Harold Ohayon
A Wandering New Yorker

Being a Jew on the Emerald Island

Ireland. An island rich in history, natural beauty and folklore. The name itself conjures up countless positive images in the mind: A welcoming neighbourhood pub, fantastically rhythmic traditional music, countless cheerful toasts over local ales. Many of these images are firmly based in reality, and I can attest to this because I spent five years living on that Emerald Island. My first year was spent in Limerick, the setting of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (and the city does sometimes feel that heavy and depressing), followed by four years in Belfast. I can safely say that the Irish are indeed welcoming, jovial and great craic. However, as recent events have shown, Ireland does have one negative quality that has left a lasting impression on me: Increasing hostility to not only Israel but to Jews in general.

The Jewish community in Ireland is quickly fading away. Dublin and Belfast maintain the largest populations of Jews on the island, but even these two centres are witnessing declines in population. While Jews have left lasting imprints on Irish history, we were never a major driving force there. And yet many people have opinions about us. Quite a few people I encountered had outlandish and stereotypical views on Jews. Some people told me about how we Jews control the banks, which makes us exceedingly wealthy and powerful. Others told me that Jews control the United States government. While the people regaling me with these conspiracy theories were not malicious, the ‘facts’ they spoke with such confidence were quite disturbing.

But this was only the beginning of my encounters with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments in Ireland. Whenever I would visit Dublin, I would be greeted with countless posters calling for boycotts against Israel and declaring solidarity with the Palestinian people. While it is perfectly natural to voice sympathies for the Palestinians, or to criticize Israeli policy, the Irish have a deeply rooted obsession with the conflict. And this obsession can be seen in any Irish city. I witnessed Palestinian flags flying across several Irish cities during my time there, and in fact saw more Palestinian flags there than I did when I visited the West Bank! The Irish press runs frequent news stories that portray Israel in a monstrously biased fashion, and Irish TV often pushes one sided narratives when covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was no ‘safe space’ from this bombardment when I lived in Ireland. It seems as if the Irish care more about this conflict than either the Palestinians or the Israelis themselves. And this obsession shows no sign of dissipating.

The demonization of Israel in Ireland is a constant slow drip of venom and bile. The media, pop culture and politicians have created a mindset in the Irish people that is totally hostile to Israel in every which way. When I would go for drinks with friends, someone would eventually bring up the fact that I used to live in Israel and that I am a staunch Zionist. This would inevitably cause a heated debate in which I was accused of being an apologist, a murderer, or a racist. I would always counter by asking for citations of their sources, and they would simply storm off or try to change the subject. I remember a vivid encounter when someone mentioned that I was a Zionist at a pub table. The conversation amongst everyone else died, and I received glares as if I had stated that I enjoyed eating live kittens. People demanded to know why I was a Zionist. I asked them what they knew about Zionism, and they spouted the typical nonsense we have all heard before. I asked if they knew who Herzl was, and they never did. Whenever I would ask for actual facts or figures, no one could ever provide anything. But these attackers spoke with such passion, rage and indignation that it felt as if they were defending their own families. Yet they knew nothing about the history of Israel or Palestine, nor did they have any holistic notions of the current conflict either. And yet this fiery hatred against Israel continues to spread.

While the situation in the Republic of Ireland is quite tense, the situation in Northern Ireland is far worse. The ghosts of the Troubles are still very much alive, and the two warring parties have each sided with either the Israelis or the Palestinians. Our Middle Eastern conflict has now been appropriated into the Protestant/Catholic and British/Irish feud. And this linkage has proven quite damaging to the Jewish community in Northern Ireland. Our synagogue was vandalized twice during my time there, and the Jewish cemetery was desecrated. On Purim, as I got off a bus while wearing a kippa, several boys shouted ‘F——-ing Jew!’ at me. A friend of man was harassed and hounded for wearing a Star of David necklace. And once, while carrying an Israeli flag, my friend and I accosted by several men that told me to ‘Get the f—- out of Palestine’. They tried to follow us, and we had to run to get away to safety. Murals in the Catholic area of the city often portray images of a deeply anti-Semitic nature. This is the current situation for Jews in Northern Ireland. And I am, quite frankly, glad I left there.

After leaving Ireland I moved to Japan, I am still amazed at the zeal in which the Irish demonize Israel. The most recent example is the bill being pushed by certain Irish political parties that would penalize anyone doing business with companies in the West bank. Day in and day out, it seems that the Irish obsession continues to grow and fester. This is truly disheartening, as the Irish are by and large an amazingly welcoming and kind people. But an ever-growing segment of the population is continuing to spread their lies and hatred against the State of Israel. And this hatred, in turn, is fuelling general animosity towards Jews. This can be seen in the attacks on the synagogue and grave yard. And it can be felt and seen in any protest against Israel. My friend and I once encountered protesters in Dublin who were shouting outside a jewellery shop. We asked what they were doing, and one protester said that they were boycotting Israel and that we should not buy anything from these Jews. It was at that time that I realized that the anti-Israel poison being propagated by several aspects of Irish society has now mutated into a general attitude of anti-Semitism.

It pains me to watch this happen. After so many years in Ireland a part of me feels like it is home. But I fear things will only grow worse. As the community slowly fades away, eventually there probably won’t be any Jews left on the island. But, I sense, that if that day were to come that they would still hold a deep animosity towards the Jewish State of Israel. And that is a bloody shame.

About the Author
Expat New Yorker living in the Land of the Rising Sun: Trekking to random parts of the globe, debating countless things under the sun, and attempting to learn to cook Korean food.
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