Why the Irish Take Sides in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Each year, the Berkley Center selects Georgetown juniors who are studying abroad to write blogs on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries. This year the RFP collaborated with the Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN), asking students to comment specifically on issues of religious freedom and religious diversity in their host countries. RFP scholars offered commentary and responses to the students’ observations.

By: Harper Weissburg

So there I was—crouching behind the banister of the upper standing-room-only area until my legs began to tremble from exhaustion. It was a packed house, and I made the mistake of underestimating Irish university students’ interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The university’s Law Society convened a panel to discuss their wonderfully vague topic-of-the-week: “Palestine,” and unsurprisingly, the event’s ambiguity produced a polarizing discourse. Although I predicted Ireland to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than to the Israeli one, the students’ response to the panelists confirmed this was the room’s consensus. Like in most polarizing panels on this topic, the stock pro-Israel panelist conflated anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and the prototypical pro-Palestine panelist accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people. 

Regardless, I couldn’t resist attending and hearing how this conflict manifests in the lives of Irish students compared to their American counterparts. Compared to Georgetown—where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often cast off as being one between political conservatives and liberals—here in Dublin, I found that Irish students align with one side of the conflict over another because of an identity that trumps their political affiliation. 

For many of the Irish I have met, it boils down to solidarity from shared history. Over-simplified: the Protestant British occupied the Irish Catholic just like Jewish Israelis are occupying the Muslim Palestinians, thus the Irish Catholic embrace the Palestinian cause as an echo of their own. More importantly, my intention in sharing this observation is not to make a normative judgment about my Irish classmates, but rather, to help shed light on why and how the Irish people (generally speaking) align with one side over another when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Granted, I didn’t come to Ireland to investigate how and why this conflict is felt differently by the Irish than it is by Americans, but that was the point of comparison I came in with, and it led me to some conversations I will never forget. 

For example, during one of my trips to Belfast, Northern Ireland I had the opportunity to speak with some middle-aged “British” women adorning the Union Jack as skirts and protesting—as they do every Saturday at 2 p.m. These protestors, who self-identify as “British,” gather weekly in front of Ulster City Hall to raise awareness of the fact the government of Northern Ireland removed the Union Jack as their official flag and have been in stalemate conversations ever since regarding whether or not to replace the Union Jack with the tricolor flag of the Republic of Ireland. Consequently, for the last three years, no flag has flown from the top of Ulster City Hall—an absence that’s emblematic of the Northern Irish’s inability to forge a dual identity for themselves. 

One of the protestors, recognizing that I’m American from my accent, tried to make me understand her point of view by comparing the IRA to 9/11 and how flying the tricolor flag would be like flying “Al-Qaeda’s flag” after 9/11. Although I found this analogy somewhat baseless, it shed light on how a “bi-religious/bi-national” state does not alleviate the need to prove one’s self and one’s people. Creating a bi-religious/bi-national state without first reconciling British and Irish identities by making them secondary to a superordinate “Northern Irish” identity leaves the two factions with little more than a compensation complex and a hybrid accent. It was through that conversation that I began to realize how much I take something so simple as a flag for granted. Unlike in both the United States and the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, there are two different peoples living side-by-side whose shared Northern Ireland national identity carries a history marked by conflict rather than cohesion in the face of conflict. Hence why sometimes—in the case of the Irish and the Northern Irish—it’s just easier to pick sides. 

As an American, there is little about my national identity that lends me to believe I will share similar ideologies with the American standing next to me—except, maybe, a mutual hatred for Nickelback. But that aside, I cannot truly understand what it means to have a national identity that binds me so strongly to a shared national history. Maybe as a Jew, but not as an American. The history that connects the Fitzpatricks to the O’Briens through a superordinate identity is one that overwhelms domestic points of contention and surfaces in response to resonating international conflicts. That history is also one that limits the possibility of nuanced discussion on polarizing matters such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I guess that means I’ll just have to come back.

Harper Weissburg is an undergraduate student in the School of Foreign Service majoring in Culture and Politics with a concentration in Political Psychology, class of 2017.

This piece was originally posted on the Junior Year Abroad Network blog on December 9, 2015. It was later republished on February 1, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.