Jews have been present in the area of Ireland since at least 1079, the first record of them. Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews living in the Republic of Ireland which has a population of 4.5 million. In Dublin, which has a population of 1.2 million, the Orthodox synagogue has a congregation of 100. The historic treatment of Jews by the Irish has been relatively tolerant compared with other European countries. Some Irish political leaders, rebelling against British rule in the early 20th century, even expressed sympathy for the Jewish people and the suffering of Jews in Eastern Europe which they saw as parallel to their own pain.
A few Jews have been active in Irish affairs, particularly Robert Briscoe who, after helping the IRA, later twice became Lord Mayor of Dublin, and his son Ben who also became Lord Mayor. There is presently one Jew, Alan Shatter, a member of Fine Gael the center-right political party, who is a member of Dail Eireann, (Parliament) and who has been Minister for Justice and Equality, and Minister for Defense since 2011.
However, for the most part, Irish eyes have not smiled at Jews in general nor at the State of Israel. The Republic of Ireland was indifferent to the Nazi persecution of Jews and unhelpful to those fleeing Germany. The country restricted Jewish immigration; a notable exception was the action of Eamon De Valera (Taoiseach or head of government) in 1948 when he overruled the Irish Department of Justice and allowed 150 Jewish children to enter the country. Nor has Ireland been very friendly towards the State of Israel. It did not recognize the State of Israel until 1963 and was the last western European country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, an action it finally took in 1996. For at least the last decade no Israeli theatrical, dance, or musical company has been invited to perform in Ireland.
For more than 30 years Ireland has been critical of Israeli policies. In 1980 Brian Lenihan, then foreign minister, issued a statement that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was no longer a terrorist organization, that Yasser Arafat was a moderate, and that the IRA had no involvement with the PLO, all inaccurate assertions. His statement led directly to the Venice Declaration of the European Economic Community of June 1980 calling for acknowledgement of the Palestinian’s right to self-government.
Events and activities in recent years clearly reveal the animosity of Ireland against Israel, to such an extent that it can be considered the European country most critical of Israel. It gave the PLO an office in Dublin in 1989 and later upgraded the Palestine diplomatic mission in the country; it refused in 1995 to criticize Arab and Islamist terrorist attacks as other Europeans had done; it supported the flotilla attempt to reach Gaza on May 31, 2010; it has been the strongest European voice in preventing the European Union (EU) from labeling Hezb’allah a terrorist organization.
More recently, Ireland’s hostility towards Israel has been shown not only in government statements, but also in the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) supportive of Palestinians, in public rallies, and by vandalism. The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), founded in 2001 in Dublin, has been particularly active in mounting anti-Israeli events, including annual “Palestine Awareness” weeks, and particularly in issuing calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Anti-Israeli sentiment extends across important Irish institutions. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland on April 4, 2013 became the first academic union in Europe to endorse a full academic boycott of Israel. Trocaire, an NGO founded in 1973 by the bishops of Ireland, is the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and is concerned with issues of hunger, poverty, and human rights. But it has also been particularly visible for its anti-Israeli activity. It openly gives aid to the Palestinians, campaigns for BDS, and attempted to block Israeli membership in the OECD. In published statements it refers to Israel as the “occupying power” in Gaza.
Two Irish politicians have joined in the BDS campaign. One is Paul Murphy, the Irish Socialist member of the European Parliament, who on February 13, 2013 organized a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Dublin. Ignoring all other current foreign policy issues, the demonstration exhorted “Freedom for Palestine.” One of the speakers was David Cronin, someone who has twice tried to stage a citizen’s arrest of Avigdor Lieberman when he was visiting Brussels in his capacity as Israel’s foreign minister.
A more important event was the press conference in Dublin on May 10, 2013 held by Eamon Gilmore, Irish foreign minister and deputy prime minister (Tanaiste) since 2011, and attended by Jimmy Carter. Gilmore announced that Ireland would embark on a campaign to persuade the European Union to label Israeli products from the West Bank as “settler” products, thus encouraging consumers to boycott them. He made clear his own opinion that the settlements in the West Bank are illegal, and their products should be regarded as such throughout the EU. Not unexpectedly, Jimmy Carter and Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs representative, both known for their critical views of Israel, supported Gilmore’s action.
But Irish society is not monolithic. Some Irish citizens have opposed the anti-Israeli bias. One group is the ICFI (Irish Christian Friends of Israel), founded in the early 1980s of committed Christians, especially evangelicals, to support Israel. Most recently, a group called Irish4Israel, founded in 2010 by a non-Jewish student, and claiming a membership of 2500 on Facebook, has protested the anti-Israeli coverage in the media and the BDS campaign. It has called for “boycott”, not boycott of Israel. Believing correctly that the traditional Irish media is hostile to Israel it is using social networking sites,Facebook and Twitter to counteract anti-Israeli sentiment.
The Irish4Israel group was the victim of bigoted vandalism in April 2013. It had put up seven tourist ads in public places in the city of Cork, urging people to visit Israel. Within 24 hours all of the ads were defaced, and the word “boycott” was substituted for “visit.” No posters promoting tourism in any other country have been defaced.
Irish hostility towards Israel, and indirectly towards Jews, is especially disappointing in light of James Joyce’s creation of the protagonist in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, who is Jewish in heritage. Joyce may not be, as fellow countryman Frank O’Connor once playfully called him “the greatest Jew of all,” but certainly Jewish images are central to the book, arguably the best novel written by an Irish author. Instead of parading their antagonism towards the State of Israel, it would be more rewarding and appropriate for those who are so unrelentingly bigoted against it to join the annual celebration in Dublin of the life of Joyce on Bloomsday, June 16.