“Jerusalem—A new reality” headlined a recent AP story, subtitled “Arab areas of Jerusalem blocked off in Israeli crackdown.” This new Jerusalem strongly reminded me of the old Belfast
I knew from the 1980s, six visits as an academic and writer interested in the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Northern Ireland and Israel share a familiarity with frequent terrorist attacks that make Belfast and Jerusalem virtually twin cities. As Belfast walled off Catholic areas from nearby Protestant neighborhoods, the recent spate of knife attacks has mandated similar separations of Palestinian and Israeli areas in East Jerusalem.
The Ulster Troubles were rekindled by riots in 1969, initiating a three-decade span in which Northern Ireland became a learning laboratory for security experts, including American, on counter-terrorism methods in a modern era of high-yield explosives, car bombs, and deadly sniper attacks. But the similarity of Israel and Ulster in combating terrorism has much older
and richer religious roots that few people know about.
In the early 1600s, King James I dispatched English colonists to Jamestown and Scottish settlers to nearby Ulster—the north of Ireland. These Reformation-era Scots also worshipped with the new King James Version of the Bible which spoke of a “New Jerusalem (which) cometh down out of the heavens” in the End Times.
“The Hebrews of the Old Testament had been like the Scots in their constant warfare, their pride, and their precarious life with dangerous neighbors…Scots saw ‘a very near parallel betwixt Israel and their (Scottish) church, the idea of a people covenanted to God expounded by charismatic preachers, first to the Scots and then to the Scots-Irish people.’ Their delivery was marked with such certainty that many recognized them as the true Israel.”
Living cheek by jowl with a rival population that can metastasize into deadly aggression was as true of the Protestant-Catholic divide in Ulster as it is of today’s Israeli-Palestinian split. And in both cases, the minority side associated with terrorism views the ruling majority as the “dangerous neighbor” guilty of aggression that requires a reaction or response.
This is the inherent nature and psychology of these sectarian stalemates—each side views itself as the right and righteous victim of the other side’s aggression and close-mindedness. And just as the Protestant-majority in Ulster and the Israelis walled off the minority as a peace-keeping measure, in a larger geographic context each majority is itself a minority. Ulster Protestants are only about a seventh of the population on the island of Ireland and the Jewish population in Israel is dwarfed by the surrounding region’s Arab Muslim peoples.
The tit-for-tat retaliation that thrives in such situations occurs all too often. On Jan. 4, 1976, shortly before my family’s first visit to Northern Ireland, five Catholics were killed by loyalist gunmen in the notorious border Bandit Country of south Armagh. The very next day, a van taking millworkers home was stopped by the IRA (Irish Republican Army, operating under an alias). The twelve occupants were lined up and asked their religion. Eleven said Protestant and were shot; the twelfth said Catholic and allowed to walk away. Ten of those shot died, the eleventh man miraculously surviving eighteen bullets.
The deadly and counter-productive nature of sectarian conflict came home to me when
I first read my ancestral cousin’s 1796 letter from County Armagh to his brother in America. “We have great Troubles here between protestants or Orange Boys and Deffenders or papists, several killed in their various scuffels. It has brought Trouble on peaceable people, and the innocent suffer with the guilty.”
And a more distant Scottish cousin, the bard Robert Burns, expressed an egalitarian bond of brotherhood that remains an elusive goal in his poem “A Man’s a Man for A’ That.” “Let us pray..that Man to Man the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.” But right now the Israelis and Palestinians are so close to each other that they remain far, far apart.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus as the University of Florida.