October 01, 2006 | JCPA | By Manfred Gerstenfeld
Irish Attitudes Toward Israel
An Interview with Rory Miller
* Violent anti-Semitism is rare in Ireland. Although the Irish government has a strong anti-Israel bias, it cannot be faulted as far as protecting the Jewish community is concerned. Neo-Nazis in Ireland are marginal. Much more of a threat to the Jewish community is the continuous defaming and demonizing of Israel.
* In Irish politics sympathies are very much with the Palestinians. The negative attitude toward Israel is in line with that of the European Union and its belief that Israel was in the wrong when the Second Intifada broke out
* Ireland is a good case study to prove that no matter how bad political relations are these do not necessarily impact negatively on bilateral economic relations. It is also a good case study to demonstrate that however good economic relations are, these do not improve the political relationship.
“If one were to throw a sack of flour over the Irish parliament, it is unlikely that anybody pro-Israeli would become white. Among the 166 members of the Dáil – the Irish parliament’s lower house – and the sixty members of the Senate, not one name springs to mind as a regular defender of Israel. There are either those who do not care or are pro-Palestinians.”
Rory Miller, Irish-born, is a lecturer in Mediterranean studies at King’s College, University of London. In 2005 he published a book titled Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004.
He adds that one has to put this observation in perspective. “Only a handful of parliamentarians would stand up for the United States. These are all government supporters, mainly from the conservative Progressive Democrats.
“If they do so it is predominantly out of economic interest. I could not name seven or eight Irish politicians who would publicly say they are supportive of the war in Iraq. At most they would admit that they are not against it, as Ireland has so much involvement with the United States both on economic matters and in the Northern Ireland peace process.”
Bilateral Economic Relations
Miller explains: “In Irish politics sympathies are very much with the Palestinians. The negative attitude toward Israel is in line with that of the European Union and its belief that Israel was in the wrong when the Second Intifada broke out. Yet Irish politicians are pragmatic. Many believe that Israel has much to offer their country in the economic field and thus think Ireland should not burn its bridges with it. Moreover, Irish politicians would not be willing to break ranks with the EU and adopt a tougher position on Israel than its European partners.
“The trade volume between Ireland and Israel is $700 million a year. Exports and imports are about equal. Ireland is a good case study to prove that no matter how bad political relations are these do not necessarily impact negatively on bilateral economic relations. It is also a good case study to demonstrate that however good economic relations are, these do not improve the political relationship.
“Irish ministers say it is important for Ireland to develop a relationship with Israel in the hi-tech field. The same people will stand up in parliament and say that Israel needs to make concessions, and that the problems in the Middle East are its fault.
“Israeli governments, for decades, have wanted to separate the economic from the political sphere, and have often been successful. Now that the two are separate, this also means that economic developments have no political influence. The EU’s multibillion-dollar trade surplus with Israel has not reduced its political animosity.”
An Artificial Economy
“Ireland has been very successful in attracting overseas investment over the past decade, mainly from the United States. There have been years that it exceeded the U.S. investment in China. Ireland, however, has been unable to create its own entrepreneurs. Neither does it invest significantly in research and development.
“Many Irish do not realize how artificial their national economy is. One can understand that, for instance, from its trade with Israel. Israel mainly imports and exports from subsidiaries of U.S. multinationals that happen to be located in Ireland. Very little derives from indigenous Irish companies.
“American multinationals in pharmaceuticals and other technological areas have invested heavily in Ireland. They employ many Irish workers. If these companies were to expand further in cheaper countries abroad, Irish-Israeli trade would shrink significantly.”
Research and Development
“It is common among Irish politicians, businesspeople, and scientists to say that their country has to learn from Israel. They view the latter as a country with a small population and few natural resources, facing economic challenges similar to those of Ireland. So they claim that their country should follow Israel as far as investment in education and technology is concerned.
