Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Why, when it comes to Israel, Ireland has no place to talk

There is a concept among stand-up comedians known as ‘entitlement'. If you are Jewish, you are ‘entitled' to tell an anti-Jewish joke.

If you have had cancer, you are ‘entitled' to make a dark joke about that horrible illness.

The comedy circuit, at the present time, features a number of Iranian and Pakistani comedians who are ‘entitled' to make taunting jokes about some of the more occult aspects of Islamic culture. If a white person made such jokes, they'd be called racist or Islamophobic: but those of the culture have an ‘entitlement'.

There are other forms of entitlement, too, and one of them has an historical element.

And the question of historical entitlement arises, for me, in the case of the Rachel Corrie, the Irish aid ship which has been apprehended by the Israeli authorities.

It is utterly clear that the Rachel Corrie is an entirely peaceable endeavour.

The peace campaigner Mairead Corrigan Maguire was among those onboard motivated mainly by a desire to help the people of Gaza.

Many Irish political — and Church — leaders have been critical of Israel's blockade of Gaza. There is also plenty of strong public feeling against Israel; last Saturday saw well-attended anti- Israeli rallies in Belfast and Dublin and Irish peace campaigners have accused Israel of treating them “brutally”, after the nine people were killed in the first peace flotilla.

All this is perfectly |understandable politics and, in some cases, especially where peaceable motives are concerned, commendable.

But the question still arises — does Ireland have the ‘entitlement' to lecture and admonish Israel?

In at least one painful historical respect, Ireland does not. When the Jewish people were in peril of being totally extinguished, and in Europe, wholly exterminated, Ireland — or ‘Eire', as the 26 counties were then called — did not lift a finger to help.

The Irish National Archives have overflowing files of letters and applications to the Irish authorities from European Jews in the period 1938-1940, begging for help from or asylum in this country as the Third Reich closed in with its ‘Final Solution’, as the death-camps were called by Goebbels.

Unless applicants could prove some substantial connection with this country, very, very few of those terrified European Jews ever got to this country, and safety.

The Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, even refused to participate in the ‘Kindertransport' project of getting Jewish children out of occupied Europe, while their distraught parents were |left behind.

Heart-scorching though it was for those Jewish parents, most of whom perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Belsen and Ravensbruck, the children rescued through the ‘Kindertransport' project at least survived.

But de Valera wouldn't take the Jewish child refugees because he believed immigration of this kind would cause problems in Ireland. It might, after all, dilute his vision of an Ireland Gaelic and pure.

Moreover, the Irish envoy in Berlin, William Warnock, sent back formal dispatches to de Valera’s officials which were shamefully anti-Semitic, identifying Jews and Jewish influence where opposition to Hitler arose.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, did take many thousands of Jewish refugee children and youngsters, saving very many lives. (Although the influx of young Jews certainly didn't ‘dilute' the cultural profile of the north, which kept firmly to its ancient rivalries.) So, when people of the Irish nation reach out to help the Palestinians, should there not be some reflection about the corresponding failure to help the Jews in their terrible hour of need?

For the character of Israel — |the famously diamond-hard reputation of the Sabra — is the direct result of the diaspora Jewish experience.

Perhaps there is a lack of understanding about Israel's tormented pathology because today there are so few Jews in Ireland.

And yet the Irish Jewish community which remains is admirably loyal to Ireland, and even, interestingly, to the memory of de Valera. Israel doesn't make it easy on her friends. But we should understand why she is as she is.

Of course, pity for the Palestinian people is right and just. But we owe to the Jews, too, an historical debt.

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