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Carte postale créée par l’institut Betsalel en l’honneur de la déclaration Balfour.(Photo by: GPO)
Israel and Ireland - two roads to independence
The struggle for an independent homeland began in earnest in both cases towards the end of the second decade of the 20th century.
The struggle for independence is the stuff of heroic tales, sometimes violent, frequently decades long and always replete with passion mixed up with politics. It dominates the vision of revolutions, freedom movements, the feminist movement and all nationalist campaigns. Israel’s fight for it is just one example; another is Ireland. [Declaration of interest: I am Anglo-Irish Israeli.]The struggle for an independent homeland, preceded by centuries of occupation, persecution and population dispersion, began in earnest in both cases towards the end of the second decade of the 20th century. It did not come easy, and was followed by further decades of conflict.

On November 2, 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Lionel Rothschild, the head of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, confirming that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This Balfour Declaration began years of fighting between the Jewish population of Palestine and the surrounding Arab world. Three years later the British Mandate over Palestine was established amid continuing unrest, ultimately culminating in outright civil war in the aftermath of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947. Finally, on May 14, 1948, “a national home for the Jewish people” was declared, following a historic vote at the United Nations, which at midnight on the same day, ended British rule. The new state of Israel was instantly attacked by the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq in the War of Independence, from which Israel emerged the victor but did not see, and still cannot see, the end of conflict.

On January 21, 1919, following a violent protest against British rule known as the Easter Uprising three years earlier, a group of Irish nationalists established a revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic and declared Irish independence over the whole island of Ireland [Eire] in defiance of the British government. The rallying cry was “self-determination,” the first time the phrase was used in a political struggle. There followed the Irish War of Independence, which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 establishing the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, in all but six counties in the north to be known as Northern Ireland. The six counties remained a part of Britain subject to British rule. Yet the Republic of Ireland did not become fully independent until April 18, 1949, when it ceased to be a member of the British Commonwealth. Ireland was free of British rule after seven hundred years, yet the violence was to continue for a further five decades.

The road to independence for both the Jews and the Irish included organized violence, the Irgun and the Stern Gang in Palestine, the Irish Republican Army [IRA] in Ireland. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the violent protest group declared. “Only Jewish armed force will ensure the Jewish state.” The IRA was founded in 1919 specifically to bring an end to British rule by violent means. Interestingly, both movements split into those factions, which ultimately preferred to pursue a political solution, leaving armed confrontation to the more revolutionary groups. In the case of the IRA, the decommissioning of weapons began in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement on power sharing in Northern Ireland, but was not actually fully achieved until 2005. Years of strenuous diplomatic efforts involving third party intervention and numerous setbacks resulted at last in fifteen years of peace.

There are further parallels between the two countries. An element of the struggle for independence for both Israel and Ireland was a campaign to revive the native language as part of establishing the national identity. On this subject, Israel has been by far the more successful. The movement to revive Hebrew began in the early 19th century, continued with the immigration of Jews from all over the world for whom Hebrew was the only common language, and on the establishment of independence, was embodied in law as the official language of the state of Israel. Today, modern Hebrew is a developing language. In Ireland, the early pioneers of the nationalist movement promoted Irish [not Gaelic, though the two have much in common] as the official language of the country. Today, only about 2% of the population of the Republic speak Irish as a first language. Almost everybody speaks English. There have been renewed efforts in the 21st century to encourage the teaching of Irish in schools but the fact remains that Irish is to be heard day by day only in rural areas in the west of the island. Travelers in Ireland will find all the road signs are in Irish with the English equivalent alongside.

Demographically though not geographically, Ireland [the term Eire historically applies to the whole of the island] is smaller than Israel. Israel’s population in 2019 stands at 8,972,000, 75.6% being Jewish, 18.6% Muslim; the Irish Republic numbers less than half Israel’s population at 4,834,491, with a further 1,897,893 in the North. Ireland’s numbers have never recovered from the Potato Famine of the 1840s though there is steady growth in both parts of the island. Eighty-four percent of the population of the Republic is Catholic; in Northern Ireland the division is more or less 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant.

In this case, the North has a closer relationship to Israel, both suffering from outbursts of conflict based on religion. What both countries have very much in common is a large and influential diaspora, which has made significant contributions to the homeland. Immigration to Israel from diaspora communities has added greatly to the fabric of Israeli society, not to mention the financial contributions, evidence of which can be seen on plaques of recognition all over the country. Today there are approximately 5.7 million Jews in the United States, 1-2 million between Canada, France and the United Kingdom and another half-million in other countries. In the case of Ireland, it is doubtful whether the initial movement for independence would have been successful without the financial contributions of the American Irish. It is estimated that nowadays there are 34.5 million people of Irish descent in the United States and five million in Canada.

To summarize, Israel and Ireland are two small, democratic countries, which aspired to complete independence, in both cases from the British, despite some of the benefits the British presence had provided. Both have suffered from religious conflicts, from violence and from terrorism, both have been supported by an extensive diaspora and both have engaged in language revival. After years of violence and unrest, Ireland has finally achieved a peaceful resolution. Could Israel learn something from this?

Jane Biran is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation

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