more than anything else.  When it comes to Israel and for that matter myriad other issues, the President is philosophically the polar opposite of Barrack Obama.  So, therefore, it is not a surprise that while Obama had little else but hostility for Bibi and Israel, the Trump team will represent direct opposite and very warm and cordial feelings.

Which brings us back to the other wall issue right here in the US.  Both sides agree that a wall extended over a more than 1,000 mile border between the US and Mexico will benefit both countries with the point of contention being who is going to pay for the darn thing.  The US needs the wall to stem the tide of illegal migrants who indulge in criminal activities and transport drugs across the border.  Mexico can benefit from the construction if Mr. Trump decides that it will be okay to use Mexican cement for the wall construction as one of the largest cement companies in the world---Cemex---is located just inside Mexico.  It is estimated that over 2.4 million tons of cement will be needed to get the job done.

The Talmud in the first few pages of Baba Basra makes it clear that those who benefit from a wall should be the people who pay for it.  The question is how do you define benefit and if one party benefits more than the other is there a sliding scale for payment and so on. Talmudic logic would seem to indicate that the way out of this silly back and forth between Mr. Trump and President Pena Nieto of Mexico is to just split the cost down the middle.  I don’t know why that has not been offered or suggested yet by any of the parties.

In the meantime Israel continues to do battle about partitions, dividers, barriers and even ancient stone construction that people travel to from around the wall to stand in silent prayer if only for a few moments.  Whether it is the nemesis posed by the women’s group, the UNESCO position on the holy sites, new construction in the Old City of Jerusalem, or the Mexican Presidents and the Talmudic position on who should pay one thing is clear---Israel seems to be over its head with wall to wall headaches, some real and important, others frivolous and imaginary.