Why does Ireland hate Israel? - opinion

Underlying antisemitism is only one part of an explanation of Irish hostility. Viewing the Arab-Israel conflict solely through a distorted lens is another.

 Irish Foreign and Defence Minister Simon Coveney speaks during a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran on February 14, 2022.  (photo credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Irish Foreign and Defence Minister Simon Coveney speaks during a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran on February 14, 2022.
(photo credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Relations between Dublin and Jerusalem are not particularly good. Of all European Union member states, Ireland is probably one of the most critical/hostile toward Israel. And if this changes, it will probably do so only for the worse. Polls show that the adamantly anti-Israel Sinn Féin, currently in the opposition, is likely to increase its representation in the next parliament, boosting the chances of it being part of the government and determining Ireland’s foreign policy.

One might have expected there be a natural friendship between the Republic of Ireland and the State of Israel, both being Western democracies born in not dissimilar struggles for independence.

In the 1940s Yitzhak Shamir, who later became Israel’s seventh prime minister, was a leader of the underground Lehi (the Stern Group) and branded a terrorist by the British. Shamir, inspired by the armed insurrection after the First World War that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, famously chose the name Michael as his nom de guerre after the Irish Republic Army’s Michael Collins.

But it is not just Jews who felt affinity towards the Irish; the feeling was mutual. In March 1945 a writer for Dublin’s influential The Bell magazine wrote about events in Mandatory Palestine: “Never let it be forgotten that the Irish people… have experienced all that the Jewish people in Palestine are suffering from the trained ‘thugs’ ‘gunning tarzans’ and British ‘terrorists’ that the Mandatory power have imposed upon the country.”

In 1950, after Israel’s independence, Ireland’s minister for external affairs, Seán MacBride, wrote to his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Sharett, that “Ireland and Israel are both ancient nations and at the same time new states that have achieved freedom after a long and hard struggle.”

Irish Flag 370 (credit: Reuters)Irish Flag 370 (credit: Reuters)

That same year, twentieth century Ireland’s preeminent republican figure, Eamon de Valera, then leader of the opposition, became one of the first international statesmen to visit the newborn Jewish state, dining in Jerusalem with Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion (at the home of President Herzog’s grandfather).

A cynic could argue that de Valera’s visit was designed to atone for past sins. Under his leadership Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War. Following Hitler’s May 1945 suicide, and after the Allied liberations of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen in April that generated news stories worldwide about the Holocaust, de Valera nonetheless visited the German diplomatic mission in Dublin to offer condolences on the führer’s passing. Ireland’s neutrality did not oblige him to do so.

At the time of de Valera’s Jerusalem visit, Anglo-Israel relations still suffered from the harsh acrimony that characterized the end of the Mandate. Ben-Gurion worried about British military intervention against Israel on behalf of the Arabs, which had already occurred on a small-scale during Israel’s War Independence. De Valera was undoubtedly delighted to embrace a fellow victim of “perfidious Albion.”

Some see the roots of Ireland’s present-day anti-Israel antipathy in traditional Church antisemitism. Catholicism has been an integral part of Irish nationalist identity, and only in the 1960s did the Second Vatican Council formally absolve the Jews of culpability in the crucifixion and its accompanying theologian antisemitism.

OF COURSE, in today’s Ireland the Church has lost much of its previously held clout; referenda passed with large majorities enabling same-sex marriage (2015) and repealing the constitutional ban on abortion (2018). But European experience demonstrates that secularization doesn’t necessarily mean that antisemitism dissipates; this oldest of hatreds merely metamorphoses from a focus on deicide to its more modern manifestations.

A 2014 ADL survey of antisemitism in Ireland found that 52% of the population agreed with the statement that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country,” 30% that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust,” 28% that “Jews have too much power in the business world,” 27% that “Jews think they are better than other people,” 25% that “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind,” and 21% that “Jews have too much control over global affairs.”

In 2021, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the Jewish Agency cosponsored a report on European antisemitism. The chapter on Ireland documented extreme anti-Israel remarks by Irish parliamentarians that reveal clear anti-Jewish bigotry, including using the pejorative “Nazi” when describing the Jewish state, calling for Israel’s destruction, and propagating conspiracy theories such as of the Mossad’s purported responsibility for Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the 2019 UK elections.

Ireland’s pugnacious anti-Israel boycott movement actively harasses any institution that has the temerity to host Israeli cultural figures. The result: Israel’s artists, actors, musicians and dancers are simply not welcome in the republic; the citizens of no other country facing such systematic open-ended discrimination. (Apparently Israelis are received more warmly in the Arab Gulf than they are on the Emerald Isle.)

Yet underlying antisemitism is only one part of an explanation of Irish hostility. Viewing the Arab-Israel conflict solely through a distorted lens is another.

All countries understand Israel through their own national prism. In the United States the idea of a free society founded by immigrants fleeing persecution strongly resonates. Such an ethos can create an instinctive empathy for the Jewish state.

By contrast, in much of Western Europe post-colonial guilt is ubiquitous. If Israel’s detractors successfully portray Israel as a colonialist implant, anti-Israel sentiment naturally follows.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish historic experience is often unthinkingly, and incorrectly, transposed on the Arab-Israel dispute: the Israelis seemingly doomed to play the part of the nefarious occupying British, the Palestinians the role of the virtuous Irish fighting for their independence. All evidence contradicting this simplistic narrative is deemed superfluous, clouded out by the all-powerful erroneous paradigm.

Once on holiday in Dublin, I joined the “1916 Rebellion Walking Tour.” Our group tread in the footsteps of the Easter Rising, the guide eager for us not just to master the facts, but to recognize the intrinsic justice of Ireland’s struggle for freedom. The tour seemed mostly comprised of Irish Americans, Irish Canadians and Irish Australians, all proud of their family roots and desiring to strengthen their connection with the homeland.

Hopefully Irish public opinion will eventually be capable of accepting that Jews too have the right to be justifiably proud of their heritage and national rebirth. If not, ending Ireland’s antipathy may necessitate the emergence of a Zionist underground that once again starts blowing up British police stations (thankfully, not about to happen any time soon).

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.