Panelists discuss relationship between Ireland and Israel

March 15, 2019

Three panelists, including Zeev Boker, who was Israel’s ambassador to Ireland in 2015, discussed the changing relationship between Ireland and Israel, from Irish support of the state to evolving support for Palestinian rights on Monday, March 11.

Alexander Kaye (NEJS), the Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Assistant Professor of Israel Studies, began by calling the conversation “bizarre” because it goes against expectations that Israel and Ireland should have a close relationship. Ireland and Israel are very similar nations, as both underwent a period of British colonial rule, Kaye said, and both have a strong association with religion, a cultural identity and their own language. Both were seen as straddling the line between a European state and a non-European state, Kaye said, though this perception has changed in the past century.

He also spoke about how both countries historically went through a diaspora, with Boston representing both a strong Irish Catholic and Jewish immigrant population. “The role that a homeland has in the imagination of a diaspora, I think that both for Irish Americans and for Jewish Americans, Israel and Ireland play a role not just as a physical actual place with actual institutions where you can go and live but also as an idea and an idea that helps to bolster a sense of group identity,” he said.

The Sophia Moses Robinson Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Wellesley University Frances Malino also spoke about the close relationship between Israel and Ireland, connecting Justice Louis Brandeis, Brandeis’ namesake, to the conversation. Malino quoted a 19th century Irish leader Daniel O’Connell, who campaigned for Catholic people’s rights to sit in British parliament, as saying, “agitate, agitate, agitate!” in his fight for representation. She then explained that Louis D. Brandeis, in his speech to the Eastern council of reform rabbis, quoted O’Connell by saying, “Organize, organize, organize!” to fight for Jewish rights.

Provost Lisa Lynch, who moderated the panel, then asked Boker to speak about the modern relationship between Ireland and Israel. He spoke about the great cooperation Ireland and Israel have experienced, including himself being invited to Trinity College to speak to students. But members of Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS)—a Palestinian-lead organization that advocates for economic sanctions, divestment and boycotting of Israel to pressure the country into protecting Palestinian rights, according to their website—stopped him.   

The relationship, however, is changing, Kaye said, echoing Boker’s example. Kaye spoke about how, as more people in Ireland begin to see Israel as a colonial enterprise, support from Ireland wanes as the country has a long history of supporting post-colonization independence movements. He also described how, in the Irish Parliament, sympathy for the Palestinian cause has grown.

Kaye continued to say that “I would love it if Ireland and every other state, including Israel, was pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel,” and Boker followed, by clarifying that being pro-Palestinian does not mean being anti-Israel. Although, Boker said, members of the Irish parliament are afraid to publicly support Israel.

Looking to the future relationship between the two countries, all panelists were reluctant to try to predict Irish-Israeli relations, but Malena spoke about the possible future implications of Brexit, or the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which she said could cause further future tensions in the region.  

Kaye also commented on the future, and though he said that “predictions do not end well for the predictor,” he said it would depend “both on leadership in the government, but it also depends on the people,” explaining that Dubliners have warmer attitudes toward Israel.

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