The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Center for German and European Studies sponsored a panel discussion on Monday about the development of Irish-Israeli relations. University Provost Lisa Lynch moderated the panel composed of former Israeli Ambassador to Ireland Zeev Boker, Brandeis Prof. Alexander Kaye (NEJS), and Wellesley Professor Emerita of Jewish studies Frances Malino. 

Kaye began by explaining that “for any people who don’t know the history in tremendous depth, it’s a surprise to think that … there are historical overlaps” between Ireland and Israel. Kaye said that the overlaps between Irish nationalists and Jewish nationalists include a deep religious tradition, a complicated relationship with the British empire “ranging from acquiescence and diplomacy to violence and terrorism” and extreme inner tensions that resulted in the partition of Ireland and threatened partition in Israel. 

Malino expanded on the connections between Israel and Ireland, describing political leaders on both sides who had strong relations with the other. For example, Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell was influential in passing the Ireland Act of the 1949, granting the Irish the right to vote in the United Kingdom’s elections. After this act, he turned to calling for Jewish suffrage.

According to Malino, O’Connell was a “huge inspiration for Jewish leaders” such as American Zionist Abba Silver, who, in a speech advocating for Jewish resettlement in Palestine, quoted O’Connell’s slogan, “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” In addition, she said that Louis Brandeis in his pamphlet “The Jewish Problem: How to Solve it” ended with a slogan in the spirit of O’Connell, saying, “Organize, organize, organize.”

Malino compared Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell and Jewish nationalist Theodor Herzl. In Britain’s 1885 hung parliament, Parnell’s party held the balance of power, allowing him to obtain the promise of Irish self-governance from Prime Minister William Gladstone. Malino said that Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, wrote in his diary, “I shall be the Parnell of the Jews.” According to Malino, the leaders were very similar. They both were aristocratic, educated outsiders in the movements they led, seen as a modern-day Moses for their cause and eventually became martyrs.

The conversation then turned to the present relationship between Ireland and Israel. Boker said that when he visited Trinity College in Dublin, he was blocked from giving a lecture by the college’s Students for Justice in Palestine group. He argued, however, that the tense relations between Ireland and Israel is often a result of exaggeration from media and political rhetoric and that there should be a clearer distinction between Israel-Palestine relations and Israel-Ireland relations. 

Malino agreed with Boker that the relationship between Ireland and Israel is often misunderstood. For example, she noted the false comparisons made between the “role of Great Britain in both the Irish historical experience and the experience of the Jews.” When the U.N. voted on the question of Israel partition, the Irish position was to vote against it because they saw Israel’s partition through the lens of the partition England imposed on Ireland a few decades earlier. Therefore, even at Israel’s inception, “There was already a difference in understanding what partition might mean for the Jewish state, and what it meant in the historical narrative of the Irish-catholic people,” Malino said.

 Kaye took a different viewpoint, saying that what united Israel and Ireland in the past was their shared antagonism toward British colonialism. However, with Israel now expanding settlements into Palestine, it is unsurprising that the Irish should feel more affinity with the Palestinians, Kaye said. According to Kaye, Ireland and Israel “have moved in opposite directions” in the relationship of their governments to Catholicism and Judaism, respectively. Ireland has moved away somewhat from traditional Catholic thought, such as by legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion. By contrast, the authority of Israel’s chief rabbi over the years “has become only stronger and stronger,” Kaye said.