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Around the Jewish World Northern Ireland’s Jews Walk a Fine Line in Sectarian Conflict

There’s an old joke told in Northern Ireland about a guy in Belfast who is stopped by a ruffian and asked his religion.

Wanting to avoid trouble all around, he responds, “I’m Jewish.”

Without missing a beat, the ruffian says, “Fine. A Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

Rarely do punch lines highlight such truths. Northern Ireland is a deeply religious country, a rarity in Western Europe. In this nation your church defines you, even if your church happens to be a synagogue, mosque or Buddhist temple.

With much of the coverage of Ulster, as Northern Ireland traditionally is called, focused on the sectarian conflict between the largely pro-London Protestants and the mainly pro-Dublin Catholics, few consider the conflict’s effects on members of the other religions and ethnic groups who live here.

For Ulster’s Jews, good relations with the majority Protestant and minority Catholic communities are a high priority.

“They both think we’re more like them then the other side,” says Shoshana Appleton, an Israeli-born community member and interfaith activist who is married to the president of Northern Ireland’s Jewish community.

“The Catholics say you are an old religion like us, and the Protestants say you’ve got rid of all that Catholic confessional dogma and are similar to us,” she says.

But when, as in Northern Ireland, you’re “either with us or against us,” the Jewish community can find itself in an awkward predicament.

“We have always taken the position that we have no position,” explains Ronnie Appleton, who, along with his presidential post, is vice president of the local branch of the Council of Christians and Jews.

Recently retired as Northern Ireland’s chief grand prosecutor, Appleton knows the importance of maintaining an air of impartiality.

In the Jewish community, he says, “Individuals can say what they like about who they support, but certainly not on behalf of the community.”

As the province’s oldest non-Christian religious group, the Jews have been waiting a long time for the sectarian conflict to end.

Jews have been in Ulster since the 17th century. Mainly concentrated in North Belfast, they built their first synagogue here in the 1860s.

Despite its modest size, the Jewish community here is held in high regard. Among its members have been such illustrious figures as the ex-Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Otto Jaffe, and the sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog.

At its height, in the 1960s, the Jewish community was 16,000 strong. Since then, most Jews have emigrated to mainland Britain, America or Israel, largely due to the “troubles” — the euphemism here for Irish sectarian strife.

Today an estimated 600 Jews live in Ulster, 160 of whom are members of the community’s only synagogue.

“The funny thing is, people think there are more like 3,000 of us in Belfast,” Shoshana Appleton says. “Maybe it’s because we make such a noise.”

The community’s official position on the long-running conflict is neutral, but the Appletons and other Northern Irish Jews admit that community members feel most secure with the pro-London, or Unionist, status quo.

In Ulster, the two sides are identified by their colors: Blue represents Protestant, pro-London Unionists and green stands for pro-Dublin, Catholic Republicans.

A local businessman, Cyril Rosenberg, says, “I’m a true blue Ulsterman. I don’t think it’s because we have a problem with the Republicans. It’s just that Jews tend to go along with the establishment.”

Norman Richardson, secretary of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum, agreed.

“Jewish communities want to be identified with the mainstream society to prove that once they were immigrants but today are no more,” he says. “This being the case, there is a general perception that the Jews are closer to the majority Protestant community.”

For some Protestants, the alliance with Jews has more to do with religious ideology than political expedience. They view their ties to the Jews in the context of religion and history.

“There is a movement in Protestantism that sees the Jewish people as an integral part of the Christian salvation. They believe the second coming is impossible without first the ingathering of the Jews to Israel,” Richardson says.

Many Protestants are Christian Zionists who are members of pro-Israel Christian groups.

“These people are more pro-Israel than we are,” Appleton quips.

Like many, she is somewhat wary of the Christian fundamentalist brand of Zionism, which often is connected to a messianic vision that includes conversion of the Jews.

But many religious Protestants deny they have an evangelical mission eventually to convert Jews.

Billy Logan, a well-known Unionist with moderate views, is head of a Protestant group called the Royal Black Institution, which adheres to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

He says, “I believe from ancient times the Jewish people have a right to a homeland. I fervently support Israel and we consider ourselves true friends of our Jewish neighbors.”

By contrast, the Catholics, as a minority struggling for reunification with the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland, often draw parallels between their struggle and that of the Palestinians.

In a country where colors have the kind of significance usually associated with gang warfare, both Unionists and Republicans have adopted the corresponding banners of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Belfast, each side has flown the flag of its respective Middle East proxy.

The incongruity of the blue-and-white Israeli flag flying alongside the Union Jack and other Loyalist banners — and the green of the Palestinian flag flying alongside the Irish Tricolor — has some Belfast Jews somewhat bemused.

Rabbi Avraham Citron, a U.S. native who recently came to Belfast, says he has mixed feelings about seeing the Israeli flag in town.

“My initial feeling was pride to see the flag, but then logic kicked in and I thought, ‘Why the extra headache of another struggle?’ “

Regina O’Callaghan, chairwoman of the Inter-Faith Forum, says, “I doubt many of those people who put up the flags even know where Israel or Palestine actually is.”

Lately, the flags mostly have disappeared, some by order of the paramilitaries’ leadership and some by the wind and rain that batter this city by the Irish Sea. But they could return with the approach of the so-called “Marching Season,” when both Protestants and Catholics take to the streets in a show of pride — or, many would say, force.

Then Belfast’s Jews, as usual, will have to continue trying to stay out of the way.

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