“Irish ministers say openly that Israel is a model economy and that from their perspective it offers vast opportunities. From 1995 onward there has been a significant development of R&D cooperation between Ireland and Israel. When Israeli chief scientists or, for instance, biotechnology experts visit Ireland, they are treated professionally and warmly welcomed at the highest level. That continued after the breakdown of the Oslo agreements.
“In these conversations one could not detect any political animosity among senior economic advisers, civil servants, or politicians. I would imagine if one asked these people, once the Israelis had left, who was in the right in the Middle East, most would be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but the political issue is just not a consideration in bilateral economic ties.”
Concerning Irish politics, Miller remarks: “The election of Hamas has had some influence. A small example will illustrate this. The Irish Times is Ireland’s newspaper of record. It does not have the largest circulation but it is the one all politicians and the elites read. Its leanings are close to those of The Guardian in the United Kingdom, although unlike The Guardian it does at least try to offer the Israeli side on some occasions. Moreover, over the years, in the foreign news section, while some of the reporters it uses are deeply critical of Israel to the point of parody, it can lay claim to having published a number of Israelis who are by no means anti-Israeli, including David Horovitz, current editor of the Jerusalem Post.
“When Hamas was elected, for the first time ever, the Irish Times started accepting articles that were very critical of this organization. They were not motivated by Hamas’s radical anti-Israeli attitude but by its antisecular one. To my amazement the paper even published an article of mine on Hamas. Although I have published there often, they have always been more likely to accept pieces from me on the wider Middle East or with an EU angle than on Israel, even though I am a moderate.”
There Miller wrote that:
…in February 1980, Ireland became the first EEC member to call publicly for the inclusion of the PLO in the political process at a time when Arafat’s group not only refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist – that would come grudgingly in 1988 – but was engaged in a relentless campaign of terror against Israeli and Jewish targets across the globe.
More astonishing, successive Irish governments have been prepared to overlook Palestinian terrorism that directly challenged Irish interests. From 1969, when the matter was first raised in the Dáil, it has been widely assumed that the PLO was co-operating with and even training, various IRA factions. During the 1980s the PLO was responsible for numerous attacks on Irish troops serving in Lebanon with the UN.
A Short-Lived Attitude
Miller observes: “The paper’s attitude lasted for perhaps a month. Thereafter it again used articles very negative of Israel. The Irish Times is always an excellent barometer for the mood of the elites, the politicians, the media, and many other prominent people. To be fair, though I often disagree with the Irish Times’s position on the conflict, and I don’t believe they give even nearly sufficient, nuanced coverage of the Israeli position, it is no worse than most liberal, elite newspapers across Europe in that regard. And, to the bewilderment of many of its leftist readers, it does publish conservative columnists like Mark Steyn and Charles Krauthammer from abroad.
“The current tone is that the Irish Times is much more willing to accept that Israel did not have a partner in Yasser Arafat. When he was alive, they never comprehended this. Their new version is that Hamas is not corrupt and is working for the people. The party is transparent and has been democratically elected. What the paper suggests is that in Arafat, Israel did not have an honest partner, but now it does. Many opposition members adopt this position.
“The Irish government does not say the same. Its position can best be summarized as following whatever the EU does. That means that if tomorrow the EU fully embraces Hamas they will do so as well. The EU always leads them. Moral objections are absent in Ireland, at least when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“The Irish parliamentary system is based on proportional representation. Governments are thus always coalition ones. Since 1997 the major nationalist party, Fianna Fail, has headed the government. It holds 78 of the 166 seats in the Dáil. Their coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, have eight. Both are in favor of free trade. Having a capitalist orientation, they are not anti-American and did not join the EU American-bashers over Iraq.
“Although Ireland is a neutral country, many American troops pass through it every year on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan. George Bush is very unpopular in Ireland, like elsewhere in Europe. However, when he was reelected, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said something like: ‘To be honest, in terms of our economic interests, I’d much rather have George Bush in the White House than John Kerry.’
