Letter from Dublin

Letter from Dublin

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Dublin
June 11, 2002

Speaking of change.

I first caught a glimpse of Ireland in 1960, when the transatlantic ocean liner SS America on which my mother and I were traveling docked in the charming harbor of Cobh en route to Le Havre, France, but it wasn't until 1971 that I actually spent any time in the country.

I crossed the Irish Sea by ferry from England and spent ten days hitchhiking around Ireland with little more than a backpack. As an aside, had I been more inventive, I would have brought along a refrigerator as well, as the British writer Tony Hawks did years later, parlaying a bet in a bar into a memorable month-long hitchhiking trek around Ireland and a best-selling book based on the unusual experience.

The Ireland I remember was verdant and friendly - perhaps the friendliest country in Europe - but strikingly poor. The cities and towns, with the exception of some Dublin districts, weren't anything to write home about. In effect, they resembled the prevailing weather-gray and despondent. And everyone I met, it seemed, had family members abroad and were themselves thinking about leaving. The only diversity in the country at the time was the tiny Protestant population and the even more miniscule Jewish community.

That was 30 years ago. Back in Dublin for the first time a week ago, together with Jason Isaacson, AJC's director of government and international affairs, I was overwhelmed by the changes.

Ireland has become a prosperous country. In the past decade, largely fueled by the high-tech boom (and surviving the high-tech bust), Ireland has rapidly risen in the European Union rankings from near-bottom to near-top in per capita income. Unemployment is so low that the country has welcomed foreign workers. Indeed, the number of Asians, Africans, East Europeans, and other residents is striking. Some women, I was told, come only in order to give birth, knowing that their children will then enjoy Irish citizenship automatically and they can follow suit. Dublin alone has three mosques, including the imposing Islamic Cultural Center, built with funds from the United Arab Emirates. And perhaps for the first time in their history, the Irish are no longer emigrating; in fact, many Irish abroad are returning home to take advantage of the good times.

What hasn't changed for the better, though, is the consumption of alcohol. During my stay, the Irish press reported on the findings of a new EU study. From 1990 to 2000, alcohol use dropped in ten of the fifteen EU countries and increased by no more than five percent in four other countries (Germany, Greece, Portugal, and the United Kingdom), but in Ireland jumped by a whopping 41 percent.

To illustrate, the Irish consumed 12.3 liters of pure alcohol per capita in 2000, 2.5 liters more than in France and Germany and four liters more than in the U.K. And when it comes to beer, the average Irishman drinks 153 liters per year, compared to 125 liters in Germany. As a result, one in five hospital patients has been seriously abusing alcohol, and one in four admissions to hospital emergency rooms is alcohol related.

In one of Dublin's curious anomalies, where else would you find a one-time hospital for recovering alcoholics located just across the street from the sprawling Guinness brewery?

Ireland never had a large Jewish population, but at its peak in the late 1940s the community numbered 5-6,000. Since then, the total has steadily declined to around 1,200 today, mostly in Dublin, with a few score in Cork, according to Mark Sofer, Israel's departing ambassador in Dublin. In his daughter's class at the Jewish school in Dublin, only seven of the 30 children are actually Jewish.

The dramatic drop is explained by two principal factors - emigration to Europe and North America and aliyah. It is said that today there are more Irish Jews in Israel than Ireland, and undoubtedly the most famous Irish contribution to Israel has been the Herzog family, symbolized by Chaim Herzog, Israel's former president, who was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin.

Despite its small size, Irish Jewry has played an important role in the life of Ireland. Until national elections last month, there had always been at least one Jew - and at times as many as three (of 166 members) - in the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament.

Both Dublin and Cork have had Jewish mayors. It was one of those mayors who prompted the legendary story of the two Jews standing on New York's Fifth Avenue watching the start of the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1956. As Robert Briscoe, the lord mayor of Dublin, kicked off the parade, one Jew turned to the other and said: "Isn't that amazing? Did you know that the lord mayor of Dublin is Jewish?" The other replied: "No kidding. Only in America!"

