Why Is Ireland So Hostile to Israel, Why Do the Irish Support BDS, What Is It about Israel That Upsets Them?

Apr 18, 2016 by

Why Is Ireland So Hostile to Israel, Why Do the Irish Support BDS, What Is It about Israel That Upsets Them?

By Alex Grobman, Ph.D.


Article 0298During her formative years, Israel received significant support in Ireland. Having experienced religious persecution themselves, the Irish identified with Jews. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, according to Professor James Bowen of the National University of Ireland at Cork.

Bowen, who serves as national chairman of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), says the initial sympathy expressed towards Israel disappeared when the Irish learned how the Arabs were “dispossessed” of their land in 1948 and then experienced the “horrors of the post-1967 occupation.”

Founded on November 29, 2001, the IPSC has no policy regarding the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, according to Bowen, it believes the decision to turn the area into two states, a federated state, or a single state should be made by the Palestinians and Israelis, who, the group says, have a legitimate interest in the outcome.

Promoting BDS

However, IPSC does not see itself as merely an interested party trying to support both sides. The group and its national chairman have taken a prominent role in promoting the Boycott-Divestment-and-Sanction (BDS) movement in Ireland against Israel. In fact, Irish academics have been particularly adamant in their efforts to have Israeli academic institutions boycotted.

In a letter to the Irish Times dated September 16, 2006, 61 Irish professors signed a petition urging academic institutions throughout the world to adopt a policy of boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education.

The date was no coincidence. The Irish professors, calling themselves Academics for Justice, published their letter on the anniversary of the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon. In that incident, thousands of Arab civilians, mostly Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians, were killed by a militia controlled by the Philange, a predominantly Christian-Lebanese party. The Philange claimed the attack on Sabra and Shatila was retaliation for the assassination of then-newly elected Lebanese-Christian president Bachir Gemayel. Although Israeli soldiers did not participate in the massacre, the IDF, which was already in the area, did nothing to stop it.

Academics for Justice have proclaimed September 16 as Ireland’s “Boycott Israel” day.

Sympathy for Hamas

The IPSC does not even make a show of being even-handed. When asked by the Jerusalem Post about Hamas’s charter and inflammatory language, including calls for the extermination of Jews in Israel, Bowen dismissed even the possibility of his group’s considering a boycott of Palestinian academic institutions as well.

“The accusation of genocide against Hamas is libelous. The responsibility for ending the conflict lies with the aggressor. Israel is the aggressor,” he said.

The IPSC’s hypocrisy was pointed out by Alexander Yakobson, a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It is obvious that there is no universal norm [in the call for boycott], only discrimination,” he said. “The petitioners don’t call for a boycott of academic institutions in every country with whose policies they disagree. They don’t demand a boycott of the Sudan or of China, which has tremendous academic ties to Europe. And they don’t want to boycott the United States or Britain over Iraq. There is no universal norm; they’re just anti-Israel.”

More significantly, he said, the IPSC professors “don’t demand of any Palestinian academic even to disavow terror.” Yakobson found this especially curious in the face of sanctions imposed by Europe. “Even when Europe imposed sanctions on the Hamas government, it did not impose them on Palestinian universities. Nobody has even suggested doing this,” he said.

Yakobson’s conclusion was to suggest that the Jewish state and her supporters contact the IPSC “to ask what it is about Israel that upsets them.”

Union Boycotts

On April 4, 2013, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represented 14,500 teachers and lecturers throughout the country, became the first educational trade union in Europe to agree to boycott Israeli academia. The motion, calling for “all members to cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students, and academic personalities, as well as all cooperation in research programmes,” passed unanimously.

The TUI then called on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to increase its campaign for BDS against “the apartheid state of Israel, until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank.”

In fact, the Irish trade union movement is a leading supporter of the IPSC. The call for boycotting Israel has been endorsed by IMPACT and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the largest public-sector unions in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, respectively, in addition to ICTU.

The situation prompted Ronnie Fraser, founding director of the Academic Friends of Israel, to see Israel as “an easy target without any organized opposition.”

