Center field: Let’s get Irish and Zionists smiling together

The Jews and the Irish are model minorities trying to preserve tradition and community in a centrifugal world which dissolves people’s bonds to the past and to each other.

ireland castle 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ireland castle 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A pre-Passover vacation introducing the Troy clan to Ireland’s history and culture unexpectedly included a refresher on the building blocks of national identity, including Zionist identity. Although the Boycott Israel movement has gained traction in Ireland – and a dissolute, perpetual adolescent pushing 70 offered us a pamphlet saying “Boycott Israel ... free Gaza,” Irish nationalists and Jewish nationalists have much in common. Ireland and Israel should be best friends, not just accidental next-door neighbors in the UN’s alphabetical listing.
Ireland’s colorful reputation is rooted in reality.
This alluring land is, as the Lucky Charms cereal’s Leprechaun proclaims, “magically delicious.” The Emerald Isle’s inhabitants are friendly, the vistas are lovely, and the traveling as smooth and easy as the many pints of Guinness Stout you end up downing in the pubs that seem to stand (or slouch) on every street corner. Of course, readers of Irish literature – and observers of the nightly boozing – see Ireland’s dark, alcohol-fueled underside.
Nevertheless, the suffering appears self-imposed and self-contained, easily ignored.
Clearly, the Irish struggled to build their national identity – and are working equally valiantly today to preserve it. Dublin conveys an Old World sensibility amid its many celebrations of Irishness. The National Leprechaun Museum emphasizes the mythical and magical in all tribal identities. Even moderns, with all our individuation and sophistication, are community-minded and meaning-seeking creatures, with a touch of the mystical. Tales of the impish Leprechauns bring out the child in us along with the seeker in us. After all, nationalism, at its best, connects us to one another, to bigger ideas, and to larger forces in our world.
The Dublinia museum in Christ Church Cathedral – introducing the Viking settlers and medieval life in a 1,000-year-old church – and the Kilmanham Gaol, where the British incarcerated and hanged Irish nationalists – offer helpful if heartbreaking introductions to Ireland’s national narrative. The prison stories of early 20th-century nationalists’ martyrdom amid British cruelty resonate particularly for Zionists who remember Israel’s pre-1948 fight.
Thinking about these heroes’ suffering, wondering why and when it is good to die for your country, illuminates the Dubliner Oscar Wilde’s insight that “an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
Nationalist narratives are props that propel nations in different directions. Narrow, xenophobic nationalism can brutalize. Passive, defensive patriotism can stultify. Idealistic, liberal nationalism can ennoble.
The most popular tourist site in Dublin is not so heavy – although it can make your eyelids feel leaden, while triggering weight gain at the same time. The Guinness Brewery represents contemporary Irish culture – and ingenuity. In addition to their memories, morals and missions, nations need practical businesses and governing structures, their entrepreneurs and leaders. Guinness’s story tells how one man founded a dynasty that 200-plus years later shapes Irish culture nationally and embodies Irish entrepreneurship globally.
These elements of myth and narrative, history and culture, theory and practice, religion and nation, reinforce the validity of Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism.
The Jews and the Irish are model minorities trying to preserve tradition and community in a centrifugal world which dissolves people’s bonds to the past and to each other. The Irish attempt to protect Gaelic in an English-speaking country underlines the Hebrew revival miracle. Gaelic seems embattled; Hebrew as Israel’s first language is thriving.
Dublin’s Icon Walk, an open-air exhibition painted on buildings illustrating Irish writers, celebrities, ideas and fashions, invites parallel thoughts regarding a Zionist Icon Walk. Key phrases would include “If you will it, it is no dream”; “ein breira [no choice]”; “you and I can change the world”; “acharai [after me]”; and “yiheyeh tov [it will be all right].”
Defining traditional heroes would include Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, supplemented with modern role models such as astronaut Ilan Ramon and Dan Schechtman, one of Israel’s Nobel laureates.
Illustrative images would include David’s Citadel and David Azrieli’s Center, the old-fashioned kibbutznik’s dusty kova tembel and the modern scientist’s sterile white lab coat.
As the Jews and the Irish find mutual reinforcement for their respective national narratives, our Irish friends should rethink their attitudes toward the Middle East. Before traveling there, friends warned us not to wear yarmulkes or admit we were from Israel. Ignoring the advice, we enjoyed warm welcomes whenever we said we hailed from Jerusalem.
“It’s the city of Jesus,” one shopkeeper exclaimed. “I knew you were Jewish, I love Jews” one 15-year-old shouted.
The warnings reflected the Irish bias toward Palestinians.
Irish activists have bought the Palestinians’ zero-sum propaganda that respecting Palestinian nationalism requires negating Jewish nationalism.
That hostility is unfortunate because the Irish are in a unique position to help. In the seemingly miraculous early 1990s, the Soviet Union imploded, South Africa evolved from Apartheid toward freedom, Ireland sought peace after two decades of terrorism, while Israelis and Palestinians entered the Oslo peace process. The first three miracles held; the last one exploded in violence in 2000 when Yasser Arafat led the Palestinians away from peace talks back to terrorism.
Last week, during Ireland’s first presidential state visit to England, Queen Elizabeth graciously promised royal participation in the centennial celebrations of the 1916 Irish uprising. Perhaps our Irish friends can teach us about reconciling with historic enemies, living cheek-by-jowl with rivals, and keeping peace while preserving tradition and dignity. Irish leaders should realize that targeting Israel for disapproval and boycott, especially when Israelis suffered such personal Palestinian terrorist violence, is destructive.
Rather than bashing Israel, Irish peace activists should offer the kind of visionary statesmanship that liberated them from suffering, into an admittedly imperfect yet superior status quo. Let them build on their sense of kinship with small, embattled nations, demonstrating how nationalism and tradition, while unfashionable today, can nevertheless ennoble and heal.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video!