The Life of John Henry Patterson, Palimpsest of Tumultuous Times

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson is to be re-interned in Israel in November. In its adventures and intersections with history, his life was so multifaceted and colourful that were it fiction it would be damned as unbelievable. While not prominent in the coverage of his contribution to the creation of Israel, Patterson forms one of the early links between Ireland and Israel by virtue of the fact that he was born in Ireland.

Patterson’s birthplace was Ballymahon, Co Longford, son of an Anglo-Irish Protestant father and an Irish Catholic mother. The year of his birth, 1867, also witnessed the sporadic Fenian Rising which fizzled out ineffectually. It would be the last incidence of insurrection by Irish republicans until the Easter Rising of 1916. Patterson’s early life was lived during a period of calm and security for the Anglo-Irish gentry. However, perhaps his mixed heritage contributed to a certain air of mystery, even alienation that was to surround Patterson all his life. Unlike so many scions of this class, Patterson did not join the British Army as a cadet but as a groom for a cavalry unit, working his way up through the non-commissioned and over the years commissioned ranks.

Patterson’s first claim to fame came when he was hired by the East Africa Company to oversee the construction of a railway in Tsavo in present-day Kenya. Local workers were preyed on by man-eating lions, sparking superstitious fears and a threat to the whole project. Having learned big-cat hunting skills while on service in India, Patterson eventually tracked down and killed the two male lions, manifestly huge beasts as seen in the trophy photographs. Patterson’s account of this, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, was published to much acclaim and fascination in 1907, becoming a best seller.

In the meantime, Patterson fought in the Boer War under General Allenby, winning the DSO and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was also involved in a scandal which drew writers and film makers to Patterson’s colourful life: the suggestion of an affair with the wife of a fellow soldier who died from a gunshot wound while they were all on safari.

One biographical sketch summarises the episode thus: “While he was serving in East Africa as a game warden, a fellow soldier under his command, Corporal Audley Blyth, died or committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. A son, Bryan, was born in March 1909, possibly to Byth’s wife Ethel, who may have been Patterson’s mistress. Bryan was raised by the Pattersons as their own son.” ( )

Ernest Hemingway based his story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber on this incident. Patterson is the inspiration for the Safari guide Robert Wilson, a big-game hunter, womaniser and outsider, a loner who has made his way in the world creating as he progressed his own manly code about how to live life. It is an interesting psychological portrait that may offer clues to Patterson himself: a man of Ireland, but not Irish per se, Anglo-Irish but not quite British, ambitious but independent, a tough disciplinarian but spiritual and erudite.

Patterson was drawn back to Ireland during the Home Rule Crisis of 1913-1914 where he took command of a unit of the Ulster Volunteers, a large private militia raised by unionist leaders in the north of Ireland to frustrate the granting of home rule to Ireland. (For an eloquent and engrossing account of this see Ronan Fanning’s recently published Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1920 (Faber and Faber).

However, Patterson’s destiny lay neither in Africa nor even in Ireland but rather in the Levant. That Patterson did not stay to participate in the revolutionary tumult of his native Ireland but opted for the allure of the Middle East and the adventures of fighting the Ottomans says much about his inclinations and interests.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during the onset and course of World War I, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor formed the Zion Mule Corp in 1915 as approved by General Maxwell. Their intention was to help the British wrest control of the Levant from the Turks and stake their claim to the creation of the state of Israel. Having served in Flanders in 1914, Patterson travelled to Egypt where he met with the young and determined Zionists. The Corp fought gallantly at Gallipoli under Patterson’s command (recounted in his With the Zionists at Gallipoli (1916).

One of the better pen portraits of Patterson is by Zeev V. Maizlin, published some years ago in the Jerusalem Post, (link here ). Maizlin writes: ‘When the Zion Mule Corps was activated in Egypt on March 23, 1915, he [Patterson] was appointed commanding officer with Yosef Trumpeldor as his second-in-command. Patterson wrote: “I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era that such a thing has happened.” This was the first purely Jewish fighting corps that went into action since the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies under Titus in AD 70.’

After a stint back in Ireland were he commanded the 4th Royal Irish Fusiliers and fifth Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Patterson went to England were he formed and trained the Jewish 38th Fusiliers, part of what was to become known as the Jewish Legion, the sobriquet of five Jewish battalions in the British Army.

According to one account, “in February of 1918, Patterson proudly led soldiers of the 38th Fusiliers Battalion, one of the components of the Legion, in a parade in the Whitechapel Road, before they were shipped off to Palestine. They met a tumultuous and joyous reception among the Jews of London, as well as generating amazement among other bystanders….” Patterson fought with his battalion in campaigns in Palestine, notably recorded in his memoirs With the Judaeans in Palestine (1922).

Throughout his time with the Jewish Legion, Patterson encountered and resisted anti-Semitism in the British Army, an experience that came to alienate him further from his erstwhile colleagues and increase his sense of identity as one of uncertainty and flux. Increasingly, he came to admire his Jewish comrades. He was becoming a fervent advocate for the creation of the State of Israel, forming life-long friendships with Zionist leaders, including Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu. (Netanyhu would name one of his sons Yonatan in Patterson’s honour: Yonatan died in the famed Entebbe raid and his younger brother would become Prime Minister.)

