How Ireland came to be the most anti-Israel country in the Europe

From supporting the overthrow of the British to leading condemnation at the EU in just decades

October 27, 2023 13:39

It's long been a running gag in Dublin that when a new Israeli Ambassador arrives, the first question they're asked is: What did you do wrong to end up here? In some cases, this was literally true.

One memorable ambassador was Boaz Moda'i, a diplomat who had previously held a senior position in the Israeli Dept of Foreign Affairs until he was accused of harassing female employees. Israeli police issued a restraining order and recommended he be prosecuted.

He was then sent to Dublin.  

Moda'i aside, there is no doubt that Ireland has been a cold house for Israeli diplomats, but it could be argued that the disdain flows both ways.

In 2010 secret agents, allegedly Israelis killed the Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai, entering the country on forged Irish passports. To add insult to injury, one of the passports was associated with the real Dublin address of the brother of a former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. One Israeli official was expelled, and we moved on. But it wasn't forgotten.

Ireland's perceived coolness towards Israel seems counter-intuitive. Irish nationalists were keen to point out the parallels with the Jewish experience, the centuries of suffering and dispossession, and the huge Diaspora, a small people colonised by a mighty Empire.

And it is well known that pre-Israeli independence, there was a mutual admiration between the IRA and groups like the Irgun and the Stern gang who looked to Ireland for inspiration in their struggle against the British. But as the Irish state matured, it became more aware of its unique position as one of the few countries in the EU that had been a British colony.

As the power dynamic shifted in Israel and the Palestinans post-1967 and the Troubles began in earnest in the North, Irish public opinion tended to sympathise with the Palestinians. This coincided with an impulse to have more of a presence in international affairs, particularly in Europe and the UN. Ireland is proud that it was the first EU member state to commit to a two-state solution, something it has pursued with more commitment than its larger European allies, and which has led Israel to see it as hostile.

Ireland's stance towards Israel is also partially a reflection of the different relationship it has with its own Jewish population. Neutral in WWII, and with a tiny Jewish community of a few thousand on the whole Island, the Holocaust simply didn't happen here, nor was there any major antisemitic political movement, despite certain low-level antisemitism, still to be found.

Other European countries' more positive attitudes toward Israel can often be explained by their Holocaust experience. Germany and Austria's experience as perpetrators of course has led to more steadfast support of the Jewish state than others in Western Europe.

Other countries that previously had high numbers of Jews and whose experience of the Holocaust involves levels of complicity and collaboration: France, The Netherlands (in particular), Lithuania, and Hungary have all shown a willingness to support Israel. 

This Irish deviation from other European views led to Irish anger at Ursula van der Leyen's trip to Israel after the atrocious events of October 7. Many in Ireland felt that she did not reflect the Irish government's stance, and some even argued that her solo run would weaken support for the European Union in Ireland.

When, in the immediate aftermath, the EU issued a statement condemning the attack, Ireland, joined by Denmark and Luxembourg, attempted to add a call to avoid escalation, this was firmly rejected by the EU, with Ireland eventually capitulating and signing off on the statement. 

Last week, when Ireland's President Michael D. Higgins accused Israel of breaking international law in its treatment of civilians in Gaza, the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, was quick to accuse the President of spreading 'misinformation'.

Michael D. Higgins is a unique figure, widely respected and even loved across the political spectrum. The ambassador's attack on the beloved President met with outrage and immediate calls for her expulsion. To make it worse, another Israeli official tweeted an accusation, quickly removed, that Ireland was responsible for building Hamas tunnels. 

There is no doubt that the government's harsher stance on the conflict enjoys widespread support in Ireland. When Paddy Cosgrove, founder and chief executive of Web Summit, tweeted his shock at the IDF's bombing of Gaza, and condemned the actions of Western leaders, "With the exception in particular of Ireland's government, who for once are doing the right thing," he was merely echoing a widely-held Irish sentiment. However, his statement led to American tech giants like Google, Meta, and Intel pulling out of the Web Summit.

This week, news broke that an employee of the Israeli-owned software company Wix had fired one of its 500 employees in Dublin for posting anti-Israeli messages. This is particularly sensitive, as Ireland's present prosperity owes much to its position as a European headquarters and tax haven for some of the world's leading digital companies. An unintended consequence of this is the influx of young Israeli and Jewish-American tech workers, which has galvanised Dublin's struggling Jewish community.

Faced with dwindling numbers the community was considering selling its iconic Synagogue in Dublin and downsizing, but the new blood may have made it possible to avoid this. At the ceremonial lighting of the menorah outside the Lord Mayor's residence last Chanukah, it was striking to see so many young couples in North Face jackets pushing baby buggies.

However, the firing of a young Irish woman for expressing political opinions became a big story, with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar feeling compelled to comment on it in the Irish parliament on Tuesday, pointing out that under Irish law, it may well constitute unlawful dismissal. Things were made worse when internal memos from Wix were leaked to The Irish Times, in which management encouraged employees to "support Israel's narrative." The issues raised here about the relationship between freedom of speech and control by big tech companies have ramifications that go way beyond the present Hamas-Israel conflict. 

Despite all this, many Irish people can empathise with Israel's post-7 October trauma. But Israel, when appointing the next Ambassador to Ireland, might consider sending someone who is a little more, well, diplomatic.

October 27, 2023 13:39

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