Unfair to Irish Students

Some supporters of Israel have spoken out against the situation in Ireland, but pointing out that the TUI’s policy means that Irish students stand the most to lose has, thus far, not deterred the Irish teachers. Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations and a foreign policy expert who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, decried the fact that Irish teachers had deprived themselves and their students of significant learning opportunities. The students to be pitied, he said, were those who might want to study at Technion, Israel’s elite engineering and scientific institute, which has been favorably compared to MIT in Cambridge.

This was not an argument the TUI even addressed. They disregarded Abrams’ criticism that, in their call for a boycott of Israel, the Irish teachers ignored China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and all other countries in which students struggle to gain an education under circumstances “that include repressive governments, no academic freedom, political tests for admission to higher education-and in the Saudi case, greatly restricted opportunities for girls.”

“What a lesson to [Irish] students: ignorance, bias, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and anti-Semitism wrapped in self-righteousness,” said Abrams.

More Irish Demonizing of Israel

But teachers are not the only segment of society promoting BDS against Israel in Ireland, where a de facto cultural boycott of the Jewish state has been in effect for years. A classified Israeli Foreign Ministry report revealed in December 2011 that, for more than a decade, no Israel dance or theatrical company, musician, or filmmaker had been invited to Ireland. Thirty-four Irish artists—one-fifth of all Irish performers receiving public funds—signed a petition calling for a cultural boycott against Israel. Irish artists and performers interested in maintaining relations with Israel are subjected to verbal and written attacks.

The Irish press regularly demonizes Israel and tirades against the Jewish state’s leaders are published in the name of “human rights.”

Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church of Ireland, which is funded by the Irish government through Irish Aid, is also anti-Israel. Although Irish Aid’s mandate is to “promote coherence across the full range of Irish government policies on issues such as agriculture, trade, the environment, and fiscal matters,” Trócaire has assumed a major role in fostering the demonization of Israel. In January 2013, for example, Trócaire produced a series of biased “educational resource guides” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that drew strong criticism from Israelis and some Irish commentators.

Fostered by the Government

Although the Irish embassy in Israel condemned the IPSC’s petition as “counterproductive,” the Irish government’s negative attitude towards the Jewish state has, if anything, fostered the enmity which is reflected in the behavior of the Irish academics. An examination of the Irish government’s views of Israel goes a long way towards explaining why the IPSC is so tenacious in advocating this boycott.

The situation in Ireland is not entirely bleak. In 2011, the Irish government coalition between Labor and the right-of-center Fine Gael Party, which takes a more nuanced approach towards Israel, was formed. The Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter, who is Jewish and serves as defense minister, and party chairman Charlie Flanagan, support Israel and regularly condemn the Trócaire boycott campaign.

In fact, some of Israel’s most vigorous advocates in the Irish Parliament are members of the left-leaning Irish Labor Party, including Joanna Tuffy, Richard Humphreys and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. This support may well be a vestige of the period of Labor Zionism, but the ideals still seem to resonate and, perhaps, are reinforced by the enmity towards the Jewish state on the part of the extreme Left.

For example, in November 2011, Irish Labor leader and Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore launched an Israeli film festival in Dublin despite raucous protests from anti-Israel agitators. Gilmore made clear that by publicly opening the festival, he was demonstrating the Irish government’s determination to remain even-handed.

No Consistent Supporters

Even so, there are no consistent supporters for Israel in Ireland’s parliament. According to Rory Miller, a professor of Mediterranean Studies at the University of London, Irish MPs are either blatant supporters of the Palestinian Arabs or simply don’t care about the situation. In this, Israel is not alone. According to Miller, only a minority of Irish MPs, most of whom are conservative Progressive Democrats, would support or defend the US either.

This far, most Irish politicians seem willing to ignore the fact that Israel has much to offer the Irish economically, especially in the field of high-tech industries. The politicians know their negative views toward Israel are shared by the European Union, and, thus, in an effort not to harm relationships with the EU, the Irish MPs are careful never to adopt more favorable positions toward Israel than those of their European partners. The usual position of Irish MPs is that because Israel is the creator of the problems in the Middle East, it is the Jewish state which must make all the concessions.