After the war, Patterson helped create the infrastructure for what would become the Israeli defence forces. From his adopted home in America, Patterson would advocate for the cause of the Jewish people and he was at the forefront of efforts there to save Jews from the Holocaust. He died in California in 1947, a year short of the creation of the State of Israel.

Patterson’s grandson Alan Patterson has fulfilled his father’s wish for his remains to rest in Israel. The re-internment ceremony will be held on 10th November (Patterson’s birthday) at the Moshav Avihayil Military Cemetery in Netanya, founded by Jewish Legion veterans. Along with the remains of his wife (Francie Helena Gray, born in Belfast) which are also being re-interred, Patterson will rest with his former comrades of the Jewish Legion.

Patterson in many ways is the Judaean counterpart to T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Patterson and Lawrence shared a common origin in both having Anglo-Irish fathers. Lawrence’s father was Thomas Chapman, born not far from Patteron’s Ballymahon. Chapman absconded from his first wife and family with the family governess, Sarah Lawrence, to Wales where T.E was born and given his mother’s surname. Over-layered or compromised identity appeared to compel both men to search for inner meaning, Lawrence finding it in Arab studies, Patterson in Hebrew and biblical studies. Both were searchers, soldiers, scholars, outsiders, men who ultimately found fulfilment in the campaigns for respectively Arab and Jewish nationalism.

Patterson lived a life in tumultuous times and he embraced the adventures open to him. His wanderings progressively created and erased traces of his sense of identity, a veritable palimpsest of the times and places in which he lived, stretching from Ireland, to the heart of Africa and the shores of the Mediterranean.

Ultimately Patterson would find a sense of belonging with his Jewish comrades, outsiders like himself, looking to fashion their own home and indeed their own identity through the Zionist cause. If there is one place for Patterson to finally rest, it is surely here in Israel.

Eamonn McKee

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Remembering 9/11

Twitter is a new medium, an immediate means of mass communication. It’s also highly personal in its subjective compression. The combination makes it the avatar of social media. Most of the time I retweet things that are interesting and relevant to Ireland and Irish Israeli relations – or just plain irresistible on occasion – but 9/11 prompted me to recall my posting to New York and my memories of that day. On the way to the Remembrance Day event in the Arazim Valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem yesterday, I tweeted a sequence of my most vivid memories and impressions of 9/11 (copied below); used like this, tweeting in its staccato brevity seemed to work like memory.

Talking about 9/11 last night, my son, who was seven years of age at the time, said he remembered the day. He was delighted that it was a half-day at school when his mother came to get him. He remembers his mother’s shocked incredulous reaction at the sight of a single tower where two had stood when she had entered the school only minutes earlier; a bystander’s laconic explanation to her that “it went down.” He guiltily wondered whether he caused 9/11 in some way because he had been hoping for something dramatic to happen to break the boredom of the return to school. It’s the kind of guilty conscience we all had as children on occasion, part of childhood innocence.

New York lost its innocence that day. This might seem a strange thing to say about a city that used to be known for its wealth, crime, ceaseless bacchanalia and iconoclastic art scene. However, there was in New York up to 9/11 a zest and love of life that made its residents proud of the city and drew so many to visit and live there. On the edge of the continental US landmass, sheltered by a vast ocean that separated it from the complications of Europe and the troubles of the Middle East, New York was a haven onto itself, Manhattan a crystalline island of success, glamour and good times. And then in a flash from some inexplicable malign force, two of those very highest crystals were shattered and some 3,000 innocents of the city lost their lives.

9/11 showed another side to New York and New Yorkers and what it made it great. If there is a broader sentiment in my memory, aside from the unreality of it all, it is the immediacy of how the city dealt with the attack. The city did not reel in shock but grappled with the immensity of the emergency head on. Firefighters did not think twice about rushing to the scene and entering the dizzy towers visibly being consumed by a ferocious living fire. Police officers and first responders did not flinch in courage or professionalism, even as bodies began to rain down from the heights above. Those leaving the area walked home with dignity, often through the night. Whoever could help did help; and more help came from all over the US.

Sometime after the event, my wife and I had dinner with a friend, Irish journalist and writer Conor O’Clery, whose apartment overlooked the site of 9/11. He had seen what had happened that day and photographed much of it. We saw his snaps of the billowing cloud of dust and debris but he reserved other photos, too dreadful to share and out of respect for those it showed in their last moments. By now, the rubble had been cleared away and we could look into the vast cavern of the excavation, arc lights creating a fog of glare around the workers in the deep and infernal pit. With undaunted energy and application, New Yorkers were clearing to build anew: Perhaps less innocent now but always resilient, always forging ahead, always New York, New York.

If you are minded to, taking a trip to the memorial in Jerusalem in the Arazim Valley is worth a visit and a pause for reflection. Beneath a sculpture of a monumental American flag a piece of one of the towers is entombed behind glass and the names of the victims inscribed around the elegant amphitheatre. Information here

Shabbat Shalom


Remembering 9/11 on Twitter

Hard to believe 13 years since my family and I woke up on a beautiful New York morning and a day that would reshape our world.

After I dropped our young kids to the UN school, I recall glancing down Park Avenue and seeing a billowing grey cloud of dust.

As Press Officer, I had the only TV in the Consulate. Local staff were trying flickers to turn it on: something terrible had happened.

We stood around the TV images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, all of us wrapt and confused. A tower sank in a haze of thick dust.

