During my years as an undergraduate in Montreal, a time that coincided with the peak of the folk revival era, I was drawn to Irish music and songs such as “Black Velvet Band” and “Down by the Sally Gardens” and singers like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. I am sure that it was affinity-based, at least in part, on my appreciation for the struggles for national survival experienced by both the Jewish people and the people of Ireland.
It is therefore with dismay that I have witnessed the growing antipathy toward Israel expressed by the Irish media and the Irish government in recent years. Articles with titles such as “Why Ireland hates Israel” (Jerusalem Post, 2022) and “Ireland’s criticism of Israel has made it an outlier in the EU. What lies behind it?” (The Guardian, 2023) are common. On November 15th, after the October 7 Hamas massacre and the Israeli reaction, the Irish legislature narrowly defeated a motion to expel the Israel ambassador, as well as a motion to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court.
A recent article by Terry Glavin in the National Post quotes Niall Holohan, a retired Irish diplomat, saying in an interview published in The Guardian, that it is in the Irish psyche to side with the underdog. However, Glavin sees that there is something else going on: the long history of antisemitism in Ireland.
As if to prove Glavin’s point, in the same interview Holohan refers to the small size of Ireland’s Jewish population, stating that the lack of Jewish influence, “has given us a freer hand to take a more principled position.” In other words, too many Jews prevents a government from acting with principles. Holohan’s remarks aroused outrage and accusations of antisemitism.
My interest was piqued. Why does Ireland have such a small Jewish population? According Avi Kumar (JNS, 2023), the Jewish community in Ireland is declining, numbering only 800 in a total population of 5.3 million. (The number increases to about 2500 if Jewish expats—temporary residents, mainly Israelis working in the technology sector—are added.
Antisemitism likely has something to do with the low numbers. At an early point in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” Garrett Deasy (a minor character and headmaster of the school where Stephen Dedalus, a main character, teaches) jokes to Dedalus that Ireland is the only country that has not persecuted the Jews. Why? Because they never let them in!
Obviously, some Jews did get in, particularly in the late 1800s, after Russian pogroms. Some, such as Robert Briscoe (Lord Mayor of Dublin) and Chaim Herzog (sixth President of Israel) became prominent figures. But when times were most desperate for the Jews of Europe, Ireland`s response was a shameful one.
In 1938, representatives of 32 countries met in the French spa town of Ēvian-les-Bains to find a solution to the Jewish refugee crisis precipitated by the antisemitism unleashed in Germany in 1933 and in Austria in 1938. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were stateless. The conference, an initiative by President Roosevelt, was an abject failure. With the exception of the Dominican Republic (in the end only 700 Jewish refugees found sanctuary there), no country agreed to accept Jewish refugees.
Ireland, a British Dominion until 1949, was not initially invited to the Ēvian conference, but asked to attend, not with the intent of helping to solve the problem, but solely to exercise its independence in foreign affairs. The Irish representative, Francis Thomas Cremins, referring to the refugees as unfortunate creatures, stated bluntly that the Irish were content to have been invited, but were not able to help alleviate the crisis (see “The Jewish Trail of Tears”).
His efforts to save Jews were contrary to official Irish policy.
Robert Philpot (The Irish Times, 2017) describes the efforts of the Irish essayist Hubert Butler to bring Jewish refugees to Ireland during World War II. Butler attended the Ēvian conference and what he witnessed disgusted him. His efforts to save Jews were contrary to official Irish policy. Some of the refugees went on to other destinations, so the number saved is uncertain, but estimates range from 100 to 300.
To Philpot, Butler`s actions, at least to some extent, rescued Ireland from eternal shame. But another, and more important message, is that before condemning Israel, the Irish government should reflect on the role Ireland played, along with many others, in convincing the Jewish people of the need for an independent Jewish state.
Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, who taught at the University of Waterloo.