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Opinion: Ireland and Palestine – a late-flowering love affair

© by Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Thousands have marched in solidarity with Palestine following the conflict in Gaza, but Ireland’s support of the Palestinian cause was not always so straightforward.

By Diarmuid Breatnach

Palestinian flags fluttering at demonstrations and rallies across Ireland, passing drivers beeping their horns in solidarity; Israeli Ambassadors complaining and even criticising the President of the Irish State; Irish politicians, out of step with the US-led consensus, calling for an unconditional ceasefire while an extremist Israeli Minister calls for the wiping out of the Gaza Palestinians or their expulsion to Ireland.

There is little doubt where lie the sympathies of the majority of the Irish public. When asked why this is, most people point to the long struggle of the Irish against invasion, occupation and sectarianism.

But it wasn’t always like that.

In fact, not so long ago, the Irish public was mostly pro-Israel.

In the early decades of the Irish state, most people’s sympathy with Jews, because of their history of oppression and the horror of the Holocaust, transferred easily enough to the creation of the State of Israel.

In addition, there were important Irish political and cultural connections with the new state and finally, Hollywood played an important part in the moulding of Irish public opinion.

State Politics

The 1937 Constitution established under De Valera specifically mentioned Judaism in Article 44.1 and protected it from persecution while he himself had good relations with the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Chaim Herzog, who had an important role in relation to the founding of Israel.

Nevertheless, the Irish State was wary of granting recognition to Israel, conscious that Palestine had been an Arab colonial possession or ‘mandate’ of the UK, many of whose other possessions around the world were being de-colonised. Five years after the founding of Israel, the Irish State was hardly encouraged to recognise it following the attack on Egypt, along with imperialist France and the UK, following an Egyptian attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal.

The US, keen to show that the balance of world power had changed since the Second World War, publicly condemned the attack, especially chastising the old colonial powers and previous world masters, the British and French. President Eisenhower refused to intervene in the foreign-exchange markets to defend the plummeting value of the pound and the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was forced to resign.

Irish-language supporters and campaigners who wished to have the Irish language spoken throughout Ireland and not only in the Gaeltacht areas, admired the Israeli State for its achievement in restoring Hebrew as a daily-spoken language

The Irish State of course had friendly relations with the US but the Israeli State had some important Irish connections too. The Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Yitzhak Herzog, was late of Belfast and Dublin, where he had also been Chief Rabbi of Ireland. One of his sons, Chaim Herzog, was born in Belfast and raised in Dublin, before becoming the sixth President of Israel. His own son serves as the current President.

Robert Briscoe (1894-1967), an Irish Republican, former prominent IRA Volunteer, TD (1927-1961), and twice Lord Mayor of Dublin (1956/7, and 1961/2), not only supported the creation of the Israeli State but was a special adviser to Menachem Begin after the Second World War. He advised Begin in the transformation of the terrorist Irgun organisation into a parliamentary political movement in the form of Herut in the new Israeli state; the party later became Likud. Briscoe had also fundraised for the Irgun in the US (as he had for the IRA during the Irish War of Independence).

Republican Politics

During the 1960s there was a US and European fashion, especially among young middle-class students both Jewish and Gentile, of going to work in Israeli-dominated Palestine, in collectively-owned agricultural communities, known as kibbutzim.

Also, Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land (holy to all three strands of the Abrahamic tradition: Christians, Jews and Muslims) went by permission of the Israeli State and had a very narrow and sanitised experience (if any at all) of what life was like there for the Palestinians.

But by the late 1960s most left-wing thinking around Europe was clear that the Palestinians were oppressed and fighting a liberation struggle.  Official Sinn Féin sent a delegate to conferences in Jordan and Kuwait in 1970/1. In 1970 an article in the party’s weekly United Irishman described Ireland, like Palestine, as engaged in a national liberation struggle. The Official IRA prisoners in Mountjoy Prison supported the Palestinians in their journal An Eochair in 1973 and Palestinians were among the guerrilla groups represented in the second Anti-Imperialist Festival organised by the Officials in July 1976.

Nevertheless, the election manifesto of the Workers’ Party, successor to Official Sinn Féin, in 1983 accepted the recognition of the State of Israel, although that contradicted party policy and the involvement of its members in the Irish Friends of Palestine organisation, which was committed to supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, party policy was soon publicly and internally reoriented in solidarity with Palestine.

Around this time, the British and Irish Communist Organisation, a small but influential organisation, had a pro-Israel position. However, it was reversed in the late 1980s, shortly before its demise.

In the 1970s, Provisional Sinn Féin’s weekly newspaper An Phoblacht often featured articles sympathetic to the Irish struggle from a US-based correspondent signing himself as Fred Burns O’Brien, one of which was notably favourable in its reference to the Israeli state. However, once the Provisionals declared themselves to be in favour of socialism, they became pro-Palestinian and since the 1990s Palestinian representatives have attended Provisional Sinn Féin’s Ard-Fheiseanna (Annual Congresses), most recently when Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, addressed the party’s gathering this month.