We got a call through to HQ on a land line. We didn’t hang up for days. It was our lifeline to Dublin as comm systems crashed.

DFA cranked into gear as the SG created a crisis centre in the Grand Ballroom and assembled a consular team to fly to NY asap to support us.

My wife called. Should she get the kids out of the school? I said no, it was miles from the Twin Towers.

Rumors were flying: more planes were in the air about to strike DC: two were hijacked and flying from Heathrow heading straight for NY.

News reports came in about a plane hitting the Pentagon. I called Mary and said get the kids.

What followed was a blur of activity, piecing together what was happening, reporting to HQ, dealing with the press from Ireland.

We needed to figure out how many Irish were killed, injured or needing our help. The Irish media asked many ‘Irish were among the dead?’

But in NY how do you define Irish? Irish born? Child of Irish born? Passport holder? And what of Irish Americans going back generations?

Stairwell: Irish American firefighters going up meet Irish American financial traders going down. Story of the Irish. They died together.

As 9/11 unfolded, one of the biggest helps to the Consulate was the NYPD. Every other cop had an Irish name: the Irish pulling together.

During the crisis and its long aftermath, it felt surreal. Clichéd but true, at times it felt like a movie, not quite real.

The Consulate was manned 24/7: a great team running on adrenaline. Old friends arrived as part of the consular group from Dublin.

Our home was on East 37th St. My wife checked in when she could: kids home safe but confused by the news. People were streaming by on foot.

Evening 9/11: she said the air had a strange odor, a wretched mix of dust and burn. Save for emergency vehicles, city at a standstill. NY, city of spontaneous shrines.

We pilgrimaged to nearby Armory Building, festooned with notes, photos of those hopefully just missing.

The missing of 9/11 we knew later were dead, families forever bereft. As we remember them today, may they rest in peace.

My wife and I honoured to attend moving 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony, Jerusalem.


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Some thoughts on Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel’

Every country should have an Ari Shavit. His acclaimed and criticized book My Promised Land, the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel and Grau, 2013) is an engrossing and insightful story of a nation told from the perspective of a questioning, ardent man. It is the kind of compassionate dissection and health check that every country could do with once in a generation or so.

Shavit makes no claim for his account as history and that is its strength. It is his story, the story of his family, of his profession as a journalist and how his life has been shaped by the dramatic creation and evolution of Israel. The narrative moves from encounters with the landscape of Israel and the individuals who shaped Israel’s achievements in key fields to majestic thematic sweeps that explain why and how Israel got to where it is today.

Perhaps Shavit’s greatest quality as a writer and chronicler – and he has many – is his empathy with the other viewpoint and the courage with which he explores and records the experiences of others, in particular those of the Palestinians dispossessed by the creation of Israel.

Shavit has thought long and hard about Israel and the dynamics that have shaped it. His narrative falls into well-defined even abrupt phases, each driven by social and political revolts. He moves eloquently from the founding Zionist idealism, the wars for survival and the massively under-appreciated impact of the arrival of the Oriental Jews – the mizrahim – in the 1950s and 1960s to the arrival of one million Russians in the 1990s, the growth of the settler movement and the Orthodox community (now numbering 700,000), the cultural and economic opportunities of globalization, and the burdens and expectations of the middle classes.

Each of these revolts presented an enormous challenge to Israel. Each of these was dealt with expediently and ultimately successfully, though Shavit argues at a price. That price, he suggests, is cumulative and now coming due.

Shavit is smitten with the notion that Israel is in trouble, possibly deep trouble, despite the miracle of its birth and survival. He looks backward in time; his family’s history is woven in the very fabric of Israel’s story. But he projects forward too; as he watches his children grow, he wonders what future lies ahead for them. Indeed his anxiety about Israel’s future is what has driven his exploration of its past. The title of the book captures his belief in a bifurcated Israel, triumphant and tragic. Shavit posits, mainly, that Israel’s triumph precedes a cluster of hinge moments between 1967 and 1977 and that its tragedy follows that cluster.

But Shavit is too aware of Israel’s dualistic nature – socialist and ruggedly individualistic, secular and religious, liberal democratic and oppressively colonializing – to suggest that the triumph and tragedy are divided chronologically by a convenient caesura. Rather the triumph and tragedy interplay: What made Israel triumph contained the seeds of its tragedy. He is mindful and courageous in facing the fact that Israel could not have come into existence without the Nakba, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their ancestral lands and villages. Indeed he goes on to argue that the heart of the matter is not 1967 but 1948 (his account of what happened at Lydda in 1948 has drawn particularly heavy fire from his critics.) Without the original sin of the 1948 expropriation and expulsion of Palestinians, the state of Israel could not have been possible. Yet the existence of Israel was an existential and moral imperative against the backdrop of the Holocaust.

Much of his account indeed is a constant juggling of such moral juxtapositions and how to understand, even rationalize, them. The many moral and strategic conundrums he encounters make the book the thrilling, courageous and sympathetic account that it is.

Shavit is not blithe enough to suggest that expiating the moral corrosion of the 1967 occupation by acceding to the two state solution is an easy or obvious thing to do: for ending the occupation certainly increases the security risks to Israel through the sheer loss of a heavy security and intelligence presence that the occupation demands. But unless Israel ends the occupation, it faces an increasingly difficult international environment, the prospect of a bi-national state and demographic uncertainty about sustaining a Jewish majority, and the alienation of the younger Jewish Diaspora notably in the US.

