Ireland has shed its reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel activism, according to the republic’s only Jewish minister.
Alan Shatter, Minister of Justice, Equality and Defence, and one of Israel’s most outspoken defenders in Ireland, said the public hostility of recent years had now been replaced with a pragmatic realism, giving Israel supporters cause for hope rather than despair.
In a further boost, Dublin’s Jewish community is growing for the first time in decades, thanks largely to the number of families and young workers moving to join high-tech businesses in the city.
For the past two years pro-Israel groups in Ireland have been dogged by an over-riding sense of animosity among the wider public, with a number of high-profile protests and campaigns by Palestinian solidarity groups extensively backed by Irish media commentators.
But Mr Shatter said the tide had now turned and the public had accepted that the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “complex” and could not be solved through boycotts or protests.
While a number of “obsessively anti-Israel NGOs” blamed Israel for all the ills of the Middle East, he said, those views now had “very little traction with the vast majority of the public”.
“You have what are a relatively small number of excessive activists who demonstrate at any event but they do not reflect the views of people in Dublin or Ireland,” said the minister.
“There’s not a widespread anti-Israel attitude. People in Dublin are getting on with their lives, not spending their days thinking about Israel or the Palestinians.”
Mr Shatter is due to travel to the Middle East at the end of this week. He will visit Irish troops serving as part of the United Nations force in southern Lebanon, before moving on to Israel to meet his newly-appointed counterpart, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Mr Shatter will also hold discussions with Palestinian Authority leaders.
“There are areas in respect of the conduct of the Israeli government where criticism is justified,” said Mr Shatter. “But equally there are areas with the Palestinians where criticism is justified.
“The Irish government approach is that we would like to see a significant peace process working, with constructive engagement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“In the context of our own peace process people spent a long time conditioning their own supporters into understanding that there had to be accommodation and compromise. What I try to do is talk about the steps necessary to bring about a substantial peace process and view it from a balanced position. Some people do not appreciate balance.”
Mr Shatter’s Jewish background, support for Israel and domestic social reform policies have led to him being the target of repeated antisemitic abuse.
In April last year an antisemitic YouTube video accused the 62-year-old of being a “Jewish nation-wrecker” who was “destroying Ireland”. Mr Shatter largely sees such attacks as part and parcel of being a minister, but admitted that some abuse had been “over the top” and “inappropriate”.
“I’m well used to being criticised. But I’m afraid there’s always a small number of people who express views that are not appropriate. There are people who are antisemitic and one of the issues I’m concerned about is the increase in antisemitism in the European Union.”
Ireland currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, and Mr Shatter is determined to use the opportunity to tackle rising antisemitism. The attacks on him and others, he said, were the “outward manifestation of something that’s under the surface and needs to be addressed”.
A senior Israeli diplomat in Dublin backed Mr Shatter’s acknowledgement of a changed dynamic in the public’s approach to Israel, citing a campaign last October which forced Irish folk group Dervish to cancel its performances in Israel as a key moment.
The official said: “Irish people have decided ‘enough’ — enough with hatred, enough with going along with the herd. People were exposed to the bullying and the lies of the anti-Israel organisations. The public saw the hate mail and heard the threats directed at Dervish. The Dervish campaign backfired in a big way.”
Irish film-maker Nicky Larkin shocked people in June last year when he travelled to the Middle East and returned with a balanced documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His Irish Arts Council-funded work sparked a furious reaction from anti-Israel activists who accused him of being “an Israeli apartheid apologist”.
But the diplomat said Mr Larkin’s work had led the public to think again. “There was a change of opinion from people who visited Israel and saw the reality of the situation — people like Nicky. They came back with a new perception and said ‘we were misled’. The silent majority were empowered to raise their voice in support of Israel.”
Mr Shatter was equally positive when discussing the future of Irish Jewry. The decline of Dublin’s Jewish community over the past three decades is slowly being turned around. From its highest point of around 4,500 people in the 1970s and 1980s, the community had slipped to only around 1,200 at the turn of the century.
“We had many young people emigrating. They wanted to go to larger Jewish communities elsewhere in the world.
But now it is growing because of the number of US and multi-national technology and pharmaceutical companies in Dublin,” said Mr Shatter.
Maurice Cohen, chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, agreed and said the community’s growth had led to a changed dynamic. Figures compiled last year by the Rep Council show that 30 per cent of Jews in Ireland have moved to the country since 2000, mainly from France, Canada and Israel. At least 50 more have arrived in Dublin in the last five years, bringing the known Jewish population in the city to 1,986.
Mr Cohen said: “They have come for economic reasons. They are young, highly educated, highly-trained people working in technology and for companies such as Facebook, Google and PayPal.
“One young family has just arrived because the gentleman is directing a movie here. There are a lot of people lecturing as well.”
The growth and new arrivals have posed challenges, with indigenous Irish Jews working hard to come to terms with the community thriving, rather than dying, for the first time in perhaps two generations.