Comparing the Palestinian and Irish-Catholic Struggles
Photo credit: Flickr/ Carlos ZGZ

No one expected that US President Joe Biden would indirectly praise Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian struggle for freedom during his July 15 visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. After all, Biden has time and again expressed his commitment to Israel’s Zionist project. But during his remarks at the hospital, President Biden gave some measure of rhetorical support to the Palestinians by offering up a comparison between the Irish-Catholic struggle against Great Britain and that of the Palestinians against Israel. Biden quoted a few lines from an Irish poem that he said could equally describe the Palestinians, lines he then expounded upon by saying, “‘Hope and history rhyme.’ It is my prayer that we’re reaching one of those moments where hope and history rhyme.”

While President Biden’s words were perhaps intended to give Palestinians hope in the long term, he dashed most of those hopes when he later met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and remarked as the two men stood side by side that the “ground is not ripe at this moment to restart [Palestinian-Israeli] negotiations.” The question thus remains regarding whether Biden truly meant what he said in comparing the Irish and Palestinian struggles, and if so, whether the moment simply revealed that Biden is incapable of translating what is in his heart into real and actionable policies related to Israel and the Palestinians.

Ultimately, it is difficult to separate Biden the man from Biden the politician, who has a long history of support for Israel, which he put on proud display when he landed in the county to begin his long-delayed first presidential trip to the Middle East. It is therefore unlikely that Biden’s remarks, genuine or not, will change his administration’s approach to Israel and the Palestinian cause. However, it is worth considering the comparison that the president made, which can contribute to a better understanding of the Palestinian struggle, and of solidarity and resistance to colonial power more broadly.

Irish and Palestinian Similarities

There are indeed a number of similarities between the Irish-Catholic struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland and that of the Palestinians against Israel’s settler-colonial Zionist project and its more than half-century-long military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This resemblance is not lost on members of these two populations themselves, as graffiti and signs praising the Palestinian struggle and showing solidarity between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) can be found in cities in Northern Ireland.

In both struggles, a powerful force oppressed local indigenous populations in a clearly racist and paternalistic fashion. Scottish author and activist Chris Bambery, for example, has argued that an attitude of British Protestant supremacy and racism toward Catholics is deeply rooted in British history. And anti-Palestinian racism, meanwhile, is well documented.

Colonial Settlement and Religious Factors

This racism was not limited to discourse, but was also put into action through colonial settlement activities. Just as Scottish immigration was a major problem facing the Irish, Israeli settlers today represent one of the biggest obstacles to the Palestinians’ freedom and liberation from the Israeli military occupation that has worked to safeguard and protect Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law.

The similarity between the two struggles can also be seen in the fact that both the largely working-class IRA and the PLO, which was made up of Palestinian refugees, were essentially disadvantaged groups fighting against powerful elites funded and supported by world powers. Moreover, British Protestant elites played a role in both cases. In 1917, then British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Zionist leader Lionel Walter Rothschild giving the British government’s blessing for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The letter, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, was subsequently incorporated into the Mandate that Britain was granted over Palestine by the League of Nations in 1923, which helped establish the Zionist movement’s—and later the state of Israel’s—supposed “right” to colonize Palestine. Lord Balfour was one of many British Protestants who subscribed to a Christian Zionist ideology that was common in Britain at the time, and that likely influenced his decision to support the Zionist movement.

One element that has increased Catholic support for the struggle of Palestine is the position taken by Catholic leaders in both Palestine and Rome. Pope John Paul II’s 1998 appointment of the first Palestinian Arab bishop, Michel Sabbah, at the outset of the first Palestinian intifada and the support that the Vatican has shown the Palestinian cause can help provide the necessary ideological base for continued Irish-Catholic solidarity with the Palestinians. And in 2015, the Vatican officially recognized the state of Palestine, thereby providing the Palestinian struggle an increasingly visible platform.

