Foreign Affairs: For the love of the Irish

Many in Ireland think Israel has much to learn from their peace process, but critics say the Emerald Isle often demonstrates a far-from-sparkling grasp of the specifics of our conflict.

israel boycott groceries 311 (photo credit: AP)
israel boycott groceries 311
(photo credit: AP)
DUBLIN – It was supposed to have been a conference on “Media and Conflict,” examining the role journalists play in war zones and battlefields. Organized by the European Union and held in the Irish capital, the three-day parley last month drew on the experiences and expertise of local politicians, academics and, of course, journalists who for many years covered “the troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
However, as each presentation unfolded it soon became clear that despite the topics listed on the agenda, a disproportionate amount of attention was being focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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During one of the coffee breaks, a representative of the Israeli embassy in Ireland pointed out unequivocally that “the Irish are obsessed with Israel,” and as the event progressed, it appeared that his observations were more than just classic Jewish paranoia.
One discussion after another raised the issue, and speakers such as Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin, Irish Member of European Parliament Proinsias De Rossa and journalist Robert Fisk barely spared more than a few sentences on conflicts in other parts of the globe. Almost all presenters had something to say on the complexities between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Irish people see resonance in conflict,” Denis Staunton, foreign editor at The Irish Times, told me between sessions. “Their experiences are not directly comparable but in many ways they feel that the same kinds of steps need to be taken in the Middle East and that there need to be compromises on both sides.”
However, while most agree that Ireland’s experience in achieving the peace it enjoys today can be a good lesson for the Middle East – especially now that US special envoy George Mitchell, a significant force in the Northern Ireland negotiations, is on the scene – experts on Israeli-Irish relations believe that Ireland’s continuous criticisms of Israel have only served to strain ties and discredit its role in resolving the conflict.
“There are lessons from the Irish peace process than can be applied to the Israelis and Palestinians, and based on our experiences we could have adopted a public approach that would have encouraged the peace process,” observed Ireland’s only Jewish parliamentarian, Alan Shatter, a member of the opposition Fine Gael party. “Instead, the approach is to simply condemn Israel, with the Irish government turning a blind eye [to infractions on the other side]. The belief here is that if there are any problems with the peace process, it’s all because of Israel.”
Indeed, as recently as last week Dublin’s city council unequivocally condemned “Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla” and passed a motion supporting a second flotilla to depart next month. In August, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign gathered signatures from more than 140 Irish artists willing to boycott Israel by refusing to perform there or embrace any cultural acts from there.
Recently departed ambassador to Ireland Zion Evrony was no stranger to such hostilities either. Last February, he was met with angry protests when he visited the small town of Carrickmacross and Sinn Fein councillors there even went so far as to rip out a page in the visitors’ book that he had signed.
Before that, in January 2009 – following Operation Cast Lead – Evrony and Shatter were heckled when they spoke at an
emergency meeting of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Sinn Fein deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh compared them both to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Kevin Myers, a columnist for the Irish Independent, called it “irrational Israelophobia.” “When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian question, most people in Ireland do not consult their intellect but rather their emotion,” said Myers, who was not invited to the conference. “The Irish love victimhood, they see themselves as victims and there is a predisposition here to analyze every problem according to whether someone is a victim.
“Irish people analyze every situation in the hope that they find a victim, and in this conflict the Palestinians are the obvious victims: Either they were expelled or they are the children or grandchildren of those who were expelled from their lands.
“All editorial comment here and all columnists are anti-Israeli. But if you ask a simple question like ‘how is Israel supposed to stop rocket fire from Gaza or suicide attacks’ or “what would Ireland do if it was getting attacked by hundreds of rockets,’ those same people do not answer; they do not allow themselves to consider such questions.”
Asked how he managed to develop a view of Middle East politics quite different than his compatriots’, Myers answered: “I like to think and most journalists in Ireland do not think. There is an appetite here to simplify a moral problem, and if you do this, then you will almost always come up with wrong answers.”
In a controversial article he published this past summer bidding farewell to Evrony, Myers wrote: “The Israeli Ambassador Zion Evrony is returning home: His time in hell is done. Now it is the turn of some other poor bastard in the Israeli diplomatic service to come over and meet the conjoined forces of hatred, ignorance, blindness, hysteria and prejudice that the name ‘Israel’ invariably inspires. Short of Hamas opening up a few death camps for Jews now, rather than after they’ve finally defeated Israel, I’m not sure what would destroy the irrational Israelophobia that is so powerful in Ireland.”
Contrary to Myers’s farewell article, Evrony told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last week that he had actually enjoyed his four years in Ireland.
“The Irish people are very friendly, warm and hospitable with a rich history and culture,” he said. “We have many friends in Ireland and I enjoyed my mission there very much.
“Your questions imply that all Irish people dislike us and I don’t think this is accurate. I think that those who dislike us are more vocal, aggressive and organized, therefore they create the image that Israel’s critics are more numerous than they really are.”
Even though not everyone in Ireland sees Israel as “the devil,” as Myers might suggest, Evrony admitted that “the Irish government is considered by Jerusalem to be very critical of Israel. It often voices criticisms of Israel in the EU and other international forums. We regret that and also regret the position of the Irish trade unions, which are always at the forefront of boycott campaigns against Israel.”
In his analysis of the situation, Evrony blamed the “anti-Israel agenda driven by members of Sinn Fein and the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. There are also a few members of parliament who are vocal in their opposition to Israel and one or two journalists that have a clear agenda of demonizing Israel and will not let the true facts confuse them. All this has created an atmosphere where some believe it is politically incorrect to support Israel publicly.
“It’s all based on a few misconceptions and falsehoods about Israel’s history and the conflict. The main misconception is the false historical comparison that many make between the Irish experience of displacement by the British and the Palestinian experience since Israel was created. There is also a basic lack of knowledge about the unique bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Many Irish people think that Israelis are foreigners in a land that is not theirs.”
Although some might dismiss Ireland as an unimportant player in the international arena, Evrony disagrees.
“Although Ireland is a small country like Israel, it is an important country within the EU and it also has close links to the US,” he said. “This is the challenge of Israeli diplomacy to deal with countries and nations, who do not always understand us.
“Obviously, the position of any country in the EU can influence that of other countries, but so far, the Irish position has not been adopted by other EU members. We take every attempt to campaign for a boycott against us very seriously, even if it does not have immediate practical effect, and we are concerned about the efforts by the trade unions to promote a boycott campaign. We think these efforts are counterproductive and don’t contribute to peace.”
Whether this Irish approach is counterproductive or not, Dr. Vincent Durac, a lecturer in Middle East politics at University College, Dublin, and a visiting lecturer at Bethlehem University, who spoke at last month’s conference, explained that it was endemic of Irish attitudes.
“Irish people identify with the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and they also identify with the underdogs, in this case the Palestinians,” he said. “In the early decades of Israel’s existence, there was an understanding of the Jewish state’s right to self-determination. People empathized because they were fighting the British but that narrative changed after 1967. The Irish analysis is almost always based on identifying with any group that is vying for self-determination.”