But perhaps the most famous Irish Jew of all was Leopold Bloom, the central character in James Joyce's classic 1922 novel, Ulysses, arguably the most lauded and least read book in the English language. As a tour guide noted, this is a book that every Irishman begins reading, but few are able to finish, without considerable help at least, as it requires vast knowledge of theology, history, mythology, languages, and much more to fully grasp. Once asked about the demands his writing made on the reader, Joyce replied: "The demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." (Quoted in Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes, p. 307)

Joyce, acclaimed as Ireland's greatest writer in a country with a remarkable literary tradition that includes the likes of Samuel Beckett, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and Seamus Heaney, went abroad in 1902, at the age of 20, never to live in the land of his birth again. He expressed his reasons through the words of Stephen Daedalus, the hero in the essentially autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use - silence, exile, and cunning.

Indeed, in this one sentence, Joyce has touched on perhaps the principal themes that have defined the Irish soul - family, nationalism, and church - although, in his case, he rebelled against all three.

At least two of these themes - nationalism and the church - may also have affected Ireland's approach to Israel.

Ireland was the last European country to permit a resident Israeli ambassador. Hard as it is to believe, it was not until 1995 that the first Israeli ambassador arrived in Dublin. Until then, Ireland was served by the Israeli embassy in London.

There is some dispute over the reasons for this long delay. Officially, the Irish contended that budgetary and security factors prevented the opening of embassies in Dublin and Tel Aviv. But some observers argue that Ireland did not want to jeopardize its trade relations with Egypt, Iraq, and Libya, to which it exported meat, and that it did not want to get ahead of the Vatican, which only established formal ties between the Holy See and Israel in 1994.

Whatever the real explanation, Ireland and Israel have experienced substantial growth in their bilateral relationship in the ensuing seven years. This is especially noticeable in the volume of trade. Ireland now ranks as Israel's sixth leading trading partner in Europe. Surprisingly, Ireland's trade with Israel exceeds the combined total of its trade with the Arab world. As Ireland moved from an economy based primarily on meat and agricultural products to one based on information technology, it found a compatible partner in Israel, which was undergoing precisely the same kind of change.

Interestingly, Dublin is home to only two Arab embassies - Egypt and Morocco - and the latter has been downgraded in recent years. The Palestinian Authority has a resident "delegate general" in Dublin, and there are rumors the Libyans will soon open an embassy in the Irish capital.

There have been a few Algerians and Egyptians arrested for links to terrorist groups and reports of some fundraising efforts for these groups, but in comparison with Britain, France, Germany and other European countries, there appears to be relatively little Islamic extremist activity, at least to date.

What is particularly worrisome, however, is the longstanding link between the Irish Republican Army and Palestinian terrorist groups. Indeed, in the recent military operation in Jenin, Israeli troops found a cache of pipe bombs identical to known IRA prototypes.

Ireland offers an interesting case study in attitudes toward Israel. Unlike France or Italy, Ireland is not dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, nor does it have major export markets in the region. Geographically, it's quite far removed from the Middle East and North Africa. And its Muslim population remains relatively small, perhaps 18-20,000 in a population of four million.

If Ireland is considered quite pro-Palestinian, then it can't be explained by political or economic expediency, as it can for some other European countries.

Rather, it appears to derive principally from seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of Irish history and the experience of Northern Ireland.

For nearly 700 years Ireland was occupied and dominated by the British. It was not until 1921 that Ireland, minus the six counties of the north, gained independence from Britain following the War of Independence, but it remained a British dominion. And it was only in 1949 that the Republic of Ireland came into being, after which it withdrew from the British Commonwealth.

To most Irish, the word "occupation" is simply anathema. Israel is seen as the occupying power; thus the natural sympathy is extended to the Palestinians. The Israelis are cast in the role of the unloved British.

In the same vein, there is less sympathy for the Israeli argument that negotiation with an avowed enemy is, for all practical purposes, impossible, as the Irish insist that, at the end of the day, there is no alternative but to negotiate with your enemy.

There are other elements that go into the shaping of Irish attitudes, few of which are in Israel's favor.

Despite the close family ties between Ireland and the United States, there is a discernible strain of anti-Americanism in Irish society. Israel and the U.S. are seen as close allies, only reinforcing the prevailing Irish view regarding Israel.

Within the European Union, Ireland is generally quite close to France, Israel's most outspoken critic, and distant from the United Kingdom, together with Germany, Israel's most ardent supporter.

