Every year on St. Patrick’s Day I revisit these thoughts from 1999. Things have gotten better in Ireland, where both sides have finally recognized that peace requires sacrifice and compromise. Not much has improved in Israel, where leaders on one side continue to oppress their people, holding them hostage as political pawns so they can keep their own hold on power.
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.