Some years ago, I was having coffee in Dublin with an acquaintance who was telling me about the invidiousness of Israel and its oppression of Palestinians. My main thought at the time was how I could change the subject.
Growing up in the Irish republican stronghold of west Belfast, I was well aware that the Irish have tended to side with the Palestinians in the conflict. I remember the Palestinian flags adorning lampposts alongside the Irish tricolor and the Union-Jack-on-acid Basque flag. I even remember when pro-British loyalists, some of whom had notorious links with British neo-Nazi organizations, started to fly Israeli flags in retaliation. Irony isn’t strong enough a word for it.
So, hoping to change the subject, I mentioned something about Northern Ireland—I can no longer remember what—and my acquaintance replied, “I don’t know anything about the North.” This response stopped me short. Gaza is 2,500 miles from Dublin. The border with Northern Ireland is 70 miles up the M1 parkway. Tedious as the conflict in Ireland is, and I admit it really is, the Irish people should have some familiarity with it.
I don’t have a settled view on Israel and Palestine. I have never been a fan of partition. Both Irish states were shaped by the border, and it took decades for either to transform themselves into anything like modern European polities. I may daydream about a secular, single-state solution, but it’s really none of my business. If Israelis and Palestinians don’t want to live together, it’s not my place to tell them otherwise. After all, Irish republicans haven’t done a very good job of persuading unionists they’d be welcome in a united Ireland.
Among my countrymen, my position (or lack thereof) makes me an oddity. Most Irish people know exactly what they think of Israel and Palestine—and aren’t afraid to tell anyone.
Something other than religion motivates Irish antipathy to Israel. Speaking to me some years ago when I wrote a feature article for the Irish Times on Ireland’s Jewry, retired Belfast businessman Adrian Levey, who is Jewish, was keen to point out that anti-Semitism as such is not a problem, even on the divided streets of Belfast.
“Northern Protestants support Israel and Catholics support Palestine, it doesn’t really play out on the streets,” he said.
When you understand that Protestant and Catholic are not actually religious terms, but stand-ins for pro-British unionists and pro-Irish republicans, the statement makes perfect sense. For Irish republicans have long felt they were, as much as Palestinians, living in occupied territory. Hearing Northern Ireland described as the "Occupied Six Counties” was not uncommon in my youth during the 1990s.
In the less troubled Republic of Ireland, discourse is, if anything, even more fraught. In May 2013, Ireland's foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, broke ranks with virtually the entirety of Irish polite society when he said in Parliament, "I would regard as unacceptable efforts to harass artists with a view to intimidating them from exercising their freedom of choice in relation to engagement with Israel.”
In January 2013, Israeli journalist Sarah Honig wrote in the Jerusalem Post of her outrage when, on holiday in the County Kerry town of Cahersiveen, she encountered a group of teenagers collecting for a Catholic charity project in Palestine and was greeted with classic anti-Semitism. “What do you have against Palestinians? What have they done to you? They are only against Jews. Jews are evil," they told her, adding that Jews were “always being villains" and "they crucified our Lord.”
Honig's report has been disputed: The school’s principal flatly denied the remarks. Either way, in blaming Catholicism Honig missed the real story. The Catholic church's relations with Judaism have long been tense, but since the end of the Second World War the church has made great strides. Anti-Semitic dogma has been dropped and real world relations between Rome and Jerusalem have never been better. Old-fashioned Catholic anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. Ireland isn’t much of a Catholic country these days anyway.
But in March of this year Alan Johnson, a professor of political theory at Britain's Edge Hill University, found out the hard way that Israel and Palestine still inflame Irish passions. Speaking at the National University of Ireland at Galway, he was shouted down by Palestine solidarity activists who represented the growing BDS movement calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions on Israel. A clip on YouTube shows a near-hysterical activist swearing profusely, and someone else shouting, “We don’t need your Israeli money.”
Johnson is hardly a right-wing Neo-Zionist. He supports a two-state solution. “What I’d said up to that point was it wasn’t necessarily anti-Semitic to have a boycott and that while I was in favor of two states for two people I didn’t think a boycott was the way to achieve it,” he says. Israel and Palestine are hot topics everywhere, of course, but Johnson says he was surprised by the level of vitriol he encountered. “I’ve spoken on a lot of campuses in the last three years and I’ve never experience anything like this. Some of the students I met told me this was not untypical."
Unlike Johnson, I cannot say I was surprised by the students’ protest. Palestine activism is extremely visible on the Irish left, often managing to marshall more people than domestic campaigns. Left-wing activism of all kinds has become increasingly shrill since the 2008 economic meltdown, the main legacy of which seems to have been not the much predicted rebirth of Marxism but an intensification of identity politics. Beyond that, though, even relatively unpolitical Irish people seem to view Israel with deep suspicion, at the very least.
Israel’s history of fighting Britain for independence could have made the Irish more sympathetic to the country, but Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has sown a dark seed in the Irish anti-colonial mindset. More important, as Israel has become more successful, potential Irish support for it has waned. In the Irish psyche, Israel functions as a surrogate for Britain: imperial and imperious and, above all, modern.
Ireland is also modern, of course, but wears its modernity lightly. Public infrastructure lags behind the rest of the European Union, and anti-development campaigns win support from across the political spectrum. Not being Britain remains central to Irish politics. Independent though the Republic of Ireland is, and despite Southern distaste for gauche Northern republicans and the IRA, even mainstream Irish identity is steeped in rebellion against the colonial master. Formerly a source of pride, it is more frequently expressed today in a free-floating sense of victimhood. Many Irish still feel they are the wretched of the earth.
As the Irish conflict has ended, or even as a result of it, Israel has become the favored target of an adventurous but ineffectual activist left in search of a cause that is both suitably righteous and distant. Unlike with other conflicts—say, the invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco—Israel’s modernity marks it as recognizably Western. It can easily be cast in the role of being little more than a U.S.-backed aggressor against the noble Palestinians unfettered by modern affectations.
Johnson say this does a disservice to Palestinians.
“When the Palestinians are anything other than [victims of Israel], when they’re being thrown off rooftops by Hamas or are being starved by Assad in Syrian refugee camps, [pro-Palestine activists] don’t have any interest in that,” he says. “They’re pro a certain kind of agency-less Palestinian. It’s politically useless.”
This post has been updated.
Jason Walsh is the Ireland correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.