How to win friends in Ireland

Northern Ireland Friends of Israel proves an unlikely success in its mission


By Marcus Dysch, May 19, 2011
Israel’s ambassador to the UK,  Ron Prosor,  visiting the peace wall during his first visit to Belfast in 2009

Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, visiting the peace wall during his first visit to Belfast in 2009

Belfast's Jewish community may be shrinking, but the city has become the base for one of Britain's fastest-growing and most successful Israel advocacy groups.

Set up just two years ago by co-chairs Steven Jaffe and Terry McCorran, the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel has successfully lobbied against anti-Israel motions at the Northern Ireland Assembly, tackled trade unions and opposed academic boycotts.

NIFI's rapid rise has caught the attention of communal organisations in London. They are now looking at ways to roll out the NIFI model across the UK to tackle well-established anti-Israel groups' efforts.

Mr Jaffe said the group was born out of a desperate desire to combat anti-Israel activity in Northern Ireland, which had reached such a level that during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, an Israeli flag was burnt at a rally outside Belfast City Hall.

The Ulsterman explained: "We felt something had to be done. There's a much greater recognition than there has ever been of the need for grassroots advocacy. This is a change in mindset from the community."

NIFI events have received widespread support from across the political spectrum in the province, and from Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor and prominent speakers in England.

Mr Jaffe said: "The flotilla incident last year played very big in Ireland, there were a lot of Irish people involved.

The negative impact of that was huge and there was an attempt to get an emergency motion at Stormont but through our lobbying it failed to get a majority. We have engaged right across the spectrum, with everyone from Sinn Féin to the DUP and beyond."

Part of the reason for the group's prominence is the adoption of the Middle East conflict as a proxy for those involved in Northern Ireland's own Troubles and peace process.

While Republican Catholic communities traditionally back the Palestinian cause, Unionist Protestants, in turn, frequently support Israel. Mr Jaffe explained: "With both sides it's a real gut feeling. During Israel's Operation Shield in 2002, Belfast was covered in Palestinian and Israeli flags.

"We have always been clear as an organisation that we are not flag-wavers.

"We are there to educate our own supporters as well as other people as to the complexities of the situation, and that's an important part of what we are doing. It's a huge commitment of time. It's sometimes difficult to get that across to people.

"The boycott movement started in Northern Ireland but it didn't finish there. You can trace how the trade union movement adopted it from our councils and it moved to Scotland and then to the TUC.

"Unless you counter these threats where they first emerge - places on the periphery like Moyle [the small County Antrim district planning a Gaza twinning project] - it will bite you everywhere.

"People are very sincere when they support Israel, but they don't realise that the small regional friends of Israel groups are doing a vital job for them."

Not all of NIFI's work is defensive. Among its greatest successes have been sessions promoting life in Israel, including one with a Christian Northern Ireland Assembly member who told an audience about the highs of his time spent living on a kibbutz.

Leading the Northern Ireland peace process helped the likes of George Mitchell and Tony Blair cut their conflict resolution teeth before turning their attention to the Middle East.

The Jewish community will now look to learn its own lessons from across the Irish Sea.

Mr Jaffe said: "We are showing that NI has a huge lesson to give in community engagement. It's a demonstration of what can happen when a few people have the drive."

Last updated: 1:48pm, May 19 2011