Dublin’s Jewish lord mayor recalls meeting Zionist leaders

Ben Briscoe reminisces about meeting his father’s old comrade Menachem Begin, and his Jewish roots.

 BEN BRISCOE, Dublin’s second Jewish mayor, today 88. (photo credit: Carol Briscoe)
BEN BRISCOE, Dublin’s second Jewish mayor, today 88.
(photo credit: Carol Briscoe)

Irish politician Ben Briscoe, 88, recalls visiting Israel in 1974, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, and having quite the memorable meeting with Yitzhak Rabin.

And both his Jewish background, and his father’s role in the Irgun as a former IRA arms smuggler who was involved in Israel’s founding, came up during an encounter with Menachem Begin, after the Likud had just come to power in the 1977 election. 

His father Robert taught Israeli founders Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky how to fight the British, using the tactics he had learned from the Irish struggle (1919-1921). Later, he went on to become a politician and was elected Dublin’s first Jewish lord mayor in 1956.

Ben followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a politician as well. He became a Teachta Dála (TD), the equivalent of an MK or MP, representing South-Central Dublin in 1965; in 1988 he too was elected Dublin’s lord mayor, continuing Robert’s legacy. 

In 1974, Ben went to Israel with a group of European parliamentarians. “The majority were non-Jews who simply wanted to stand in solidarity in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War,” he said. 

 ROBERT BRISCOE (C) with US president John F. Kennedy (L) in New York, 1962. (credit: JFK Library/public domain) ROBERT BRISCOE (C) with US president John F. Kennedy (L) in New York, 1962. (credit: JFK Library/public domain)

Briscoe, in an interview with the Magazine, vividly recalls meeting then-prime minister Rabin: “The handshake that Rabin gave me was very cold, almost like a dead fish. And he didn’t even look me in the eye.”

He chuckled, “I remembered how a few years prior, US president John F. Kennedy taught me how to give a handshake. We met during his visit to Ireland and he grabbed my hand with confidence. Also, unlike Rabin, he looked me in the eye. JFK and I only met for seven seconds, but that handshake made quite an impression.” 

Begin, in stark contrast to Rabin, saw him and boomed “Briscoe,” as he gave “a big hug” in delight to see the son of an old friend from his years in Irgun. 

BEGIN ULTIMATELY disbanded the militia in 1949, reportedly on the advice of Robert Briscoe, because the latter felt that having multiple armed groups could ultimately lead to a civil war among the Jews. 

Briscoe described how Irish independence legend Michael Collins (who died in 1922 after violence among fellow Irish groups) used to call his father “My Jew-man,” as the senior Briscoe worked closely with him as a top gunrunner. 

This firsthand experience gave Robert an insight into what to avoid in the nation-building process, qualifying him to advise the Israeli premier – making him a significant figure in both Israel and Ireland’s founding.

Ben noted, “Many colonies the British left behind [such as Sri Lanka, Iraq, Burma and Sudan] eventually saw violent civil wars after decolonization. My father had the foresight to ensure this did not happen in Israel. Begin heeded this important advice... and it seems his legacy was long-lasting.” 

The octogenarian explained, “Likud has been in power since 1974 and every prime minister since has been either a member of Likud, a former Likudnik, or a coalition partner. This includes current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the longest-serving holder of that office, Benjamin Netanyahu.”

He also revealed that his father was acquainted with Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, when the latter was Jabotinsky’s secretary. 

Briscoe said that when he heard the news about Begin being elected prime minister in 1977, he promptly wrote a letter to congratulate his father’s old comrade on his victory. 

BORN IN Dublin in 1934, Briscoe recalled that during World War II, at his school, St. Andrew’s College, the non-Jews would “round-up” and lock the Jewish kids in the bathroom, mimicking the Nazis. 

“So, they knew what was happening in Europe because either their parents told them about it or they had heard about it on the news,” he said. 

His father lamented losing many relatives in Europe whom he could not save. The Holocaust impacted the family, who were of Lithuanian Jewish origin, as it did many Irish-Jews, even if the country wasn’t directly affected by the war.

Today, Ben enjoys his quiet retirement in the Irish capital. ■