The other week I had a chance to visit the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. A modern “experience” using the latest in interactive technology, the museum whisked us past the facts and figures of the great famine (millions dead of starvation, another million or so perished on the voyage out) and lesser factors that compelled Irish men and women to undertake the perilous journey to America, Australia and South America. Actors popping up life-sized on bare stone walls described the harrowing trips that many did not survive; the indentured servitude, bone-hard work and penury they endured. The role of the British regime in causing the famine was soft-pedaled.
The second half of the museum was given over to famous sons and daughters of Ireland. As I strolled past rooms dedicated to writers, entertainers, heads of state (including Chaim Herzog and Barack Obama), I experienced a sort of déjà vu. I call it “von of us.” That’s the way that my grandfather used to sit with us kids in front of the TV and point out seemingly random actors: “He’s von of us. She’s von of us.” I thought I understood him until he pointed to Sammy Davis Jr. and said; “He’s von of us.” It would take me some time to understand the tribalism – the need to not only belong to a group, but to identify with its most successful members – behind my grandfather’s words. Einstein was von of us. For the Irish, John F. Kennedy was the epitome of the Irish boy made good.
In essence, the whole EPIC museum trip was a strange mirror image of our very own museum – ANU (in Tel Aviv) – which purports to tell the story of the Jewish people. I admit I have not been to the new museum, but if we go back to its original name – the Diaspora Museum – we see that the story’s arc begins with the far-flung people who, nonetheless, are “von of us,” and it brings them back together, subtly or not so subtly, in this new/old country. The central stories, rather than telling of those who were forced to leave the auld soil, are the ones people carried with them as they embarked for a strange new homeland.
It would take me some time to understand the tribalism – the need to not only belong to a group, but to identify with its most successful members
The Irish and Jewish stories cross paths somewhere around New York: An exhibit in the ANU museum is dedicated to Jewish humor, the EPIC museum gives us clips of Irish comedians who made it big abroad. Apparently both Talmudic traditions and the art of kissing the Blarney Stone can make us funny, as can the simple fact of growing up in an immigrant community working its way up. Mournful Irish tenors and loud-mouthed Jewish women created stage stereotypes that persist today. Irish musicians like Bono and Sinead O’Connor swept the world; we had Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
“The starvation, as we call it, a period of ten years, shaped our country and is shaping it still,” said our tour guide outside of Galway. “A country of 20,000 was reduced to 5,000, and even now, has only 8,000 citizens.” Although the tour was not a historical one, it passed the remains of stone “famine walls” built for no other reason than to keep the Irish poor at enforced labor, and the remaining walls of minuscule, dim “famine cottages,” that had housed entire Irish-sized families.
Such realities are the grim flip side of the success stories these museums want to sell us. Like Jews, the Irish refuse to forget.
There is a quote on a mural on a side-street in Cork, attributed to Terrence MacSwiney, Cork’s mayor in the tumultuous year 1918: “Who can suffer the most will prevail.” Menachem Begin could not have said it better. MacSwiney died in 1920 in a hunger strike, but his ideals of a free Ireland did eventually prevail. Last week, beer drinkers lounged across the street under MacSwiney’s gaze, sipping their pints in the late summer sun.
For the Irish, if you believe the museum, prevailing has entailed emigrating around the globe. If you can claim to be ¼, 1/16 or 1/32 Irish, you’ll still have magical blood flowing in your veins. You’ll have a heritage that links you to a culture, or maybe just one that makes you want to believe in leprechauns or like the color green. If you can claim a name – Kelley, Fitzpatrick or O’Shaunessy – you can go back even further.
Men and women of every color stroll the walkways leading to the docks that house the European headquarters of global tech companies.
Ireland, however – especially Dublin – not just the land of emigration, but also one of immigration. Men and women of every color stroll the walkways leading to the docks that house the European headquarters of global tech companies. Diversity is publicly welcomed and rainbow flags fly this month next to the Irish ones. The taxi drivers – from Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Albania – tell me they have great opportunities and a good life in Ireland. Immigration and EU membership have gone a long way toward lifting Ireland out of poverty in this century.
When we Jews – particularly Jewish Israelis – tell our story, it is, obviously, one of prolonged emigration, but we like to highlight the immigration. We had to first make our way to the land in order to build the country with the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants. Now, when we talk of the Jewish people, it is with the understanding that, like the Irish, we can assume a center, a nexus where Jews can come together and participate in something greater than themselves, or a family connection that ties their formerly rootless existence to a point on the map.
While the story is a beautiful one, the logical conclusion of the “all one people” narrative, when I look at today’s Israel, is insular. When we observe the rainbow of peoples and traditions the country has absorbed, we tend to emphasize the Jewish aspects of each – proof we have remained separate and unique – rather than the Indian/Iraqi/Ethiopian/German/Russian/Mexican etc., culture each family brings embedded within their being. We believe we must preserve the Jewish blood flowing in our veins, undiluted. Diversity is okay (up to a point), as long as it has the rabbinical seal of approval. We give the religious right growing control over immigration, and we appoint a “Minister of Diaspora Affairs” who insults diaspora Jews amd others who do not agree with his political stance (or even his gender, apparently).
In this country, non-Jewish refugees are not welcome, foreign workers hold temporary visas. Emigration is a fact, but it is a cause for hand-wringing. We rarely celebrate Israelis who are highly successful abroad.
While you ponder
And while we’re contemplating the eternal cycle of emigration and immigration, of upheavals and perseverance, I’ll leave you with the mournful, oft-quoted lines of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, following Ireland’s failed Easter uprising of 1916:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is lost
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.