Shavit writes vividly about the unique threats that Israel faces and of which we comfortably in Europe are less cognizant. After the Holocaust, the decision to concentrate so much of world Jewry in one place was necessary but a gamble of a very high order; “…essential but dangerous” as Ari Shavit writes. He points out that in 1950 10% of Jews were in Israel; today it is 45% and by 2025 the majority of the world’s Jews will be Israeli. Israel is western, democratic and Jewish in an Orient of Arabs and Muslims comprising an outer circle of 1.6bn Muslims, an intermediate circle of 370 million Arabs and an inner circle of Palestinians who by 2055 will comprise 10 million or 55% of the population between the Jordan and the sea. All these circles press in on Israel in some form or another.

In a very specific way the title does not do justice to Shavit’s thesis and conviction. It might have been more accurately entitled if it contained the word ‘hope’ along with ‘triumph’ and ‘tragedy’. In all fairness that might have defied the cleverest of editors but it’s a necessary caveat because Shavit concludes on a positive note. He sees his children contented and confident as young citizens of Israel in a way that proved impossible for Jews anywhere else.

The concluding chapter is at one level hopeful but its title – By the Sea – is double edged. Yes, he seems to be saying, it’s lovely to see my kids by the sea free and equal in this miracle of a country but being by the sea is very dangerous because there is nowhere else to go, we are at the edge. Yet as he reflects on the miracle that is Israel, he concludes that its resilience and creativity, its commitment to life and restless energy suggests that Israel can yet again fashion a solution to its problems, that another chapter defying the odds can and will be written.

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Reflecting on Gaza and the Passing of Irish Peace Maker, Albert Reynolds

Ambassador’s Message, 22 August 2014

These are distressing and uncertain times but for none more so than the families who have lost loved ones or seen them injured: the families of the kidnap and murder victims Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Mohammed Abu Khdeir; families of the members of the IDF killed and injured in Gaza, many of the fallen so young they had barely tasted life; the families of those killed or injured by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza; the families of those Palestinians killed in the West Bank during public order disturbances; the many, many families in Gaza who have suffered terribly and endured a frightening level of fatalities and casualties, including many so very young. As we mark World Humanitarian Day this week, we record too that eleven UNRWA personnel, eleven medical staff, eight fire fighters and seven technicians working on water and energy supplies have been killed.

Everyone living here in Israel has experienced something along the spectrum of fear. Seeing my wife and children stand in the bomb shelter and feel our home shudder as Iron Dome missiles intercept rockets nearby was at the mildest end. Ashkelon, Ashdod and other towns near Gaza along with Kibuttzim there have been hardest hit by rockets and now face new fears about attacks from tunnels that have demonstrated their fearful potential.

The Irish Government has made clear its position on the situation in Gaza on a number of occasions, nationally and jointly with EU partners, most comprehensively the statement by Minister Flanagan in the Seanad Éireann debate on the Situation in Gaza and Ukraine, on 31 July ( Other key documents are listed below this message.

Ireland’s support for humanitarian work is a strong aspect of our foreign policy. This is partly because of Ireland’s tradition of missionary and more recently NGO work in some of the world’s most deprived and unstable places. On 21 July Minister Flanagan and Minister of State Sean Sherlock T.D. announced a contribution of €500,000 to the UNRWA flash appeal for humanitarian aid for Gaza. This is on top of substantial Irish Aid assistance to the Palestinian people, which amounted to €10.7 million in 2013. (

As the crisis continues to unfold, let us hope that a ceasefire can be restored and that negotiators and their partners in the UN, US and EU can map out a solution that avoids further conflict and loss of life, eliminates threats to security, facilitates reconstruction and improvement of life in Gaza, and helps build towards a reinvigoration of the Middle East Peace Process.

Ireland is reflecting on our own peace process this week as we mourn the passing of former Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds T.D. His outstanding achievement was the creation of the conditions for the declaration of an IRA ceasefire on 31st August 1994, the twentieth anniversary of which we fast approach. He did this by negotiating with British Prime Minister John Major what became the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993.

The Declaration set out principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, this was political leadership of a very high order indeed on the part of the Taoiseach.

An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major appealed to all sides to grasp the opportunity for a new departure that would compromise no position or principle, nor prejudice the future for either community. In the stirring words of the Declaration’s concluding paragraph: “On the contrary, it would be an incomparable gain for all. It would break decisively the cycle of violence and the intolerable suffering it entails…..these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundations for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation. They commit themselves and their Governments to continue to work together, unremittingly, towards that objective.”

The Downing Street Declaration was negotiated with great determination by Mr Reynolds. In his passing this week, Ireland rightly honours him for that signal achievement. For the conceptual breakthrough and the framework for peace set out in the Declaration was critical in creating the peace process and in shaping in decisive terms the Good Friday Agreement itself in 1998.

