Monthly Archives: June 2014

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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