Despite this de facto anti-Israel behavior, the Irish believe they are privy to unique insight into the Arab-Israeli conflict, based on their official neutral position and celebrated “moral” policies in the international arena. This, the Irish say, endows them with the right and obligation to seek a peaceful solution between the parties.

In light of Ireland’s anti-Israel behavior, Hebrew University’s Yakobson’s question—what it is about Israel that upsets them?—seems more cogent than ever.

Territory and Religion

In fact, Ireland’s anti-Israel positions are not new. Although Ireland granted Israel de facto recognition in 1949, de jure recognition did not come until May of 1963. The delay was partly due to Ireland’s aversion to partitions, a result of its own fight for independence from Britain. The Irish saw the British-endorsed partition between Israel and the Arabs as a cruel means of solving territorial disputes that would not bring peace.

In 1938, one Irish officer assessed the situation like this: “England seems to be under the permanent delusion, as she is here, that she can sell the same article to two people.”

An even more fundamental basis for Catholic Ireland’s opposition to recognizing Israel is religious: The Irish clergy, political parties, general public, and media have been concerned about the status of Christian holy sites, especially in Jerusalem. The Vatican long supported the internationalization of the city and its holy places, and the Irish, greatly influenced by what author Conor Cruise O’Brien has called the “Vatican factor,” have been adamant that the rights of Catholics must be preserved. When Ireland reluctantly granted de jure recognition of Israel, it did so without any inherent or overt acceptance of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Oil and Refugees

Not surprisingly, oil has been an additional factor influencing Irish bias in favor of the Arabs. In mid-1963, an editorial in the Irish Press openly declared, “If it comes to a matter of competition for the friendship of Israel or the Arab League, nobody can doubt what the outcome will be: The oil-rich Arab states possess an attraction denied to Israel.”

There is also an ongoing concern among the Irish for Arab refugees and consternation with Israel for refusing to withdraw from the Golan Heights or the “occupied territories” in Judea and Samaria. Israel’s security concerns were never shared by the Irish, who still see the Jewish state’s “failure” to resolve the refugee issue as “the greatest single obstacle” to peace in the region.

The Irish have never had the political or diplomatic clout to compel Israel to act against its own security interests by compensating the Arabs or allowing refugees to return to Israel proper, but the Irish have been able to donate funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which undertakes support of the Palestinians against Israel.

Members of Unifil

After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 in an attempt to prevent further massacres of Jews by Palestinians based in Lebanon, the United Nations established troops to serve as observers and then as members of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The Irish were among the first to serve in both units, and were frequently called on to quell attacks launched by Arab Christians against Palestinians. In such instances, the Irish invariably blamed Israel.

This attitude led Israeli Ambassador to Britain and Ireland Shlomo Argov to wonder how people in Dublin could sit around “smugly” and “pass judgment” about events in another part of the world. He found it particularly difficult to understand how the Irish could be so “insensitive to the Christian minority in Lebanon,” and later charged Ireland “of leading the pack in [the] constant flagellation of Israel.”

Irish Catholics as “Palestinians”

Jason Walsh, the Christian Science Monitor‘s Ireland-based correspondent, offered another explanation based on a quote from retired Belfast-Jewish businessman Adrian Levy, who said, “Northern Protestants support Israel and Catholics support Palestine.”

Walsh understood that, in Ireland, because “Protestant” and “Catholic” are “not actually religious terms, but stand-ins for pro-British unionists and pro-Irish republicans,” Mr. Levy’s statement “makes perfect sense.”

“For Irish republicans have long felt they were, as much as Palestinians, living in occupied territory. Hearing Northern Ireland described as the ‘Occupied Six Counties’ was not uncommon in my youth during the 1990s,” said Walsh.

Against Israel’s Success

Walsh found that as Israel grew increasingly successful, Irish support for the Jewish state decreased. “In the Irish psyche, Israel functions as a surrogate for Britain: imperial and imperious and, above all, modern,” he said.

He did not deny that Ireland is a modern state, but, he said, the country’s identity is mired “in rebellion against the colonial master,” which results in a feeling of victimhood. He argued that many Irish view themselves as “the wretched of the earth.”