You can read the full text of the historic Downing Street Declaration here–joint-declaration-1993-1.pdf

The Department of the Taoiseach has opened a book of condolence which you can find here

Finally, I would like to let you know that David Lee has joined us at the Embassy. David will be looking after our database, amongst other things, so if you know of someone interested in joining our network of friends you can have them send an email to David ( or to our external mailbox on our Embassy website (

Best wishes and Shabbat Shalom,


Eamonn McKee
Ambassador Tel Aviv

Irish Government position on Gaza, Key Documents

• Statement by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore T.D., on 9 July
• Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D., 14 July
• Address by Minister Flanagan in the Dáil on 16 July
• Statement on Gaza by the EU Heads of Government at the European Council, 14 July
• Statement on Minister Flanagan’s meeting with the Ambassador of Israel, 18 July
• Conclusions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, 22 July
• Address by Ireland at the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, 23 July

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Irish Israeli Relations: Remarks in Honour of Ambassador Zvi Gabay

(The Israel Ireland Friendship League hosted a talk and reception to mark the launch of the memoirs of Zvi Gabay, the first resident Ambassador of Ireland to Israel who presented his credentials to President Robinson in 1994.  His book, written in Hebrew, is entitled From Baghdad to the Pathways of Diplomacy – a Personal Story and his friends hope that with a little encouragement he will have it published in English.)

I am delighted to be part of the launch of Ambassador Gabay’s book of his life and times. I gather he looks back rather fondly on his time in Ireland I am happy to say.  This is also true of his family.  Ireland’s influence is probably most marked on his daughter who graduated from Trinity College. Zvi is the kind of diplomat to which we all aspire; he is wise and erudite, a writer and a man of ideas. I enjoy his columns and very much look forward to the translation of his book.

 It is also appropriate to mark this occasion as we reflect on fifty years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Israel.

 Of course the history of Irish Jewish relations goes back to the early Middle Ages when the Annals of Innisfallen record the arrival of Jews in Galway followed some time later by the establishment of a Jewish community in Dublin in the 12th century.  Over subsequent centuries, Anglo-Jews arrived and established themselves in Ireland, mainly in Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

These were followed by a surge of Jewish emigration to Ireland from the Pale of Russia, predominantly from Lithuania, in the 1880s and 1890s.  They settled also in Ireland’s main cities. In my hometown of Dublin, they established themselves off the South Circular Road and as they rapidly moved up the socio-economic ladder they moved to the leafier suburbs.

The Briscoe family epitomized the commitment, patriotism and contribution of the Irish Jews to Ireland. Abraham Briscoe came to Ireland from Lithuania as a teenager and earned his living as a peddler, traveling the highways and byways of Ireland. The condition of the Irish under British rule that he witnessed made him an ardent Irish nationalist. He called one of his sons Robert after the famous Irish patriot Robert Emmet, executed by the British in 1803 for his rebellion.

Robert Briscoe would become a committed insurgent in the fight for Irish independence, aligning himself with Eamon de Valera with whom he formed a close bond. During the War of Independence, he ran guns for the IRA. He became Ireland’s first Jewish member of our Parliament, the Dáil, having joined the Fianna Fáil party. Robert’s son Ben inherited his mantle, making a distinguished contribution to Irish life both as a member of the Dáil and as a Lord Mayor of Dublin. Abraham Briscoe’s grandson Daniel made Aliya to Israel and has established himself as a leading medical practitioner in his field, doing much philanthropic work at home and internationally.

The Irish military struggle for Independence between 1919 and 1921 was of course an inspiration to Zionists fighting against the British: Yitzak Shamir’s nom de guerre was ‘Michael’, after Michael Collins.

It is from the community of second generation Litvaks that our most famous Irish Jew comes, Leopold Bloom – probably the greatest fictional portrait of the twentieth century, brought to life by James Joyce.  It is clear from Ulysses that Joyce was familiar with the Jewish community in Dublin. Bloom, for example, considers an advertisement that offers investment in Turkish Palestine and there are a number of both overt and subtle anti-Semitic encounters.  Indeed, one of the central concerns of his novel is the notion of the native outsider; Bloom as a Jew and Dedalus as an artist.

During one encounter with an anti-Semite, the school headmaster Mr Deasy, Dedalus rebuts him and famously says that he is trying to escape from the nightmare of history. It is not a thought that preoccupies Bloom in that age of innocence before the Holocaust. One person from the Jewish community in Ireland was lost to the Shoah. Ettie Steinberg had moved to Belgium with her new husband and was tragically rounded up just before visas for safe passage to Ireland arrived.

Some Nazi bombs fell in the Jewish neighbourhood in Dublin and one wonders if German intelligence had been so good as to know that that was the heart of Litvak life at the time.

 By the 1950s, Irish Jews had made a huge impact on life in the capital city; in politics, medicine, law, arts and entertainment.  However by this time too there began a rapid decline in Ireland’s Jewish community. This followed a broader pattern evident too in Britain where small Jewish communities moved to larger urban concentrations like Manchester and London, emigrated to the United States or made Aliya to Israel. Dublin was left all the poorer for their decline as a force in Irish life.

The Irish Jewish community made an important contribution not just to Irish life but to the life of Israel. Its first Chief Rabbi during the mandate period and later under independence was Yitzhak Herzog, Ireland’s first Chief Rabbi before he made Aliya in 1936.  Like the Briscoe’s, the Herzogs were committed Irish nationalists.  De Valera had come to know Rabbi Herzog well and would spend evenings with in deep conversation during the 1920s.  Their relationship endured and de Valera visited him at his home in Jerusalem in 1950, accompanied by Robert Briscoe.  Herzog’s son Jacob would make a significant contribution to Israeli diplomacy. His other son, Chaim, born in Belfast and raised in Dublin, would fight for Israeli independence and later become its sixth President. His grandson, Isaac, continues to make his contribution to Israeli public life as Member of the Knesset and leader of the Labor Party.

