On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Belfast and Jerusalem: “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall”

On the day a couple weeks ago that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington DC to resume the long-stalled peace process, my wife and I toured Belfast, site of another intractable conflict that long seemed beyond resolution. We learned that—15 years after the “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought a formal end to the conflict setting Protestants versus Catholics—the reality on the ground falls far short of peace, let alone reconciliation, even if it also marks a vast improvement over the warfare and terror that had raged before. One cannot help but ponder the lessons of the Belfast situation for the peacemakers resuming work this week in Jerusalem, and for those who want to support their efforts. I offer the following reflections.

First: separation walls have their uses in promoting peace, but are not always helpful in securing reconciliation. Not having studied the situation in Northern Ireland before our brief visit (and by no means an expert now), I was shocked to come upon a wall, 25 to 40 feet high and half a mile long, dividing a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist neighborhood from a twin Catholic-Nationalist-Republican neighborhood on the other side. It is one of 99 such barriers or buffers in Belfast alone. Houses on the Catholic side abutted directly onto the wall. On the Protestant side, there was a large open area of vacant lots and overgrown weeds between the wall and the nearest houses. I could not get over the sight of a Catholic home, adorned at the front with flowers and satellite dish, with the back windows and patio enclosed by heavy metal fencing. It remains my dominant image of Belfast. No less disturbing was the fact that, with the consent of both sides, gates to the two neighborhoods are locked every night. No one can get in or out: a heavy price to pay for protection from the other, and from oneself.

Our two guides—Issac, a former member of a Protestant paramilitary group, and Tommy, once part of the Official (as opposed to the Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA)—were of course beyond shock at the reality that so upset me. Their depression seemed tempered by full awareness of how much better the present situation is than the one that preceded it. Tommy told us of the time British soldiers caught him in a Protestant neighborhood where he had been visiting his girlfriend, pushed him against a wall, and broke both his hands as a warning never to come back. Between puffs on chain-smoked cigarettes and with understated eloquence, Issac described the brutality and senseless violence of “The Troubles,” including murderous rivalries and killings, Mafia-style, among the various Loyalist militias. Our two guides had much in common, and knew it (a fact driven home to us when we shared a meal after the tour and they both ordered an “Ulster Fry”—ham, eggs, and toast—downed with black coffee and cigarettes).

Issac recounted the moving story of how his imprisoned brother (a member of a Loyalist paramilitary, also named Tommy) one day heard the voice of a childhood friend—in jail for IRA military activity—from an adjoining cell. Both were naked except for blankets, a protest against the British decision to treat them as common prisoners and issue them regulation convict garb, rather than treat them as political prisoners, who are permitted—in accordance with that status—to dress in street clothes. Both had grown long black beards. The two former friends and rival gunmen lay prone on the floor of their cells to talk, taking advantage of a narrow opening at the bottom of the wall. “How did we come to this?” they asked one another. Thus, according to the story, began a major personal breakthrough, and a vow to stop young people from going down the same path. Our two guides, together and separately, now work on conflict resolution with groups from Northern Ireland and other world trouble spots; one such retreat brought Israelis and Palestinians together in Belfast. Only face-to-face, person-to-person relationships, they believe, will move Northern Ireland past its history. “Power sharing” between political factions will not suffice. “Things are never going to change so long as it’s a matter of separating the two communities and dividing spoils between them,” they said.

Lesson number two: symbols matter. One part of the separation wall, on the Protestant side, was adorned with murals and messages devoted to the effort of getting Belfast beyond conflict. A visiting Israeli had scrawled “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” the title of the anthem of the Israeli peace movement. We translated the words, and explained their significance to Issac and Tommy. As uplifting as this stretch of wall was, it was outnumbered by others nearby that bore quite different messages, and by flags and parades that asserted identity and ownership. One cannot stay long in Belfast without encountering Protestant parades of men and boys playing fifes and drums. On the Catholic side, one finds memorial gardens and plaques to people who had died for the cause going back almost a century. Murals are everywhere. One, set in a Nationalist neighborhood, features endorsement of the Palestinian cause, the legacy of cooperation between the IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A prominent Protestant mural has a militant brandishing a machine gun that uncannily remains pointed at the viewer no matter the angle from which it is approached.