In the early decades of the Irish State, most people’s sympathy with Jews, because of their history of oppression and the horror of the Holocaust, transferred easily enough to creation of the State of Israel

The PLO, dominated by Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah party, recognised the State of Israel and signed up to the Oslo Accords in 1993, on the basis of which they helped to steer the SF membership towards supporting our own peace process (the Oslo Accords were a major component in the later decline of Al Fatah and the rise of Hamas).


Irish-language supporters and campaigners – not all of whom were Irish Republicans or even militant nationalists by any means – who wished to have the Irish language spoken throughout Ireland and not only in the Gaeltacht areas, admired the Israeli State for its achievement in restoring Hebrew as a daily spoken language.

The language of Ashkenazi Jews had been Yiddish, while the Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain and Portugal, spoke Ladino. Those languages were not Semitic and included only a smattering of words from Hebrew, a language that for centuries had been used by Jews mainly in a liturgical context, having died out as a vernacular tongue after 200 CE.

However, the State of Israel made Hebrew its official language, compulsory in state discourse, signage and education. Despite the fact that most Israelis speak the language of their specific settler community (e.g. US English, Ukrainian or Russian), currently 90% of Israeli Jews are proficient in Hebrew, and 70% are highly proficient. Some 60% of Israeli Arabs are also proficient in Hebrew.


The cinema-going public in Ireland regularly saw Pathé news film features before the main film and some features after WWII showed ships of Jewish migrants attempting to land in Palestine, then under British ‘mandate’, being turned away by British soldiers (even though some British public figures had been encouraging of Jewish migration to Palestine at least since the 1917 Balfour Declaration for a Jewish “homeland”). 

Expeditions of Nazi concentration camp survivors being denied a safe port and place to land by the old enemy, imperialist England, resonated with Irish audiences; epically once the British callously used force in August 1947 to deport and then detain the would-be-immigrants in a detention camp in Hamburg.

The sea change, evolving into a tsunami, in public opinion has come about because the Irish public has gradually become aware of the Palestinians as an occupied nation: oppressed and resisting repression

Novels by Leon Uris were to have a big impact on the Irish public, not only in print but on film also.

His 1958 ‘Exodus’, a historical novel, inspired in part by this incident, was published by Doubleday, becoming an international publishing phenomenon – the biggest bestseller in the US since Gone with the Wind (1936) and remained at number one on the ‘NYT’ Best Seller list for eight months.

The novel was followed by the film Exodus starring Paul Newman (1960), purporting to depict events in the creation of the State of Israel. It has been credited with being enormously influential in swinging US popular opinion in support of Israel and had a significant impact on Irish opinion. Its glorification of the Haganah’s violence (which later became the core of the Israeli Army) and its decidedly anti-British perspective found resonance among Irish audiences – it was also anti-Arab.

In 1966, the film Cast a Giant Shadow was produced in the US and was soon shown in Britain and in Ireland. The film took as its human-interest base story that of David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus, a WWII veteran, but its depiction of the formation of the State of Israel was wildly inaccurate, of course showing none of the massacres or evictions of Palestinians carried out. “Mickey” was a member of the Haganah and was played by Kirk Douglas with Senta Berger as the love interest, while even Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, John Wayne and Angie Dickinson had cameo roles in the film.

Despite its number of Hollywood stars and the support of the Israeli State and its armed forces, it reputedly flopped in terms of financial return on investment and among critics.  However, both films were popular in Ireland (showing Jewish paramilitaries fighting uniformed British troops and police didn’t hurt) and strengthened feelings of sympathy with Israel.

Leon Uris continued to have influence in Irish society for a period. In 1976, Doubleday published Uris’ Trinity, a historical novel sympathetic to Irish nationalism and republicanism. The novel spent 21 weeks atop the New York Times Best Sellers’ list that year and 14 weeks in 1977.

The Change

The sea-change in public opinion, more like a tsunami, has come about because the Irish public has gradually become aware of the Palestinians as an occupied nation, oppressed and resisting repression. Generations have become more sophisticated politically too and increasingly people see through the manifest deficiencies in Israel’s democratic structures.

We have watched the annual death toll of ordinary civilians including women and children, reporters, paramedics, and unarmed protesters. We’ve seen the sieges and bombardments of Gaza, its houses, hospitals, bakeries, mosques, sewage treatment facilities, desalination plants, factories, and greenhouses. We’ve seen the eviction of Palestinian families and bulldozing of their homes, while settlers occupy Palestinian land. We’ve read of the restrictive laws around citizenship, marriage, domicile and travel.

And we’ve learned what most of us had not known before, the actual history of the creation of Israel includes the massacres of Palestinians and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, they and their children forbidden to return for generations.

Opinions and dominant cultures can change over time but it is hard to imagine the Irish public ever being pro-Israel again, never mind anti-Palestinian. If Israel’s current political leadership really wants to know who to blame for that sea change, that tsunami, they need only look in the mirror.

Diarmuid Breatnach is an independent writer, singer and political activist, in particular in areas of internationalist solidarity and conservation of historical memory.