Ireland and Israel both entered the international community, profoundly reshaped by WWII, around the same time. The State of Israel was born in 1948. Ireland’s wartime isolation slowly drew to an end when it joined the Marshall Aid programme that year. Ireland was blocked from joining the United Nations until 1955 so it missed out on the formative debates and resolutions that established Israel and the commitment to a Palestinian State.

Ireland quickly granted Israel de facto diplomatic recognition in February 1949. However official recognition did not occur until 1963. In Conor Cruise O’Brien’s telling phrase, the “Vatican factor” played its part in the delay, the concern inter alia that Irish foreign policy be consistent with that of the Vatican in relation to the status of the Holy Places (see Ireland’s Decision for De Facto Recognition of Israel, 1947-9 by Paula Wylie in Irish Foreign Policy 1919-1966, From Independence to Internationalism, Kennedy and Skelly (Eds), (Four Courts Press, 2000)).  Non-resident Ambassadors were established on a reciprocal basis in 1974.  The Government of Ireland gave approval for the establishment of a resident Israeli Ambassador in 1993. The first Israeli Ambassador to Ireland presented his credentials to President Mary Robinson in 1994: Zvi Gabay.

My great friend and colleague, Brendan Scannell became the first resident Irish Ambassador in Israel in 1996. In a commemorative supplement in the Irish Times in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, he wrote, “The State of Israel proves what vision, hard work, creativity, perseverance, courage and not a little stubbornness can achieve.”

Also in the Supplement, which Zvi has kindly shared with me, Zvi himself wrote:

 “Ireland and Israel are two nations that have much in common, most importantly both were born in this century in war and both are striving for peace, within and without……. Relations between our countries are both old and new. The heritage links between our two religions date back to a common beginning that bind Christianity and Judaism in broader kinship than that of nationality.”

He wrote this in 1998, just after we had negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement became the foundation stone for the continuing peace in Northern Ireland and for the ongoing reconciliation between the traditions that share the island of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland.

We have the same hopes for Israel and its relations with the Palestinian people and with its regional neighbours. We have faith that that can be achieved through peace, negotiation and the two state solution. We believe that that outcome best guarantees the security and prosperity of Israel.

On the MEPP, Ireland is guided by a commitment to the two-state solution, the EU’s active engagement in the search for peace, the rule of international law, the fulfillment of UN Resolutions and adherence to human rights.  This may lead us at times to have frank exchanges of views but it does not detract us from our commitment to Israel and the peace to which we all aspire. The question is not the aim but how we get there.

The Irish presence here in Israel is not of course just diplomatic. It is represented by the Irish community, including those who have made Aliya here and those who have moved here to work and live.

The Israel Ireland Friendship League has been a mainstay of the Irish community here. I want to offer particular thanks to the League and to Malcolm Gafson for its contribution to our bilateral relationship since Corkman Dr. David Birkhan founded it forty-five years ago in 1969.  We also have the Israel Ireland Chamber of Commerce and the Ireland Israel Business Network promoting business links.

Economically, Irish exports to Israel are worth €550 million. Irish and Israeli companies are working in both countries with significant investments involved.  The number of Irish pubs here in Israel testifies to the popularity of Ireland as a brand representing tradition and hospitality.

Irish literature is also a strong source of mutuality, particularly the writings of Samuel Beckett, commemorated each year in the Annual Beckett Lecture at Tel Aviv University, ongoing now for more than a decade thanks to the inspiration and commitment of Professor Linda Ben-Zvi.  Where Joyce wrote from a world poised on the cusp of modernity, Beckett wrote from a world that was physically and morally a smoking ruin. World War and the Holocaust were devastatingly bleak parchments on which an artist might consider man and his place in the cosmos. Beckett’s willingness and capacity to do this, I think, explain his appeal here in Israel where making sense of catastrophe is an inescapable daily occupation. Writers, acting as the voices of our public and private narratives, form a central part of life in Ireland and Israel.

There is then a very constructive bilateral relationship between Ireland and Israel.  It is deeply rooted in our shared history of struggle for survival, independence and identity in a fast changing world. We both have had to wrestle a sensible narrative from our history and to forge peace from a turbulent past. That is ongoing work for both of us as a people.

We can learn much from each other. Ireland can learn much from the fantastic development of the Israeli economy, its prodigious creativity and entrepreneurial skill. Israel might look to our peace process for ideas about how to resolve conflict, to manage differences and to build peace. We both understand the complexities, the contradictions, choices, compromises and ultimately the sheer dogged determination that progress requires.

We have made great strides in our relationship. Our guest of honour tonight, Zvi Gabay, played a formative part in that when he arrived as Israel’s first Ambassador there twenty years ago. His contribution, his wisdom and his great personal warmth are fondly remembered and did much to get our diplomatic relationship off to a great start.  Thank you.

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Some Recent Topics and Themes from Ireland-Israel

(Touching on Beckett, the Holocaust, the Irish dead of WWI, commemorating Ireland’s past, the Euro elections, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land and a visit to Petra.)