In fact, as our visit coincided with the opening of the World Cup soccer tournament, it was noteworthy that Irish fans had two consuming passions: (i) energetically rooting for their team to hold their own against a stronger Cameroon squad in the opening match (the game ended in a 1-1 tie, leading one journalist to comment elegantly that, "their [the Irish squad's] self-respect and ours was snatched from the jaws of ignominy") and (ii) equally energetically cheering on Sweden in its first match against the despised English.

On the international scene, Ireland is a strong supporter of the United Nations and an outspoken defender of human rights. Remember that the controversial United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, is the former president of Ireland. To state the painfully obvious, neither the UN nor Mrs. Robinson can be counted among Israel's friends today.

With a built-in aversion to military options other than UN peacekeeping operations, Ireland has never been a member of NATO, remained neutral during the Second World War, and devotes no more than one percent of its current GDP to defense spending (compared to Israel's 11.6 percent). In this light, Israel is seen as "exclusively aggressive."

And there are those observers who believe that into the mix must also be added a certain residual religiously based anti-Semitism, a resentment that the Jews rule over Jerusalem and many of the Christian holy places. After all, despite growing secularism, Ireland remains a deeply Catholic country, whose roots can be traced to the fifth century C.E. when St. Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity. While I am not in a position to comment on the degree to which anti-Semitism remains a factor in Irish attitudes toward Israel, if at all, it was noted by enough knowledgeable people - Jews and Catholics alike - to warrant mentioning.

Ireland today is among the EU nations less sympathetic to Israel, but not nearly as outspoken as, say, France or Sweden. And while Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach-the widely used Irish name referring to the prime minister-spontaneously offered public words of sympathy for the "stress endured" by the two Palestinian terrorists accepted by Ireland (of the total of 13) to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity, the statements coming recently from the Foreign Ministry have shown at least some degree of balance.

Within Ireland, it must be said, there are also strong voices of support for Israel. Israel is blessed with an energetic and articulate ambassador who, I am told, may be the most interviewed foreign envoy in the country. Despite its small size, the Jewish community has several outspoken and effective advocates for Israel. And in the press there are a few gems. Best known is Conor Cruise O'Brien, the historian, diplomat, politician, and writer. Author of the highly acclaimed Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1985), O'Brien is a regular columnist in the press and a consistently staunch defender of Israel (and America, too). Eoghan Harris and Kevin Myers, two other regular columnists, are equally pro-Israel. And the Sunday Independent, Ireland's most widely circulated newspaper, takes a pro-Israel line as well, though it is among the very few media outlets to do so.

Moreover, I visited a bookshop and picked up a book entitled An Accidental Diplomat: My Years in the Irish Foreign Service, 1987-1995 by Eamon Delaney. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that at least one recent diplomat, apart from the legendary Conor Cruise O'Brien, who served as Ireland's ambassador to the UN from 1956 to 1960, sees things in the Middle East the way some of the rest of us do. Delaney writes:

One time, I was chatting to the Liechtenstein delegate when a Kuwaiti delegate turned around and glared at me; we were "talking" during the Palestine debate… This was just Kuwait "getting back to normal." After the Gulf War, when the Kuwaitis had got their country back, and exiled or killed thousands of Palestinians in the process, they wanted to show that they were back "being concerned" about Palestine again, just like the rest of the Arab world.

In fact, the Palestine debate takes up to three days [at the UN General Assembly], "debate" being a rather glorious name for a series of almost identical statements attacking Israel which, ironically, they do not recognize as actually being in the chamber….The issue of Palestine takes up to 20 percent of the GA's time, while the situation of the Kurds, for example, gets none. No wonder Ed Koch, mayor of New York, wanted the UN moved out of the city, especially when it passed the infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution.

It will take more American Jewish Committee visits to learn just how unusual this point of view is.

As a young man, Eamon de Valera, certainly the best-known Irish statesman of the twentieth century, who served as prime minister three times and as president once, visited France. On his return to Ireland, he famously announced: "All I can say is that sex in Ireland is as yet in its infancy."

The American Jewish Committee visit to Dublin, we were told, was the first ever by an American Jewish group, as was our hour-long meeting with Ireland's respected foreign minister, Brian Cowen. As such, it represented the infancy of our program there. But there is so much to discuss regarding the Middle East, international terrorism, and the transatlantic relationship, not to mention the obvious natural affinity between the Irish and the Jews, which I couldn't help noticing during this visit. Thus, without doubt we shall return to the captivating Emerald Isle.

Date: 6/11/2002
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