Differences Between the Two Causes

While class struggle, solidarity, and the fight against settlement activities unite the Irish and Palestinian causes, some stark differences remain. While intermarriage between Palestinians and Israelis is nearly nonexistent, evidence shows that marriages did occur—though not in large numbers—across the Catholic-Protestant divide in Northern Ireland. Moreover, while mixed marriages in Northern Ireland have risen slightly over time, Israelis and Palestinians are more segregated now than ever.

Freedom of movement and citizenship also mark a major difference between the two struggles. Whereas Irish people living in Northern Ireland are allowed Irish or UK citizenship (or both) and are accorded freedom of movement across borders, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are essentially stateless, and are restricted in their movement and banned from staying overnight in Israel except with special work-related permits.

Whereas Irish people living in Northern Ireland are allowed Irish or UK citizenship (or both) and are accorded freedom of movement across borders, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are essentially stateless.

Linguistic differences also mark the two conflicts. Whereas both the Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish populations speak English—as does the rest of the UK—the fact that Palestinians speak Arabic and Israelis speak Hebrew clearly marks the two groups as distinct from one another. And while Arabic was initially designated an official language upon the founding of Israel, the recently-passed Jewish Nation-State Basic Law revoked this designation, resulting in Arabic gradually being removed from most official Israeli documents.

Other Struggles

The Irish case certainly demonstrates the prospect for further research to determine the extent to which it can serve as a comparative for the liberation of Palestine. But other cases also exist, including that of South Africa under Apartheid. At least six major international human rights organizations and a UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories have affirmed that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid. However, the United States and most European countries refuse this argument and in response simply parrot the false claim that Israel is a democracy.

Given the wave of recognition of Israel as an apartheid state, many are naturally looking at the liberation struggle in South Africa, and specifically how it used the tactic of divestment to force the international community to institute change. The comparison between the South African struggle and the Palestinian one is clearest when one looks at the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has become a major source of irritation for Israel since its founding in 2005. In fact, the movement represents so great a threat to Israel’s system of apartheid, occupation, and colonization that pro-Israel groups have worked to pass anti-BDS laws in the US, and also often—wrongly—attempt to accuse the movement of antisemitism.

In addition, like the leaders of the liberation movement in South Africa, many actors now support a one-state solution as a way to finally end the Israeli occupation. In this model, which is an alternative to the long-advocated two-state solution, all citizens—Palestinian and Israeli—would have equal rights and privileges under one government and one set of laws. While the one-state movement is still in its infancy and enjoys very little support from Israel and its allies, many activists and young people around the globe are increasingly pushing for a one-state solution as the best path forward.

Other struggles have yet to be examined in depth for the lessons they may offer the Palestinian cause. For example, the Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in France and its colonists leaving the country, is looked upon with great favor by many Palestinians. And Algeria is among the most supportive of Arab countries for the Palestinian struggle, having in the past hosted major PLO events and at present taking a lead role in trying to unify diverse Palestinian resistance movements. The 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index—produced by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar—found that a full 94 percent of Algerians believe that the Palestine cause concerns all Arabs, while only 66 percent of Palestinians think so. Additionally, ninety-nine percent of Algerians oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel.

The Importance of Solidarity

Although different models for liberation can help inform the Palestinian struggle, key elements that unite these many successful causes are unity and international solidarity and support. The public support—albeit rhetorical—that President Biden, a devout Catholic, has given to the Palestinian struggle by equating it with the Irish struggle against British rule speaks to the potential value of efforts to build bridges of cooperation and solidarity with American Catholics, alongside many other groups that can potentially throw their weight behind the Palestinian cause. Palestinians can also count on relations with Ireland whose politicians and public have over the years shown a commitment to Palestinian liberation. The Vatican’s support for Palestine and the existence of parallel struggles for justice and peace across the globe are the perfect vehicles through which to build a broad solidarity movement that can finally achieve justice for Palestine.

This article was first published by Arab Center Washington DC, August 18, 2022