If you were at the 10th Annual Tel Aviv University/Irish Embassy Samuel Beckett Lecture yesterday, I hope you enjoyed the evening and our conversations over refreshments afterwards.  (If you were not, well there’s always next year.) I and my colleagues at the Embassy are delighted to continue this proud tradition, one began through the inspiration and commitment of the wonderful Professor Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank the Dean of the Arts Faculty Prof. Zvika Serper and Prof. Shulamith Lev-Aladgem, Chair, Dept. of Theatre Studies for their continued support.

As I noted in my welcoming remarks, Beckett is a central figure in Ireland and Israel but he is more favoured here I think than his mentor James Joyce.  It is not too much of a guess to propose that this is because Beckett deals with catastrophe, stripping man’s condition down to its existential essence in response to the physical and moral ruins of WWII and the Holocaust. 

Stripping art down to its essence was also the concern of Avigdor Arikha, a survivor of the Shoah and Beckett’s great friend in Paris for over four decades. 

Our guest speaker was Alba Arkiha, Avignor’s daughter, who spoke eloquently and insightfully of her memories of the chiseled, blue-eyed man who regularly came to visit, to chat, to drink and to stay silent in company.  Sam, as they called him, would become her godfather and occasional mentor, a benign even beatific figure in a noisy household that brimmed with art, literature and conversation from its many creative guests.  

Alba’s memoir Major/Minor assembles her memories; what gives the book its beauty is the kaleidoscopic recall, poetically expressed, of someone making sense of life and of those around her, lived in Paris but threading through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York and London.   I want to thank Alba for making the trip here and hope that she will be back for a future Beckett event.

As you know, I occasionally collect links from my Twitter account that collectively turn out to be less random that I think when I post them. 

Three items regarding the Holocaust caught my eye. 

The first was a paradoxically sobering and inspiring report on new avenues to catch and convict guards involved at the death camps even at this late hour;

The second was simply inspiring, recounting the brave actions of one British man who saved 669 children while so many others stood idly by:

Third was a BBC story of the poignant and nightmarish voyage of the SS St Louis as it vainly criss-crossed the Atlantic in May 1939 with 900 hundred Jews fleeing the Nazis:

In terms of Ireland’s own human catastrophe, the Great Irish Famine, I tweeted a link to this article under the rubric ‘remembering one million dead’;

Still on the subject of remembrance, the Irish Independent reported on the number of Irish who died in WWI; The magnitude of the losses were startling for such a small country at 49,000; counties Dublin and Antrim recorded the most fatalities with more than 10,000 between them. 

These loses more than validate the recent respect accorded to their memory in Ireland, including at Glasnevin Cemetery and a RTE report covers developments there

I tweeted a very interesting speech by my colleague, our Ambassador in London Dan Mulhall, on the subject of commemorating the past here

More contemporaneously, good news from Ireland included the fact that our debt rating has been upgraded by two notches, reflecting our economy’s growth and I think a growing confidence that the Euro crisis is passing, even if structural issues still remain unresolved such as the overhang of bank debts imposed on unsuspecting taxpayers:

Ireland as you know recently held local and European elections, as well as a number of by-elections.  There has been extensive news coverage of the elections to the European parliament, notably for the results in a number of countries that showed a surge in Euro-critical, Euro-sceptical and frankly plainly right wing parties in some instances. 

This has led to much scratching of heads in Euro-circles in Brussels and in capitals.  The message from the Irish Government was that while we have performed exceptionally well in overcoming our financial crisis, and our economy has improved in terms of growth and employment, there is too much of a disconnect between the macro-economic picture of recovery and what ordinary people, who have borne the brunt of austerity most directly, feel in their household income and prospects. 

You will be lost for choice in the coverage but I would recommend this link which I tweeted, a column by the NYT’s Roger Cohen that draws its inspiration from an unlikely source;

Closer to home, I tweeted some quotes and pictures from President Peres’ reception for the Diplomatic Community in honour of the visit of Pope Francis.  Thanks to my front row perch I managed this picture . 

President Peres affirmed the Pontiff’s message saying that “I believe that your visit and call for peace will echo through the region and contribute to revitalizing the efforts to complete the peace process between us and the Palestinians, based on two states living in peace. A Jewish state – Israel. And an Arab state- Palestine.” 

In his remarks, Pope Francis underlined the need for peace and its widespread benefits; the Pope said he prayed daily for peace, security, prosperity and fraternity, above all fraternity, the most beautiful of all.  “I renew my plea for all parties not to do anything against their pleas for peace and a true settlement.” 

Overall, I think it is fair to say that the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land touched all the vital reference points on both sides while delivering firm encouragement to resume the search for peace in a conflict that has universal relevance. 

Finally, the visit of a friend occasioned a trip to Petra.  I could not resist a blog on this fascinating place and its history; 

After a long day trotting around the site, up and down its stone-hewn steps and across its sandy avenues, we were footsore but thrilled to have got a sense of this justly famous site. 

 Shabbat Shalom,




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Petra, Back to the Future at the Nabatean Metropolis

So iconic is the image of Petra’s Treasury facade that one approaches it excited to have fulfilled an ambition yet with trepidation that it might underwhelm. Petra though deserves the description ‘breath-taking’ as few other sights do. As one turns a slight curve in the siq, the narrow cleft in the mountain leading to Petra, one glimpses its Classical broken pediment and columns; an involuntary intake of breath followed by a low ‘wow’ testifies to its impact. This is very much as its creators intended, placing the view just so to impress the new visitor, of which Petra had many, then as now.

Surrounded on all sides by high vertical walls of warm coloured rock, the sandy floor in front of the Treasury offers a natural forum for crowds to mingle. Millennia ago these crowds would have been the Nabatean residents of the city of Petra and traders from all points of the compass; today it is global tourists and local Bedouin offering their donkeys, camels and local knowledge for a price.

The grandeur and fine detailing of the Treasury with its Roman motifs, broken and blurred remains of reliefs and pockmarks from Bedouin bullets (looking to trigger a release of hidden treasure) holds one’s attention until curiosity to see the city itself beckons.   A narrow defile to the right of the Treasury leads to the city, a canyon of burial chambers carved into the sandstone and a finely crafted amphitheatre capable of seating seven thousand spectators. Further on the gorge opens to a wider valley that once housed many buildings and the bulk of the city’s population, reckoned to have been 20,000 at its peak. Further on again, up more than eight hundred steps carved into a steep crevice in the rocks, one comes to a high plateau and another elegant carved facade, similar if simpler than the Treasury, known as the monastery.

From the perimeter of small heights around the monastery’s plateau, there are fine views of the steep, serrated and forbidding hills that form the eastern mountain range of the Jordan Valley. Like the city below, in its heyday this plateau would have been paved and rimmed with columns, overlooked by an impressive classical acropolis on the height directly across from the monastery facade. What a vision this lofty architectural beauty must have been under the glorious amber of the setting sun.

The quarrying and carving necessary to create Petra’s tombs and temples was an astonishing achievement, barely possible to conceive, even if sandstone is regarded as a relatively soft stone. The physical effort was combined with mathematical precision and a high degree of architectural design and planning. Nabatean motifs are merged with Classical ones, as befits a metropolitan city with all its international influences. The famous Treasury building though seems to be a step up in its forceful articulation of Roman design, to the exclusion of Nabatean influence, standing as if in testament to the power of Rome. Indeed Petra’s wealth attracted inevitably the attentions of the Romans who brought it under its sway in the first century BCE.

Like all cities, Petra had an economic rationale. The Nabateans were originally pastoralists from the Arabian peninsula who developed sophisticated systems to maximize the use and storage of water, including sculpting the land to created water retaining sumps, building dams and creating earthen conduits to direct water run-off and flash floods into cisterns for storage. This allowed for patches of sustainable agricultural production capable of providing food and and water supplies for travelers and caravans along the trails criss-crossing the arid landscape: Combining these opened trade routes throughout the region.

The Nabatean economy was fueled by this trade and Petra emerged as a hub, linking north (Damascus), south (Aqaba), the Asian east and European west via Petra itself; another Nabatean hub at Avdat in the Negev desert of Israel offered a stepping stone to Gaza port bristling with ships from all over the Mediterranean.

Petra is one of the few historic places that probably benefits from the hubbub of tourists and the insistent Bedouins offering rides on their camels and donkeys and snacks, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee in pavilions. The activity helps one visualise the city as it once was, a crossroads for the intrepid and the commercially minded. But it does take an imaginative effort to summon up a vision of the buildings that must have crowded the gorge at the city’s heart. They were shattered by a series of devastating earthquakes in the fourth century during Petra’s Byzantine era, so destructive in fact that they led to the abandonment of the city. By then, the orginal Nabatean culture had long been diminished under Greco-Roman influences. And Petra was also by then probably more of a religious centre since much trade had been diverted north to Palmyra in modern day Syria.

Lost to time, Petra remained a location known only to the Bedouin who had begun to arrive in the region in the 14th century. Their secret was prised from them by Johann Ludwig Burkhardt, a determined, intellectual and audacious Swiss explorer who entered the city in 1812 disguised as an Arab scholar.

Until recently, Petra’s man-made caves and hollows were home to Bedouins but its inhabitants were encouraged by the Jordanian Government to move to nearby accommodation providing not just modern amenities like water, electricity and wifi but proximity to their employment servicing the tourists coming to Petra.

One of our traveling companions was from New Zealand and was therefore familiar with the story of Marguerite van Geldermalsen. Originally from New Zealand, van Geldermalsen had travelled the world including Petra in the early 1970s only to fall in love with a Bedouin whom she married. She lives now in the new village nearby. We met her son, one of three children born and raised there, who was manning the family stall, set beneath the impressive Royal Tombs, selling jewelry, objets d’art and of course his mother’s compelling autobiography, Married to a Bedouin (Virago, 2009).

Part of the fascination of Petra is the glimpse that it provides into the life of the region some two thousands years ago. It owed its existence to the flow of trade that came naturally to a region that sits at the juncture of Europe, Africa and Asia. The tectonic instability of the crunching continents that meet here at the apex of the Rift Valley ultimately doomed Petra.

Today it is the instability of conflict and consequent security concerns that dooms the trade and cultural mix that should come naturally to the people in this wonderful region, as indeed it had done in times past though one suspects not as definitively as today. Crossing the Jordan-Israel border either side of the Allenby Bridge now is a taxing and bureaucratic affair; no commerce currently enters Gaza. True, armies criss-crossed the region since times immemorial and archaeological layers testify to the waxing and waning of influences; Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim, Mamluk, Ottoman, French and British.  

Petra though reminds us of what the region once was and can be – dynamic, free flowing, a nexus for trade and far-away cultures to mix creatively and influence each other. Only peace makers can make that the future too.






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