“Ahern explained that the Democratic presidential candidate was opposed to America continuing to outsource. As Ireland makes so much money from this, it was much better that George Bush remained president. For the prime minister it was not a matter of ideology or politics, only of economics.”
Rare Government Support for Israel
“Only rarely does the Irish government come out in Israel’s favor. In 1999, Ahern visited Israel and met Netanyahu. At the press conference he said Netanyahu had told him that with the Palestinians trying to murder Israelis, Israel should not give up land. Ahern said this position made sense to him.
“On other occasions the same Irish government has irrationally backed Arafat to the hilt. The Irish see themselves as anti-colonial victims of partition and ultimately victors over the British. Although this happened many decades ago, their philosophy is still the same. In Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat, and Hamas, they see those who struggle against a colonial ruler. The Irish cannot shake off the belief that Israel is a colonial oppressor while they have much in common with the Palestinians. Analytically speaking, it is easy to show that they have much more in common with Israel than with the Palestinians.
“There are major parallels between their own history of large-scale migration and suffering in response to the Famine and the Penal Laws and that of the Jews under the Russian Czars and later under the Nazis.
Moreover, in 1936 the spiritual leader of the Irish Republic’s Jewish community, the renowned Rabbi Isaac Herzog, left Dublin to take up the post of Chief Rabbi of Palestine, later becoming Israel’s first Chief Rabbi.”
Learning the Same Lessons?
“The Jewish underground fighting the British during the pre-1948 era was modeled on the old IRA – Yitzhak Shamir’s nom de guerre was, after all, ‘Michael,’ after Michael Collins. In the decades after Israel’s birth Irish Jews, like Rabbi Herzog’s sons Chaim (a future president of Israel) and Yaacov (a great scholar and diplomat), as well as others like Max Nurock of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Geoffrey Wigoder (editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica) contributed greatly to Israeli political, diplomatic, and intellectual life.
“As such, Israel always hoped that Ireland would draw on what David Vital, the distinguished Israeli historian, has termed ‘an Irishman’s intuitive understanding of the Jewish-Israeli predicament’ and support it in its struggle for survival and security. As Zvi Gabay, Israel’s first resident ambassador in Dublin, put it, ‘as a small democracy, Israel is guided by the same school of thought that built Ireland. The founding fathers of Ireland and Israel – although they came from different backgrounds – learned the same lessons from the same eternal book, the Bible.’
“At times this did occur. Following the Six Day War of 1967, Ireland’s then foreign minister Frank Aiken, who was highly regarded internationally, worked hard to get the UN to take into account Israeli concerns in its resolutions on the conflict. This led Abba Eban to call on other UN member states to follow the example of his ‘friend’ Aiken. But overall, the Irish have refused to translate the natural kinship that existed between the Irish and the Jews into political support for the Jewish state.
“The main opposition party is Fine Gael, a center party that has always been the main challenger of Fianna Fail. It holds thirty-two seats. The other opposition parties are Labour with twenty-one seats, the Green Party with six, and Sinn Fein with five. There are also fourteen Independents. All these left-wing parties are overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian. Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, is a Marxist party. Its military wing, the IRA, trained with the PLO and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya as well as in other terrorist states.
“The Republican movement in Northern Ireland has in its ranks many ex-IRA members and others who fought the British. They, too, in their newspapers and publicity have expressed much sympathy for the Palestinian struggle. Since entering politics in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein politicians have been among the most outspoken critics of Israel, with Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the party’s International Affairs and Human Rights spokesperson in the Irish parliament, recently describing Israel as ‘one of the most abhorrent and despicable regimes on the planet.'”
No Jewish Parliamentarians
“In the past, there were three Jewish members of parliament who all stood up for Israel, one in each of the three main parties. Ben Briscoe belonged to Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter to Fine Gael, and Mervyn Taylor to Labor. The latter was the first Irish Jew to become a cabinet member when he was appointed labor minister in 1993. He then served as minister for equality and law reform during the two governments of 1993-1994 and 1994-1997.