Symbols are better than violence, of course, but these don’t seem to be advancing the cause of lasting peace and genuine reconciliation. There are no unifying symbols, to my knowledge: no flag beyond those of the Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack; no days to celebrate or imagine an era beyond hostilities or coexistence, reflecting the lack of any such option at present, real or imagined. Will Israelis and Palestinians one day trade guns for in-your-face marches through East and West Jerusalem? Will we rejoice at the sight of rival flags, appreciating how much better it is than the sight of bombed out pizza parlors and coffee shops? Or will we manage to find rituals and symbols shared by the two sides, expressing interests and convictions that are truly mutual?

Final lesson: there is no one factor that causes the conflict, and no one factor that can resolve it. Again and again, our two guides stressed that “The Troubles” were sectarian rather than religious, by which they meant that the two communities are not divided primarily by faith, but by ethnic identity and sense of nationhood. Religion continues to play its part; however, clergy cannot help but bless and help to maintain conflicting identities, even if they work against violence. Politics continue to be a major factor, whether as contested division of spoils or the basic question of who has the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives. I was struck by the degree to which the conflict seems to have heated up in recent years with the cooling of the Irish economy. The separation walls divide working class neighborhoods from which Catholics and Protestants alike move up and out with educational and economic attainment. Other areas, such as the one around the university, have a far more normal feel. To some extent, the latest installment of “The Troubles” resembles gang warfare in the “’hood.” The sectarian problems of Belfast likely won’t be solved until job opportunities can be provided to a generation of young people who currently lack both employment and hope.

“They have nothing now,” Issac lamented about those on the dole. Once they were fighters and respected for that. Before that, they had steady, decent jobs in industries that have long since moved away. Now they can’t even find anyone to listen to their stories from those days, let alone someone to hire them for honest work. Disappointment at the Good Friday Agreement is fueled, in part, by absence of the promised “peace dividend”: economic benefits to ordinary citizens. Rabble-rousers exploit poverty in Belfast as they do elsewhere, accusing neighborhoods and politicians on the other side of grabbing more than their fair share. Investment dollars matter a lot to the success of peace, our guides agreed—another lesson for Israel; one of which American promoters of an Israeli-Palestinian accord have long been aware.

I left Belfast sobered by the reminder that peace—difficult as it is to achieve—is not an event but a process. One key stage is reached when the two parties put down weapons and agree to resolve all matters henceforth by democratic means. That is hard enough to accomplish—and it is not sufficient. Despite huge differences between the two conflicts of concern to me in this essay, Robert Frost’s warning in the poem “Mending Walls” seems to apply equally in both cases. On the one hand, “Good fences make good neighbors. It’s simplistic to believe one can entirely do without walls in a place like Belfast. But Frost was wise, and not merely sentimental, to note as well: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Do we really need the separation fences once violence ceases? One “ask[s] to know / What I was walling in and walling out / and to whom I was like to give offense / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Peace, for example.


  1. Rabbi Neal Borovitz says:

    Thank you for this powerful message that on this day of renewed talks reminds me that while Shalom remains my hope, sheet may have to come first and when it does it will feel less than sweet. This generation of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland have reached a divorce settlement that lee can all pray will lead the next generation to have an opportunity to live peacefully side by side
    In the spirit of Rabbi Tarfon the goal of true peace for Ireland as well as for Israel and Palestine must remain our goal but maybe we need to realize that it may not be our genration’ s zchut to see it achieved but we must nonetheless work toward it stage by stage Let us pray during this month of Eleul that the Kerry initiative will move the peace process forward.

  2. Rabbi Neal Borovitz says:

    Thank you for this powerful message that on this day of renewed talks reminds me that while Shalom remains my hope, sheket may have to come first and when it does it will feel less than sweet. This generation of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland have reached a divorce settlement that we can all pray will lead the next generation to have an opportunity to live peacefully side by side
    In the spirit of Rabbi Tarfon the goal of true peace for Ireland as well as for Israel and Palestine must remain our goal but maybe we need to realize that it may not be our genration’ s zchut to see it achieved but we must nonetheless work toward it stage by stage Let us pray during this month of Eleul that the Kerry initiative will move the peace process forward.