Israel’s modernity, on the other hand, prompts the country to be viewed as nothing more than an American surrogate aligned against “the noble Palestinians unfettered by modern affectations,” said Walsh.

Debunked by Experts

This effort to draw comparisons between Gaza and Northern Ireland was debunked by Eamonn MacDonagh, contributing editor of The Tower, and, in June 2015, by Honest Reporting, which exposed the lies and distortions of a three-part series against Israel in the Irish Times.

“How a few million Jews could possibly oppress or threaten 370 million Arabs or 1.6 billion Muslims” is “a mystery anti-Semites in Ireland and elsewhere are loath to explain. A million or more Arabs still thrive within Israel as citizens,” said G. Murphy Donovan, who writes about the politics of national security. He added that “tolerance has always been a one-way street with Persia, Arabia, and the global community of Muslim nations.”

Most Critical of Israel

In any case, Ireland has been the European country most critical of Israel. As early as 1989, Ireland invited the PLO to open an office in Dublin and followed up by later elevating it to a diplomatic mission. In 1995, the Irish government declined to condemn Arab and Islamist terror attacks, even while other European countries were expressing their outrage.

The Irish government supported the terrorist-infested “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” which set sail from Turkey in May 2010, and, for a long time, was the most vociferous European country attempting to thwart the EU from labelling Hezbollah a terrorist organization. It has been suggested that because Ireland has peacekeepers in the Middle East, it feared the decision to label Hezbollah would further destabilize Lebanon and reduce Irish influence on events in the country.

In October 2014, the Irish parliament passed a motion calling on the government to recognize a Palestinian-Arab state. The motion was proposed by Irish Senator Averil Power of the center-right Fianna Fáil (Republican Party). According to the Times of Israel, he said he did so to “create pressure on Israel to pursue a genuine peace process that has a real prospect of delivering peace and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

“Israel Is a Refuge”

But unless and until Ireland modifies its behavior towards Israel, its actions will be viewed by virtually all supporters of the Jewish state as simple manifestations of anti-Semitism in a country where honest dialogue about the Middle East conflict is increasingly impossible.

It was a lesson Irish filmmaker Nicky Larkin learned in 2011 when he went to Israel as an opponent of the country who believed the Left’s hatred of the Jewish state was justified. His views and the documentary he planned to film changed dramatically once he began meeting people on both sides of the issue.

“Israel is a refuge—but a refuge under siege, a refuge where rockets rain death from the skies. And, as I made the effort to empathize, to look at the world through their eyes, I began a new intellectual journey, one that would not be welcome back home,” he wrote.

No Gray

His difficulties began when he decided his would be a film reflecting both sides of the conflict. After finding the problems more nuanced than he ever believed before, he called the documentary “Forty Shades of Grey.” But this is not what his colleagues expected or wanted back in Dublin.

According to Larkin, they demanded “an attack on Israel. No grey areas were acceptable.”

“An Irish artist is supposed to sign boycotts, wear a PLO scarf, and remonstrate loudly about ‘the Occupation,'” he wrote. “But it’s not just artists who are supposed to hate Israel. Being anti-Israel is supposed to be part of our Irish identity the same way we are supposed to resent the English.”

No Free Speech

Anti-Israel activists’ attitude towards free speech further frustrated Larkin. “Free speech must work both ways. But back in Dublin, whenever I speak up for Israel, the Fiachras and Fionas look at me aghast, as if I’d pissed on their paninis,” he said.

He also challenged his fellow artists’ support for the BDS movement. “What do these armchair sermonizers know about Israel? Could they name three Israeli cities, or the main Israeli industries? What happened to the notion of the artist as a free-thinking individual? Why have Irish artists surrendered to group-think on Israel? Could it be due to something as crude as career-advancement?” he asked.

He concluded with another question: “Perhaps our problem is not with Israel, but with our own over-stretched sense of importance—a sense of moral superiority disproportional to the importance of our little country?”


Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written three new books on Israel: “BDS: The Movement to Destroy Israel;” “Erosion: Undermining Israel through Lies and Deception;” and “Cultivating Canaan: Who Owns the Holy Land?”

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