“In debates on the Middle East when many members of parliament bashed Israel, these three would support it. Two have retired and one lost his seat. So there is nobody who says to the other members of parliament: ‘You can’t discuss the situation in Israel without looking at the suicide bombings.’ One formerly pro-Israeli member of the Senate, David Norris, by now has become anti-Israeli, using terms such as the ‘apartheid wall’ and vehemently condemning the Israeli response to Hizballah in Lebanon in July 2006.”
As an aside, Miller remarks that in Ireland there is better access to parliamentary debates than in any other European country. Every parliamentary session since 1922 is fully available on the web. Miller says this also enables demonstrating in detail how major the distortions are in the Middle East debates. “Everybody can read how the Dail discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without even mentioning suicide bombing.”
An Example of Bias
“One interesting case occurred in 1996 when Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. At that time Europe started to panic because they were afraid that the Oslo process, in which they had invested so much time and effort, would fail. Thereafter the ratification of the Israel- EU trade treaty came up, which also had to be ratified by the parliaments of all member states.
“At the same time the ratification of the treaties with Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia also came up. Ninety-nine percent of the debate was taken up with Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians. Alan Shatter then said that he had listened to the debate, ‘Not just with astonishment but with sadness.’ He noted that the ongoing Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel had hardly been mentioned.”
Miller adds another perspective: “Compared to those of other countries, the Irish government’s official statements about Israel are never extremely abusive. There are no statements like those heard on occasion from Jacques Chirac or Swedish foreign ministers. The Irish will say the usual platitudes that military responses are not the answer to the problem, or that Israel must make concessions so that there will be peace with the Palestinians.
“I have no doubt that if Ireland were faced with the same type of terrorism Israel confronts it would act much more violently to defend itself. On a political level Irish hypocrisy is at par with the rest of Europe. Yet there are no politicians who make a career out of bashing Israel like some in Sweden.”
UNIFIL, a Source of Conflict
“A major issue of conflict between Israel and Ireland was the two countries’ interaction while Irish soldiers were serving in UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. From 1978 to 2000, Ireland’s largest-ever military involvement outside its borders was in Lebanon.
“One has to keep in mind that Ireland is a neutral country with a small army. Over forty thousand Irish troops served in Lebanon, which represented a massive commitment. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Irish regularly called in the Israelis to threaten them and discipline them over the treatment of Irish UNIFIL troops. Ireland’s foreign minister for much of the 1980s, Brian Lenihan, said that most of his sympathy for Israel disappeared when he saw how they treated the Irish soldiers in southern Lebanon, and this was echoed among the various political parties.
“There was a lot of animosity, as would happen on any tense border. There are two sides to this story. The Irish troops were no less guilty of turning a blind eye to Arab violence than any other UN troops. On the other hand, I have spoken with a number of IDF liaison officers who worked with UNIFIL and they all praise the professionalism of their Irish counterparts.”
“In civil society there is a groundswell of nonofficial opinion that sympathizes with the idea of a boycott of Israel. The Irish branch of the International Solidarity Movement, an anti-Israeli organization, is among the most active in the world. In 2004 they handed a petition to the foreign minister with twelve thousand Irish signatures, 275 of elected officials across Europe and fifty of elected officials or public figures in Ireland calling for an economic boycott.
“As Ireland has a population of three and a half million, this is far from insignificant. At that time the leader of the Irish Senate, Mary O’Rourke, said she would support an economic boycott of Israel unless the country improved its treatment of the Palestinians.
“There are other anti-Israeli NGOs such as Christian Aid and the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. These have relatively more support among the population than in other European countries. One might define it as an unthinking, visceral sort of attachment to Palestinian suffering.
“Many people neither understand the facts nor want to know them. Their gut feeling is that an economic boycott is the answer to the Palestinian suffering. Academia as an institution is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian. But while some organized parts of British academia want an official boycott of Israel, there has been no similar move in Ireland. Only a few Irish professors have signed boycott appeals.
“The local Muslim community is small approaching twenty thousand. As Ireland is on the geographical margins of Europe, developments such as radicalization are much slower. The local Muslims are far less extreme than many in Britain, France, or Germany.
“When the Mohammed cartoons appeared in Denmark, a few hundred Muslims marched through the streets of Dublin. Their placards were relatively mild by Muslim standards, carrying texts such as: ‘You must respect the Prophet.’ I have no doubt that in a few years they will carry placards saying, like elsewhere, that people should be killed, or that Europe is dead.
“Since much of Irish Muslims’ funding comes from Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi extremism must be creeping in. The Saudis have subsidized a major mosque and community center in Dublin. The idea is that once the facility is there, more people will use it. Yet while the number of Muslims is increasing fast, as a community they are still finding their feet.
“The Irish government and many others are worried that the country may become a stepping stone for Muslim radicals to mainland Europe. The Irish hope there will not be any major attempts to destabilize Ireland because it is not an important country. Yet it may become a transit base for radicals and terrorists. Once one is in Ireland, one can travel elsewhere in the EU freely.
“The Irish discussion of radical Muslims focuses on money laundering as well as forging documents for use by extremists across Europe. Although until recently the Irish security services were preoccupied with events in Northern Ireland, there has been an attempt to refocus resources to this new threat. As yet, though, the capability needed to deal with the radical Muslim threat is underdeveloped.
“One major fault of much of the Irish population is a sincere belief that their experience of colonial rule and their policy of neutrality makes them morally superior to other countries. Racism is on the rise and is focused on Muslims as well as Indians and the rapidly growing Chinese population. I was recently listening to a radio program on local racism. An Indian rang up and said he had been in Ireland five years, and there had not been a single day at work where he had not been abused for the color of his skin.”
“The Jewish community in Ireland numbers around a thousand. There are also about six hundred Israelis. Many are active in the community; a few, however, are leaders in anti-Israeli activities.
“The Jewish community has a policy of not sticking its neck out. Rarely will it come out on behalf of Israel. Individual members of the community do write to the newspapers or express unhappiness with the situation whereby Israel gets bad press and an unfair hearing in parliament.
“Although, for a large part of the last few decades, the Jews of Ireland have been well represented in parliament, the Jews were always insignificant in Ireland. They were not involved in the politics of the Northern Ireland crisis between Catholics and Protestants, or ‘the Troubles’ as it came to be known. Over the last fifty years there have been some people in the public eye who were anti-Semites. However, they had no effect on Irish Jewish life.”
Judaism, a State Religion
“When Ireland became a republic upon leaving the British Commonwealth in 1949, it was written in the Irish constitution that Judaism was a state religion. It thus had the same rights as Catholicism and Protestantism. The constitution says that whenever there is a state function, for instance for a foreign president, the order of presentations is: the Irish president, the head of the Catholic church, the head of the Protestant church and then the Chief Rabbi.
The Jewish community then numbered four to five thousand. The former Chief Rabbi Herzog was a very good friend of the legendary Irish leader Eamon de Valera and other leading Irish officials. They respected Judaism very much. The Muslims now claim that they are much larger in number than the Jews, and they too want to become a state religion. One cannot much argue with that, except that many do not integrate and they will use this status for their own interests. It is almost inevitable that Islam will eventually replace Judaism as the country’s third religion.
“For over twenty years there were three Jewish members of parliament and only one Protestant one. When one asked how this was possible, the usual answer was that the Catholics, who accounted for 98 percent of the population, had nothing against the Jews. They were, however, opposed to the Protestants who had ruled the country in the past.
“Yet the official Catholic church was a major source of anti-Semitism until deep into the twentieth century. My mother has a very good Catholic friend who used to go to church on Sunday. In sermons, until the 1980s, some priests would talk about how the Jews killed Jesus and in later centuries stole money. My mother’s friend would challenge them. Yet thousands of people heard this every Sunday. Nowadays the Irish Catholic church has lost much of its influence. Few people go to church and hardly anybody joins the priesthood.”
Violent Anti-Semitism Is Rare
Miller says violent anti-Semitism is rare in Ireland.
“In 2005 the main synagogue in Dublin was daubed with swastikas. When that happened the police assigned patrols and plainclothes policemen to investigate the matter. It turned out the graffiti were the work of a loner who believed that Jews caused all the problems of the world.
“Although the Irish government has a strong political anti-Israeli bias, it cannot be faulted as far as protecting the Jewish community is concerned. The current justice minister, Michael McDowell, is one of the most outspoken enemies of the IRA. He has helped stamp out terrorism in Northern Ireland as much as he could. When the Jewish community complained about the graffiti, he received their representatives for an hour. McDowell made it clear that he will not tolerate any anti-Semitism.
“Like everywhere else, there are also neo-Nazis in Ireland, but they are marginal. Much more of a threat to the Jewish community is the continuous defaming and demonizing of Israel. People start to think the Israelis are like Nazis while the Jews in Ireland support them. In this way you create an environment where the Jews become guilty by default. If one does not oppose such a Nazi regime, one must be a fascist as well.
“However, the real problems for the Jews in Ireland come far more from the Left than from the extreme Right. Probably, in the coming years, the Palestinian issue will not be used as a foreign policy issue but rather to push the Muslim agenda in Ireland. That cannot be good for the Jews, and as the Jews are a very small group, people often forget about them.”
Lebanon Crisis, 2006
“Since Israel responded to Hizballah’s kidnapping of two of its soldiers and bombing of its northern communities, the reaction of Irish politicians of all parties, the Irish Times, and pro-Palestinian NGOs in Ireland has largely been predictable. Like most of its EU partners, the Irish government has called for an immediate cease-fire, condemned Israel’s allegedly disproportionate military response, and also appealed to Hizballah to return the kidnapped soldiers and end the shelling of Israeli territory.
“But this understates the wide-ranging anger against Israel across all sectors of society since it began its military operation in Lebanon. Most of the media, and not simply the Irish Times, has been highly critical of the level of force Israel has employed and the losses among Lebanese civilians. Anti-Israeli groups have even called for expelling the Israeli ambassador and closing the Israeli embassy, where there have been several protests and a ‘die-in’ staged by anti- Israeli activists.
“The Irish preoccupation with Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Lebanon has triggered one of the country’s main spikes in anti-Israeli sentiment over the years. As far back as the early 1970s the Irish media condemned Israeli raids against the PLO in Lebanon as disproportionate, and this continued following the 1982 invasion and in 1996 during Operation Grapes of Wrath, when the mistaken Israeli attack on a UN post in Qana killed over a hundred civilians. That sparked an unprecedented outcry among the Irish media, political elite, and public and damaged bilateral relations for months, and current events are following a similar path.”
This project was funded by The Israel Maror Foundation.
1. Rory Miller, “We Dare Not Forget What Hamas Is About,” Irish Times, 13 February 2006.
2. David Vital, A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789-1938 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 296-297, n. 1.
3. Quoted in “The Israeli Connection,” Irish Times, 18 September 1999.
4. Rory Miller, Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005), 168.
About the author,
Dr. Rory Miller was born in Dublin in 1971. He has a BA in history from Trinity College, Dublin, an MA in war studies, and a PhD in Mediterranean studies from King’s College, University of London. He is a senior lecturer in the Mediterranean Studies program there, and teaches on U.S. and EU involvement in the Middle East and the wider Mediterranean. He has published two books, Divided against Zion: Anti-Zionist Opposition to a Jewish State in Palestine, 1945-48 (London: Frank Cass, 2000) and Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005). He is also the associate editor of Israel Affairs.
Dore Gold and Manfred Gerstenfeld, Co-Publishers. Joel Fishman, Editor. Chaya Herskovic, Associate Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.