  3. chuck silberman says:

    Your points are all well-taken and surely interesting. The analogy to the situation in the Middle East is surely appropriate.
    An important difference, however, may be found in the value of life – where the Arabs celbrate the suicide bomber.
    Quoting Golda Meir from years ago…”there cannot be peace until the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Unfortunately those words remain true today.

  4. ML/NJ says:

    The Irish are at least united somewhat by their Christianity. What is there that unites Arabs and Jews? We don’t think the same way at all; and to impart our way of thinking to them is VERY dangerous.

    • Max says:

      In fact, Christianity was one of the things that divided the Irish during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The violence followed sectarian lines, Catholic versus Protestant.

  5. Bruce B Seltzer says:

    Interesting observations.
    During the Second Intifada, I heard Israeli Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld (Hebrew U. Pol Sci and Communication) contrast the role of media and language in peace building in Ireland as opposed to Israel and its neighbors (Protestants and Catholics worked for and could read/watch/listen to the other side’s media as opposed to the Middle East where media tends to inflame tension not promote peace).

  6. Tim Klass says:

    It seems that the situation in Belfast, and by extension in Northern Ireland if not also in the other 26 counties, has regressed considerably from what my wife and I saw in a visit to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2007. My impressions certainly differ from those expressed here, especially concerning the role of religion.
    The intertwined factors of nationalism, politics and culture, I believe, have played a much stronger role in the Irish “troubles” and religion is more significant in Israel. At its core the Irish conflict seems to me essentially grounded in arguments over who is to rule, with religion essentially an overlay. In Israel, I believe, a far more overt and heated religious rhetoric pervades the totality of Jewish-Arab relations. This is not to say Belfast may offers no lessons to Jerusalem, but for me those lessons are likely to be much more limited than we might wish.

  7. Yang Sciscent says:

    Thank you, Chancellor Eisen, for your compassionate observations and reflections! I totally agree with you that true peace work is not an event, but a process that calls for the efforts of the generations to come. Your article prompted me to think that even though conflicts sometimes are more sectarian than religious, as the people of faith we could and should contribute to the peace and harmony in the troubled areas, to say at least. The situation in Jerusalem in my opinion needs more than anything else the inter-religious communication, no matter how seemingly unrealistic and remotely possible, because biblically Jews, Islamists and Christians are in the first place the descendants of Abraham, the Father of Faith. Secondly, within these three great religions there are certain common ground that can be the launch pad of a dialogues.
    Being a student of theology in Catholic tradition, I often come to JTS to listen to lectures or read Torah commentary on the your website. I believe that the faiths we hold respectively should not be the dividers, but the unites that remind us again and again that we are one group(s) among God’s children and we do have brothers and sisters whom we need to truly treat as brothers and sisters, and like ourselves. Our various traditions enrich us in our faith development and strengthen us in the believe of the one almighty God. On this note, I think we need to consciously look at the common heritages of our faith traditions in inter-religious dialogue rather than reiterate the usual stuff we hear: “They are so different”, and definitively have the hope that things that are different now can and will change with the conversion of the hearts under His grace.

  8. Doug Weber says:

    From a distance, it seems that peace, albeit queasy, came to Northern Ireland because both sides simply got tired of attending funerals of their kindergartners blown up by terrorist bombs or shot in retribution. Where do we see any signs at all that the Arabs are weary of their children becoming shadeedi? I just don’t see it, anywhere in the Arab world and certainly not among the inhabitants of the PA territories or Gaza. I’m an optimist by nature and I think Judaism impels us to be, but willful naivete is dangerous. I am very happy (and I’m sure many others are, too) that I don’t call the shots in Israel on security issues.

  9. Zane Alambar says:

    Thanks for sharing. Great factor in the images. Keep up the great work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *