I recently took my first trip to Ireland, a place I’ve long wanted to visit. In the United States, Ireland is something of an industry, a verdant land bearing ancestral secrets and exotic folklore. It’s the country’s less romantic side, though, that has held my interest.
Because of my lifelong concern for Palestine, I’ve always thought of Ireland in the language of contestation and resilience, a place with a lofty presence in the world’s anti-colonial panacea. Images of an emaciated Bobby Sands and guerillas wearing black ski masks are deeply familiar to Palestinians. We hold tightly to memories of the PLO and IRA hobnobbing in Beirut. Ireland’s liberation features significantly in Palestine’s national consciousness.
This view of Ireland is also a romanticization, but not one borne of a desire to exploit. Rather, it informs an eagerness to find places in the world where affirmation needn’t be the result of pleading. The oppressed gravitate toward one another because empathy is a vital element of survival. People tire of explaining themselves; sometimes they simply need to be understood.
Entering the country affirmed the old cliché about first impressions. After a surprisingly quick flight from Washington DC, I waited patiently in the line for passport control, hyperaware of my ethnic markings. When it came my turn, the elderly man behind the counter asked, “Business or pleasure?”
I try to be honest at border crossings. I have no moral problem with lying to authorities, mind you, I just happen to be terrible at it. “Both,” I replied.
“What’s the business part?”
“I’m attending an academic conference at Trinity.”
“Oh, what’s it about?” Here his tone lapsed from formal to conversational.
“Palestine and academic freedom.”
“You don’t say? What was the first country to recognize the Palestinian passport?”
“In recent times?”
“Yes, after Oslo.”
“I don’t know.”
“Japan. [A google search a few hours later appeared to prove him correct.] What year did they sign Oslo?”
I wanted to respond, “What the hell kind of interrogation is this?” Instead I guessed, “1993?”
“That’s right.” He went on to discourse about the failure of diplomacy to secure freedom for Palestinians and to lament the timidity of the European Union. I was enjoying his diatribe, but an impatient line had formed behind me. The agent was too deep into his frustration to notice. Finally, he stamped my passport and handed it over. “I admire what you’re doing,” he offered, smiling, “and wish you the best of luck.”
It was an unusual encounter. At any junction where the state can essentially do whatever it wants, as at points of entry, people who work in Palestine solidarity, or who are actually Palestinian (or Arab or Muslim or Black, i.e., not part of the world’s minuscule population of white people), are accustomed to tension, obstruction, suspicion, aggression, detention, or worse.
Although the encounter was random, it endeared me to the Ireland of my anti-colonial imagination. (My empirical calculations have determined that there’s exactly a zero percent chance of a customs agent in the USA cheerily chitchatting about Palestine.) It also provided a new way of thinking about the drudgery of travel. Although we’ve come to expect hardship in the murky spaces of transit, where everybody is judged without the benefit of civic protections, we needn’t accept the hardship as permanent. Few things better illuminate Palestinian identity than the hassle of being reduced to a set of political essences. But Palestinians have always managed to transcend such reductions.
Why should those who support Palestine’s liberation—motivated by compassion and empathy, loyal to the simple dictum of equal rights—always be made to move in shame, wracked by the anxieties of unbelonging, ever subject to the antipathy of disrepute?
And why should Zionists—advocates of theft and destruction, devoted to an arcane system of racial separation—wander through the world with ease, privy to the luxury of approval?
There’s a simple answer: fealty to state power is repaid in thousands of conveniences. Zionists enjoy the self-assurance of orthodoxy. But that answer tells us nothing of the Palestinian’s condition. It’s not a pleasant reality. The tension apparent in any airport security line owes its existence to the twisted logic of settler colonization, in which aggression is rational and compassion a detriment.
Settler colonization never voluntarily abates, either. It’s a regime that rewards conformity and in turn produces a culture of deference, a burden always present even in absence of governmental dicta. The most banal interactions manage to serve as referenda on the native’s virtue. A simple act of politeness is thus seen as astonishing generosity. A politician’s bare affirmation of humanity becomes a liberatory gesture.
I carried these afflictions into Ireland, as I do wherever I travel (and as many of us do without knowing the extent of our psychic compromises). By the time I was shivering in Dublin’s oceanic air, it occurred to me that the customs agent hadn’t provided special treatment; he was merely treating me with the sort of dignity proffered to anybody seen as human. I am unaccustomed to that kind of normalcy. In the anti-Zionist’s world, venality is routine.
In retrospect, the epiphany seems obvious, but it was suppressed by an acclimation to disrespect and suspicion. Of all the ways to interpret this minor event—strong pro-Palestine sentiment in Ireland, a shift against Israel in world opinion, the mitigating powers of an American passport, a random encounter with a gregarious government employee—the one suggesting an existential conspiracy seems most logical. The everyday debasement of the wretched has a way of heightening sensitivity.
After three days of debate and merriment with scholars and activists from around the world, I managed to learn a practical lesson from my unconventional entrance: change doesn’t always result from a revolutionary episode. It can be an accumulation of hope and trust in everyday interactions.
Crossing borders with dignity might be impossible. After all, national security is coterminous with the invention of foreign threats. As long as we’re stuck with them, though, it’s important to guard against the corruption of our self-image. Borders can determine where we travel, but they shouldn’t dictate where we belong.