The Irish and the Jewish people share a common history of both suffering cruel persecution and achieving national redemption against immeasurable odds. But today Ireland is one of Europe’s fiercest critics of Israel. The Irish government and prominent Irish NGOs frequently condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and they are pushing a boycott of the Jewish state.
Countering this trend is a small yet passionate contingent of pro-Israel Irish groups seeking to create more positive relations between these similar nations.
“On a national level…Ireland has considered a solution to the conflict in general, and a solution of the Palestinian refugee issue in particular, as one of its top foreign policy priorities in the Middle East,” said Irish-born Professor Rory Miller, who is director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Program at King’s College in London and author of Ireland and the Palestine Question 1948-2004.
Irish-Jewish relations haven’t always been this sour. In the early twentieth century many Irish leaders were sympathetic to the Jews, with the Irish drawing heavily on the two peoples’ historical parallels.
But following Israel’s independence in 1948, Irish sympathies shifted. The Irish no longer viewed Israel as the underdog struggling for its national rights, but instead as a foreign occupier on someone else’s land, similar to the Irish experience with British control over Northern Ireland.
Ireland did not extend recognition to Israel until 1963 and did not establish an embassy in Tel Aviv until 1996. Furthermore, Ireland was one of the first European countries to call for a Palestinian state in 1980 and has insistently focused on the Palestinian refugee issue.
Today, despite its subordinate position within the European Union behind such larger powers as the UK, France and Germany, Ireland has played an outsized role as a voice on matters concerning Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Current Irish Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore has been one of Ireland’s most outspoken critics of Israel. Last month, Gilmore, a member of the left-wing Irish Labor Party, announced that Ireland would embark on a campaign to urge fellow EU states to label Israeli products from the West Bank as “settler” products, and to eventually encourage a boycott.
Ireland’s policies have also targeted Israel on other fronts. In early June, Israeli government officials accused the Irish government of being behind the opposition within the EU to label the military wing of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Ireland’s concerns may be related to the Irish contingent of soldiers within the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the UN peacekeeping mission which patrols southern Lebanon, Hizbullah’s heartland.
Prof. Miller told JNS.org that historical animosity built up between Israel and Ireland over Ireland’s participation in UNIFIL.
“Between 1978 and 2000, over 40,000 Irish troops served in Lebanon, which represented Ireland’s largest-ever military involvement outside its borders,” Miller explained. “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Irish government regularly clashed with Israel over the treatment of Irish UNIFIL troops.”
In addition to the Irish government being harsher on Israel than some of its EU partners, Ireland’s NGOs have been some of the most powerful anti-Israel groups in Europe.
“The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) is the leading organization engaged in the campaign for BDS in Ireland,” said Miller. “In promoting the BDS campaign the IPSC has in many ways been more successful in spreading its message than other similar groups across Europe.”
In early April, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland became the first academic union in Europe to endorse a full academic boycott of Israel.
Despite the dominance of pro-Palestinian groups in Ireland, there are several small pro-Israel Irish groups, such as Irish Christian Friends of Israel (ICFI), that have attempted to change the tone in Ireland concerning the Jewish state.
ICFI, which was founded in the early 1980s, has held several pro-Israel rallies in Ireland and has sponsored fundraising campaigns for Israel, as well as trips to the Jewish state.
“We are Christians from various different churches,” Paddy Monaghan, president of ICFI, told JNS.org.
“If Israel put more money in helping to create and mobilize pro-Israel groups, things could improve,” Monaghan said. “While there is some anti-Semitism within Ireland, especially within Muslim immigrant groups, there is a big middle ground that is open to being persuaded either way. A few years ago we put together a campaign for [former Hamas captive] Gilad Shalit that gained thousands of signatures.”
In addition to its charitable endeavors for Israel, ICFI has launched political campaigns to persuade the Irish government to back off on its support for a boycott of Israel.
“We appeal to [Eamon Gilmore] not to use the last EU Foreign Ministers Council meeting to sponsor the labeling of West Bank settlement products and the subsequent proposed ban on them,” ICFI said in a recent press statement.
Groups like ICFI face an uphill battle. In the spring, a small group called Irish4Israel, which was launched in 2010 by Barry Williams, a student at Ireland’s University College Cork, raised more than $2,000 in 10 days with the help of BlueStar, a pro-Israel advocacy based in San Francisco, to launch a poster campaign in Ireland promoting Israeli tourism. But within 24 hours of being put up, the posters were vandalized.
Despite efforts to boycott Israel, trade between Ireland and Israel has grown significantly. Israel has become one of Ireland’s fastest-growing trade partners, rising from 26th in 2010 to 14th in 2011.
Additionally, both the Irish and Israeli embassies hold a wide variety of cultural events in each other’s countries. Irish musicians and dancers regularly perform in Israel, while the Israeli embassy in Ireland holds many informational events about Israel and shared Irish-Jewish history. One of the most famous personalities in that history was Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was chief rabbi of Ireland’s small Jewish community before becoming Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
But if Israel hopes to once again have Irish eyes smile upon the Jewish state, reaching out to the Irish may require more than state-to-state relations.
“The Arab people and their supporters tend to understand Irish culture better,” said Monaghan. “[The Israelis] often assume that Western people will understand [them] without establishing relationships. But…Israel needs to take the time explain the rightness of its case on a personal level.”
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