Mock border fence rattles UA campus; Israeli-Palestinian section provocative

Max Rusinov, UA Hillel Israel Fellow, points to information about suicide bombings prevented by the Israeli-Palestinian border fence, posted on the mock border fence on the UA campus, March 23. (Sheila Wilensky)

If there’s a difference between the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the one dividing Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, you might not have known it by looking at the nearly 1,000-foot mock border fence on the University of Arizona campus last month. The fence was erected by student members of the group No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths as part of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ immigration week that took place from March 21 to 30.

“The U.S.-Mexican wall is about illegal immigrants trying to get into the U.S.,” said Max Rusinov, 25, the Israel fellow at the UA Hillel Foundation. “In Israel — only 10 percent is a wall and 90 percent a fence — it’s to protect Israeli citizens from suicide bombers.” The Israeli fence works, he said, noting that the Israel Defense Forces have been successful in deterring many attacks since it was built in 2002.

The mock fence, which stood on the UA campus from March 21 to 30, was primarily symbolic of the wall separating the United States and Mexico. The small section devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian fence was maintained by members of the UA chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths, and Students for Justice in Palestine. Their aim was “to spotlight the lethal effects of U.S. militarization, immigration and border enforcement policies in Arizona, the United States, and Israeli-occupied Palestine,” according to a JVP press release.

“U.S. defense contracts support Israel more than any other state in the United States or any public expenditures,” said Gabriel Matthew Schivone, JVP coordinator and a Chicano-Jewish undergraduate who is studying English. He noted that the UA JVP group has “six to 12 organizers,” and about 50 Facebook fans.

“First and foremost, U.S. policy is paying for both walls because,” he told the AJP, “we have $2 billion in contracts with Israel’s Elbit Systems, the largest security system [manufacturer] in the world,” which has provided the expertise for both walls.

On the contrary, said Rusinov, “U.S. foreign aid goes to the Israeli government and they decide what to do with it. If Israel bought some technology from [a French company] rather than the U.S. no one would be talking about it.” Besides, he said, “there’s a border fence in Finland and a bunch of fences in South America to protect those countries from drug dealers.”

Talking about Israel is “a hot topic,” said Rusinov. “I understand why Palestinians are talking about it. It’s a way to find more money to support Palestinian causes. It’s part of anti-Semitic activities such as the president of Iran saying that Israel must be destroyed, Jews must be killed.” He noted that the rhetoric includes, “Israel is a small evil. The United States is a big evil.”

In addition to protesting corporate profit involvement, said Schivone, “it’s legitimate to protest the violations of the United States according to international law, the United Nations and human rights groups like Amnesty International.”

The mock fence on campus “doesn’t make any sense,” said Michelle Blumenberg, UA Hillel executive director. She pointed out that the SBS immigration week focused on Arizona, and included various panels with faculty and community members discussing social justice, law and security, public health, and the economy, as well as films, poetry and music.

The stated purpose of the mock border wall/fence, according to an SBS press release, was “to interrupt the UA campus community’s freedom of movement across the mall in order to dramatize the effects of U.S. immigration and border enforcement policies which dramatically limit access to safe transit across the U.S./Mexico border.”

Lori Harwood, the college’s director of external relations, told the Arizona Daily Star that the fence represented “just one of many viewpoints that are part of immigration week.”

In a joint op-ed published in the March 23 Arizona Daily Wildcat, the JVP and NMM campus groups stated: “We will not stand idly by nor stay silent regarding the enormous suffering being inflicted either in our local deserts and cities, or 10,000 miles away in Israeli-occupied Palestine. The common driving force is U.S. policy, which we can affect with our choices and our will to enact change.”

Combining the U.S.-Mexico and Israeli-Palestinian borders on the mock fence “was nonsensical,” Blumenberg told the AJP after visiting the fence. Plus, “there’s misinformation, dated information. Propaganda on the wall talks about Israel still in Gaza, which is not true,” she said. Another document stated that there are 120 checkpoints at the border that Palestinians have to contend with.

“Max has told [organizers]that’s not true,” said Blumenberg. “Many of the checkpoints have been blocked off. Max was able to put up some statistics that show the outcome of the [Israeli-Palestinian] wall – a decline in violence.” That mock fence section had been put up “without any understanding of the bigger issues or the complexity of the Middle East,” she added.

Meanwhile, UA students had to deal with the obstacle of the fence. On Friday afternoon, March 25, a small group of students were milling around the Israeli-Palestinian section. “Both walls should be torn down,” Ipara Dolan, a 19-year-old Muslim freshman who was born in Kashgar, China, told the AJP. “Walls portray the hatred toward people who are not the same as you. Judaism and Islam are very similar, so this is very sad.”

Another student riding by on her bicycle stopped at the fence. “I think some of the statements are incorrect, like no human is illegal,” said Claire Moty, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in business and marketing, who is in the process of becoming a Jew by choice. “If someone does something illegal they should have to deal with the consequences, but there should be programs set up to help people become legal citizens.”

While Moty saw the mock fence as primarily about U.S.-Mexico border issues, Rusinov remained troubled by the section targeting Israel. In defense of the real Israeli-Palestinian wall, he opined that if anyone launched a bomb at the United States “it probably wouldn’t take more than 20 minutes for the United States to respond.”