Forty-leaf clover: Irish immigrants celebrate 4 decades of aliyah

Whatever happens, Gafson does not for one minute regret his decision to live in Israel.

ON HIS 70th birthday. (photo credit: COURTESY MALCOLM GAFSON)
ON HIS 70th birthday.
“When I die,” said James Joyce famously, “Dublin will be written in my heart.” Malcolm Gafson, may he live till 120, echoes those sentiments.
Born in Dublin some three score and ten years ago, he decided at a young age that he wanted to make his life in Israel. Fortuitously he met his Israeli wife-to-be, Leah, in Ireland; she was happy to return home with her new husband.
“Leah is from a Yemenite family,” he says, “and loves strong spicy food. I love strong drinks. It’s a wonderful combination!”
Exactly 40 years ago the young couple and their firstborn made aliyah; they have lived in the Sharon area (first in Herzliya and for many years in Ra’anana) ever since.
Immediately recruited to the IDF, he went on to do 20 years of annual reserve duty attached to a communication field unit as a liaison officer to the Red Cross and then with UN peacekeeping forces along the northern border and Golan Heights, ironically meeting up with Irish troops serving with UNIFIL and UNDOF.
“Although you can take a man out of Dublin,” grins Gafson, “you can’t take the Irish [he pronounces it ‘Oirish’] out of a man.”
Gafson was brought up in a traditional home; he was the head of Bnei Akiva in Dublin as well as the chairman of the Zionist Council of Ireland.
After finishing his studies he joined the large family business supplying exclusive furniture and carpets to movie houses, theaters and hotels and housing projects, but he soon put his money where his mouth was, flew his wife and baby to Tel Aviv, and drove the family car across Europe to join them.
Leah is a special education teacher who today works with the Ra’anana Municipality. Gafson has had a career filled with lucky “offers that I couldn’t refuse.”
First recruited to work on the commercial side of a short-lived but highly hyped English newspaper called The Nation, he was noticed by The Jerusalem Post and soon found himself managing its Tel Aviv bureau, covering news for the coastal and central areas plus advertising and distribution.
“That was great,” he recalls, “and I enjoyed every ‘press for time’ moment.”
One of the accounts he looked after was that of El Al. Eventually, the airline company suggested he join their exclusively licensed publishing house as manager of English media channels for Atmosphere, El Al’s in-flight magazine, and then on-screen program.
“Another ‘reach for the sky’ opportunity,” Gafson smiles, his blue eyes twinkling.
Yet, as integrated as he is in Israel, Ireland is still inked in his heart. For the last decade Gafson has served as the chairman of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League (IIFL), whose main aim is to foster friendship between the peoples of Ireland and Israel. The league is a small but committed group of expats and their families who celebrate Israel/Irish cultural events such as “Pur’Irim – the Lot of the Irish, Saint Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday.
Bloomsday, of course, has become a festive happening all over the literary world; it marks June 16, 1904, when Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s Ulysses, spent his epic walkabout in Dublin. Hard-core fans dress up, crawl from pub to pub holding readings of the classic work, and retrace Bloom’s steps through the streets of Dublin.
In Israel the celebrations are slightly simpler, but Gafson claims that they are no less meaningful. Leopold Bloom was a Jew, of course, and Joyce lived near the Jewish neighborhood of “Little Jerusalem,” basing some of the novel’s characters on actual people he would have met.
According to Gafson the Jewish community in the Republic of Ireland is small but strong; Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, Ireland’s first Chief Rabbi, later became Israel’s first chief rabbi, too. Today the Irish Jewish community numbers around 2,000, a drop from a high of 5,000; a number boosted by many Israelis who live and work mostly in Irish hi-tech today.
“Irish Jews have traditionally been very nationalistic and patriotic,” he explains. “Many of them came from Lithuania – possibly disembarking at Cork which they thought was New York! – where they joined the fight for Irish independence from the British.”
Jews were accepted fully into mainstream Ireland, and flourished there, says Gafson. Robert Biscoe, for example, was the Jewish mayor of Dublin for many years.
Today the IIFL maintains close relationships with the Irish Embassy in Israel, as well as the Israeli Embassy in Ireland. The first resident Irish ambassador arrived here in 1996. The league has always enjoyed a close connection with the embassy here, a warmth that continues today with the present ambassador, Kyle O’Sullivan, his wife, Carol, and their sons.
“In pre-corona times we enjoyed many successful associated events together; I even played the part of Leopold Bloom at the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya,” he smiles, “No doubt we will resume these celebrations as soon as we can.”
Gafson, who calls himself a “political animal,” is a proud active veteran member of the Likud central committee. He previously ran at the top of its list for the Ra’anana Municipality, and although he didn’t get in, he hopes that next time round he will be a candidate for mayor. Ra’anana, he claims, as a city where 20% of the population are immigrants from around the world, should have a new immigrant at the helm. He hopes he will be the man for the job.
Whatever happens, Gafson does not for one minute regret his decision to live in Israel. He and his wife have four children – two boys and two girls – who are all involved in education. They have 11 grandchildren; every member of the family lives in Israel. When his widowed mom turned 80, he brought her to Israel, where “she became rejuvenated and lived happily till 91.”
Gafson himself has just celebrated his 70th birthday, plus 40 years of living in Israel and 10 as chairman of the IIFL, “so I have just reached the traditional blessed number of 120,” he smiles.
With plans to run for office and encourage more dart playing in Israel as well as continuing with all his other family and professional and public interests, including setting up the Friends of Ariel University, he hopes he still has a long way ahead. ■