AHR Conversation: Walls, Borders, and Boundaries in World History with Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Tamar Herzog, Daniel Jütte, Carl Nightingale, William Rankin and Keren Weitzberg.
Since 2006, the AHR has published nine “Conversations,” each on a subject of interest to a wide range of historians.1 For each the process has been the same: the Editor convenes a group of scholars with an interest in the topic, who, via e-mail over the course of several months, conduct a conversation, which is then lightly edited and footnoted, finally appearing (with one exception) in the December issue. The goal has been to provide readers with a wide-ranging consideration of a topic at a high level of expertise, in which the participants are recruited across several fields and periods. It is the sort of publishing project that this journal is uniquely positioned to undertake.
This year’s topic, “Walls, Borders, and Boundaries in World History,” has an obvious contemporary relevance, most dramatically in the calls to “Build That Wall” that were a shrill trope in the recent U.S. presidential campaign. Beyond this, the specter of building walls, defending borders, and reasserting boundaries haunts political life in many parts of the world, from the wall separating Israel and the Palestinian territories; to the potential redrawing of the boundaries of several nation-states, as regions—Kurdistan in Afghanistan, Catalonia in Spain—attempt to assert their independence; to the oft-heard pleas for borders to be policed or even closed in the face of what seems to be a worldwide refugee crisis. Contemporary public discourse on this subject is usually cast in moral terms: walls are seen as either good or bad; boundaries and borders are viewed either as regrettable obstacles to the virtues of openness and cosmopolitanism or as necessary to keep out things and people deemed undesirable. Our conversation will certainly attend to the contemporary aspects of our topic, but we want to add a historical perspective to thinking about “walls, borders, and boundaries,” while also remaining alert to the methodological and theoretical problems encountered in attempting to make sense of the many different phenomena and experiences evoked by our topic.