Sunday, August 10, 2014

Using our names

"Many Irish Jews," said the Jewish Museum curator to me, "came here by mistake.  They came from Poland and Lithuania, and when the ship captain called out 'Cork,' they thought he said 'New York.'
So they stayed."

I'm not sure about the historic truth of the statement, but it makes a nice story. I've spent the last few days in Ireland and it's been a fascinating experience.  There are countries where we say to American Jewish tourists "don't identify as Americans." There are others where we say, "don't identify publicly as Jews." There are even some countries that love us, and we jokingly tell Canadians and Australians to pretend to be Americans.

Ireland is different.  Warm, kind, friendly. Tolerant and beautiful.
But in Ulster, Northern Ireland, there was something else too. Decades of the "Troubles" have carved a deep chasm in society.  The murals are everywhere, the memorials, the weight of history. I went to the second-most bombed hotel in the world, the Europa (#1 is the Mumbai Hilton).  And I toured the worst areas of sectarian divide, the "Peace Wall," the Orange marching areas, and more.
There are a lot of Palestinian flags draped from windows in the Republican areas. A lot of notices and slogans calling for Palestine to overthrow Israeli rule.

At the Republican museum, amidst Soviet-made weaponry and pro-Palestinian notices. I met with Sean, a big, strong middle-aged Irish Catholic man with a massive tattoo of Che Guevera on his forearm. "Can I take a photo of your tattoo?" I ask him,  "Sure," he said. I was waiting for him to ask me where I'm from - since I was ready to proudly wear my Union Jack/Magen David/Stars and Stripes on my sleeve. Or on a kippah.*

But he didn't.  So I asked him why he had a tattoo of Che on his arm. "Because it's a symbol. It's a symbol of what we stand for in the fight against imperialism, oppression and American colonialism. Because we have to stand up against the British and everything they've done to us. And we have to support the oppressed peoples against tyranny, like the Palestinians standing against the Israelis."

On the one hand, there's a lot there that I would have loved to debate and discuss. On the other hand, five minutes in the middle of a tour group probably won't do it. There was a series of discussions in foreign-policy circles a few years ago about why Irish Republicans support the Palestinians, and why many of the Irish Protestants support Israel. The bottom line was that in the end, you're going to project a lot of your own identity onto anything you read or watch anyway.

On the western hills surrounding Belfast is a huge "Viva Palestina" sign made out of painted white rocks. As we drove back to Dublin that evening our (Irish Catholic) guide pointed the sign to me. "It's not really about the Palestinians at all. Nor about the Israelis," he said. "It's about us. It's our story. We're just using your names."

*someone should totally make these.

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