Ireland is weirdly entwined with the idea of a Jewish homeland, but not in the way many imagine

Militant Irish nationalists prefer to forget that two future right-wing prime ministers of Israel were profoundly inspired by the IRA

Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times

In a parallel universe, James Joyce wrote a sequel to Ulysses that ends with the hero Leopold Bloom’s death as a citizen of the new state of Israel. For in the great Irish novel, Bloom daydreams about becoming a Jewish settler in Palestine.

Not long after we meet him, Bloom is reading a newspaper ad offering tracts of land on the shores of Lake Galilee: “He walked back along Dorset Street, reading gravely. Agendath Netaim: planters’ company. To purchase waste sandy tracts from Turkish government and plant with eucalyptus trees. Excellent for shade, fuel and construction. Orangegroves and immense melonfields north of Jaffa.”

The date is out of kilter – the Palestine Plantation Company was not founded until a year after 1904, when the novel is set. And the name is wrong – it was called Agudath Netaim, a Hebrew “society of planters” that established farms in advance for Jews planning to settle in Palestine. But the dream is real enough, even on the dowdy streets of Dublin’s northside.

While he’s in this reverie, Bloom thinks in particular of the citron fruit and its association with the Sukkot holiday – the feast that had just been celebrated by Jews when Hamas launched its atrocious assault on October 7th.

A little while later, his thoughts take a dark turn. He imagines, not the Sea of Galilee but the Dead Sea: “All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old . . . Desolation. Grey horror seared his flesh.” Between Bloom’s daydream and his waking nightmare, between the orange groves and the grey horror, lies the reality that continues to haunt the world.

That all of this is there in a foundational work of modern Irish culture is a reminder, not just that the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine is part of European history, but that Ireland is weirdly entwined with that project. Except not quite in the ways that Irish people like to imagine.

Israel and Palestine are now used as proxies for our own tribes. The game seems easy: the Palestinians are the Catholic Irish; the Israelis are the Protestant settlers. If you don’t know this already, the flags and murals on the Falls and Shankill roads will identify the tribal affiliations for you.

Superficially, there is one startling fact that seems to bear out this parallel. It is that the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans – the British terrorist militias unleashed in Ireland – did not disappear from history when they left our shores. They went – or at least a very significant cohort of them did – to Palestine.

Just as the British were evacuating most of Ireland, they were acquiring their mandate to run Palestine. To help control the natives, they sent in the hard men who had tried (and failed) to do the same job in Ireland. Men like Henry Hugh Tudor, Raymond Cafferata and Douglas Duff – veterans of the fight against the IRA – formed the core of the Palestine Police that put down the Arab Revolt of the 1920s with Black and Tan tactics. Duff (whose godfather, weirdly, was Roger Casement) gave his name to the language – to be duffed up still means to be beaten to a pulp.

According to Caroline Elkins’s seminal Legacy of Violence, “In 1943 five out of the eight district police commanders in Palestine had formerly been of the Black and Tans”. There is, then, a real connection between the Irish independence struggle and the Palestinian revolts.

But the story is complicated by the awkward fact that Cafferata and Duff were also notorious for beating and torturing Jews. And the parallels get way more messy when we ask who in Palestine actually identified with the IRA? It was not the Arabs but the most extreme of the Jewish terror gangs, Menachem Begin’s Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang.)

When these groups declared war on the British in 1942 and 1943, launching campaigns of bombings and assassinations in both the Middle East and London, their heroes were the IRA. Shamir used Michael as his nom de guerre in honour of Michael Collins. Both Zionist terror groups received training and support from the IRA.

One Irgun operative, Avshalom Habib, as he was about to be hanged by the British, devoted his gallows speech to paying homage to “the sons of Ireland”: “You [the British] set up gallows, you murdered in the streets, you exiled, you ran amok and stupidly believed that by dint of persecution you would break the spirit of resistance of free Irishmen . . . If you were wise, British tyrants, and would learn from history, the example of Ireland.”

Fintan O’Toole signing copies of his latest book ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’ at Edinburgh Book Festival. Picture by Bill Heaney

Oddly, however, militant Irish nationalists prefer to forget that two future right-wing prime ministers of Israel, Begin and Shamir, were so profoundly inspired by the IRA. It is inconvenient to remember that, in the events that led up to the creation of the Israeli state, the most violent edges of Jewish and Irish nationalist militancy were so firmly bonded together.

And of course the loyalists who fly the Israeli flag now don’t want to know that their heroes thought of themselves as the Zionist IRA. It is much nicer for both sides to tidy history away into neat taxonomies, with Irish and Palestinian nationalism as one species and Jewish nationalism a completely different creature.

The truth, in Israel and Palestine as well as in Ireland, is too multi-coloured to be represented in a flag. The tragedy that is unfolding so horrifically and with such appalling consequences for civilians, is far too deep to be used as a proxy for simplistic notions of Irish identity. It must be understood in its own terms, as a product of conflicts that are being waged, not just between Jews and Arabs, but within both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Bloom would have known that the only thing we can cling to is the precious humanity of every individual. “But it’s no use,” he says. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred.”

Top picture: Readers queuing for Fintan O’Toole to sign a copy of his latest book at Edinburgh Book Festival. 

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