At first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel. But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread: two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah. Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity: the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.
“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.
She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it. I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.
It was the summer of 1984, in the midst of “the Troubles,” and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets. An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change. Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED. But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks: elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.
I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals. Each was nursing a pint of Guinness. Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them. The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.
I was half-way through my own pint of ale when the nearest one began chatting me up. “Yootoorin?” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Yootoorin?” he repeated.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“You touring? You traveling around?”
I needed several minutes to adjust to his accent. I never did get used to his indifference to life in a war zone.
“It’s no big deal,” he said with a wave of his hand. “There’s not many bombs going off any more, except on the big anniversaries, and everyone expects it then.” He extracted another snail from its shell, tossed it into his mouth, and chased it down with a swig of Guinness.
“Nobody lets the fighting get in the way of their getting on with life,” my friend continued. “You get used to it, you know?”
I was carried away to captivity in Ireland with so many thousands of persons, as we deserved, because we departed away from the Almighty … [and He] brought upon us the fury of His anger and scattered us among many nations as far as the end of the earth…
So writes St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, echoing the prophecy in Deuteronomy 28 according to which, four centuries earlier, the Children of Israel had been exiled at the beginning of the great Diaspora. Yet Patrick applied it without hesitation to his own time and place, presuming that the right of a nation to reside peacefully in its land depends upon the character and integrity of its people.
My wanderings ultimately led me from Belfast to Jerusalem, where I also found people living amidst violence and without fear. And there, as St. Patrick had done in Ireland, I discovered the ancient lessons of my own people, who have found neither peace with their neighbors nor peace with one another.
Exile, I gradually came to understand, does not require banishment to the ends of the earth. It can happen right at home, and it can take many forms. Indeed, which is the more profound Diaspora: being scattered to distant lands, or living under siege in one’s own home? And if we do find ourselves exiles in our own land, to where can we escape?
Today, the residents of both Israel and Northern Ireland fight among themselves over definitions, over identity, and over direction. In this they are like so many other peoples in this uncertain world, laboring to learn that the only way any of us can find the path leading out of exile is by shouldering the responsibilities of freedom.
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1999.