Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?

If you have ever been employed in Northern Ireland, you will have come across the following question:

Regardless of whether we practice religion, most of us in Northern Ireland are seen as either Catholic or Protestant. We are therefore asking you to indicate your community background by ticking the appropriate box below.

□ I am a member of the Protestant Community
□ I am a member of the Roman Catholic Community
□ I am a member of neither the Protestant nor Roman Catholic Community

If you do not complete this questionnaire we are encouraged to use the “residuary” method which means we can make a determination on the basis of information on file/application form.

Translation: we know this question is inaccurate and potentially offensive, but we are required by law to ask it anyway. If you refuse to answer, we will make something up.

It is inaccurate is because religion is being used as a proxy for something else, something it is afraid to name. That is why it does not ask if you personally are a Protestant or a Catholic, but whether you come from that-community-which-is-mostly-Protestant or that-community-which-is-mostly-Catholic. These are not names, they are circumlocutions. Replacing “Protestant” and “Catholic” with “Unionist” and “Nationalist” is not an improvement – they do not really want to know what your personal political beliefs are. They want to know which tribe you are from. It would be more straightforward – and honest – to ask the following instead:

What is your ethnic background?

□ Hun
□ Taig
□ Other

The words may be shocking, but they cut to the chase. We are not potential victims of discrimination because of our religion, but because of the ethnic origin that membership of a particular denomination implies. Our personal politics are no defence either – a Hun who professes to be a Republican merely invites increased suspicion from both sides.

The old story of the Belfast rabbi being asked “are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” is well worn, precisely because it contains an important truth. “Protestant” and “Catholic” in this context don’t actually mean Protestant and Catholic. What the questioners are really asking, in an inarticulate way, is “we don’t care what religion you are, are you a Hun or a Taig?” When expressed using blunt language, the absurdities are cast aside and the truth exposed.


4 thoughts on “Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?”

  1. These are random loosely (if at all) connected whimsies to the interesting commentary you have been posting. What’s more after three or four decades I am still unprepared to commit to an identity that’s as polarizing in what is expected.

    Rather than defining terms that get down to two groups, why not broaden the scope and have many terms to tick a box for. A school, a street address and a name will self-identify you in many peoples minds. I wonder why a label is important in any way shape or form and wonder from whose perspective it is important. So what makes a Hun a Hun and a Taig a Taig – could we have a third term for those who move away from the established ethnic identity and call them Lundy’s?

    1. Your reluctance is understandable. It is because you do not conform to other people’s expectations that you feel you cannot share an identity with them. What I am trying to do in this series is decouple politics from ethnicity – just because one is a Hun does not mean that one is (or should be) a Unionist. Lundies are not a separate ethnicity, but merely those who do not conform. If you feel trapped by the limited expectations of others, you should not be pressured into severing all connection to your upbringing.

      One is a Hun or a Taig because one was born into that environment, be it family, school or neighbourhood. In most cases it is all three, and that is why it is sufficiently distinct to be called an ethnicity. It is by definition that part of our identity that we can’t change – we can join whatever church or political party that we like, but we can never alter our past.

      But yes, there should be more tickboxes. I have a future post planned for that. ;-)

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