The Israeli-Irish troubles

Ireland still views Israel as an occupier and a colonialist entity, according to a Middle East expert.

rory miller 88 (photo credit: )
rory miller 88
(photo credit: )
'If one were to throw a sack of flour over the Irish parliament, it is unlikely that anybody pro-Israeli would get white," says Rory Miller. "Among the 120 members of the D il - the Irish parliament's lower house - and the 100 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 pro-Palestinians." According to Dr. Miller, senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King's College, London, Irish political sympathies have always been firmly with the Palestinians. In February 1980, Ireland became the first EEC (European Economic Community) member to call publicly for the inclusion of the PLO in the political process at a time when Yasser Arafat's group not only refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, but was engaged in a relentless campaign of terror against Israeli and Jewish targets across the globe. More surprisingly, he says, throughout the 1980s successive Irish governments were prepared to overlook PLO terrorism that directly attacked Irish troops serving in Lebanon with the UN. "The Irish see themselves as anticolonial victims of partition and ultimately victors over the British... 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," says Miller. But, he continues, "Analytically speaking, it is easy to show that they have much more in common with Israel than with the Palestinians." Born in Dublin in 1971, Miller holds a BA in history from Trinity College, Dublin, an MA in war studies, and a PhD in Mediterranean studies from King's College, where his lectures focus on US and EU involvement in the Middle East. He has published two books: Divided against Zion: Anti-Zionist Opposition to a Jewish State in Palestine, 1945-48 and more recently Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004. Speaking in a lengthy telephone interview, Miller says Ireland's positions during the recent fighting in Lebanon were, as ever, in line with those of much of the rest of the European Union, including criticism of Israel for perceived excessive use of force, and demands that Hizbullah return the kidnapped soldiers and stop the rocket-fire on Israel. He stresses that, in contrast to some European countries, there are no Irish politicians who make a career out of attacking Israel. But at the root of his overview of Irish-Israel relations - and this interview covers matters such as trade ties and the Irish Muslim community as well as politics and diplomacy - is Miller's sense that a natural affinity should long since have grown up between two countries that share so many significant aspects yet so often find themselves at odds. The Irish Jewish community Although in recent decades the Jews were remarkably well represented in the Irish parliament, Jews were always insignificant in number in Ireland. Even at its most vibrant in 1949, the Jewish community only numbered 4,000-5,000. Today it numbers around 1,500. There are also about 600 Israelis, with the number of Jews who are moving to Ireland for work, particularly to Dublin, increasing. Many are active in the community; a few, however, are leaders in anti-Israeli activities, says Miller. 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. "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," says Miller. 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 the chief rabbi. "For over 20 years there were three Jewish members of parliament... 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," says Miller. "But now 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, has become anti-Israeli, using terms such as the 'apartheid wall' and vehemently condemning the Israeli response to Hizbullah in Lebanon in the last few weeks," says Miller. According to Miller, this anti-Israel sentiment overlooks the fact that the Jews and the Irish have similar histories. "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." Despite this, Miller says that the official Catholic church was a major source of anti-Semitism until deep into the 20th century. In the first decade of the 20th century the Limerick Pogrom, driven by a Catholic priest, caused a number of Jews to flee the city. "Nowadays the Irish Catholic church has lost much of its influence. Few people go to church and hardly anybody joins the priesthood." Miller says modern-day anti-Semitism is rare. "Although the Irish government has a strong political anti-Israeli bias, it cannot be faulted as far as protecting the Jewish community is concerned. "Like everywhere else, there are also neo-Nazis in Ireland, but they are very 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. "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." As for the Jewish community, it has a policy of not sticking its neck out. "Very rarely will it come out on behalf of Israel," says Miller. Irish Politics: Background Fianna Fail has been the ruling party since 1997. The main opposition party in Ireland is Fine Gael, a center party that has always been the main challenger of Fianna Fail. The other opposition parties are Labor, the Green Party, and Sinn Fein. There are also fourteen Independents. All these left-wing parties are overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian. Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, is a Marxist party. The IRA, of which Sinn Fein is widely described as having been the "political wing," 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 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." Irish-Israel history Yet things could have started positively for Irish-Israel relations. 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, recalls Miller. In the decades after Israel's birth Irish Jews, like Rabbi Herzog's sons Chaim (a future president of Israel) and Yaacov (a 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," Miller says. 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 Israel's Abba Eban to call on other UN member states to follow the example of his "friend" Aiken. "But overall," Miller asserts, "the Irish have refused to translate the natural kinship that existed between the Irish and the Jews into political support for the Jewish state." Miller can only think of a few occasions wherein the Irish government has come out in Israel's favor. In 1999, Patrick "Bertie" Ahern, the leader of the ruling Fianna Fail party, visited Israel and met Binyamin Netanyahu. At a 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." 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," Miller notes. "Over 40,000 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. "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." The Irish preoccupation with Israel's perceived 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 Kana killed over a hundred civilians. That sparked an unprecedented outcry among the Irish media, political elite and public and damaged bilateral relations for months. According to Miller, recent current events are following a similar path. Irish-Israel politics today The Irish response to the Lebanon War has been predictable. Like most of its EU partners, the Irish government called for an immediate cease-fire. It condemned Israel's allegedly disproportionate military response, and also appealed to Hizbullah to return the kidnapped soldiers and end the shelling of Israeli territory. However, Miller hastens to add: "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." Looking to the future, Miller says: "The Irish government does not stay 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." Economy The trade volume between Ireland and Israel is $700 million a year, with equal imports and exports. 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. Conversely, it also demonstrates that however good economic relations are, these do not improve the political relationship. "The EU's multibillion-dollar trade surplus with Israel has not reduced its political animosity," says Miller. 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," says Miller. "I would imagine if one asked these people [senior economic advisers, civil servants, politicians] 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. "Irish ministers say openly that Israel is a model economy and that from their perspective it offers vast opportunities." Miller says Israel is viewed as a country with a small population and few natural resources, facing economic challenges similar to those of Ireland. So economists claim that their country should follow Israel as far as investment in education and technology is concerned. "Many Irish do not realize how artificial their national economy is. One can understand that, for instance, from its trade with Israel. Israel is mainly importing and exporting from subsidiaries of US multinationals that happen to be located in Ireland. Very little derives from indigenous Irish companies." According to Miller, American multinationals in pharmaceuticals and other technological areas have invested heavily in Ireland, and they employ many Irish workers. If these companies were to expand further in cheaper countries abroad, Irish-Israeli trade would shrink significantly. Muslims The local Muslim community is small at around 10,000, states Miller. 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. "Since much of Irish Muslims' funding comes from Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi extremism must be creeping in. "The Irish government and many others are worried that the country may become a stepping stone for Muslim radicals to mainland Europe," says Miller. "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 Muslims now claim that they are much larger in number than the Jews, and they too want to become a state religion, adds Miller. "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," he concludes, "that Islam will eventually replace Judaism as the country's third religion." Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman of the Board of Fellows at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.