“Is that Hebrew?” My tour guide asked, peering over my shoulder as I scribbled a short message on the Peace Wall. This wall, which had once separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods was the last stop on the Black Cab tour which address the troubled history of Belfast.
President Clinton wrote a message here while helping negotiate the Good Friday Agreement, my guide informed me, so it’s a tradition that everyone signs the wall.
After several hours of being driven around the city and hearing stories of divided communities torn apart by religious strife, I was at a loss of what to write. Taking the Sharpie that he handed me, I scrawled שלום(shalom) next to my name.
Seeing the ancient script of another oppressed and persecuted group added to this piece of Irish history seemed to impress my guide.
Personally, I was unsure how he would react. During the tour, I saw haunting parallels in Irish and Israeli history. The story of a people, oppressed for their ethnicity and their faith, suffering injustice while struggling to free their land from British control was familiar.
So was the idea of walls and barbed wire that separated communities that were at odds with each other, and the stories of innocent lives lost in the midst of resisting efforts to partition their historic homeland.
However, these parallels did not seem to have shaped the modern Irish view of the conflict. During my tour, I had been surprised to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict appear in the Irish sectarian conflict. It was the Ulster-Scottish Protestants who had immigrated into the Irish homeland and claimed it for themselves in the face of thousands of years of Irish history that hung posters proclaiming their support of the IDF, while the Catholic Irish who had endured centuries of British oppression painted murals of Palestinians detained for acts of terrorism.
The positioning from both sides reflected a lack of recognition of the nuances Israeli history. This is not surprising since the Jewish struggle against the forces of the British Mandate that closed the borders in the face of the European Jewry during the Holocaust and attempted to renege on their promises to establish a Jewish state has faded into the history books.
In light of the current state of affairs, perhaps that Shalom on the wall looked out of place. After all, what does Ireland have to do with the Jews?
However, a deeper look into history shows that the parallels I observed during my time on the Emerald Isle once inspired a strong Irish-Jewish bond that today seems to have been forgotten.
Two figures who embody both the Jewish and Irish struggle for freedom come to mind, Robert Briscoe and “The Sinn Fein Rebbe” Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog.
Robert Briscoe’s parents immigrated to Ireland from Lithuania and sympathized with their new homeland’s quest for freedom so much that they named Robert’s brother Wolfe Tone in honor of the Irish freedom fighter. During the struggle for Irish Independence that followed the ill-fated “Easter Rising” of 1916, Briscoe supported the Irish Republican Army and the Sinn Fein political party. Acting as a weapons smuggler, Briscoe earned the trust of leading Irish revolutionaries including Michael Collins and the future president of Ireland, Eamon de Valera. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, partitioning Ireland (a move that Briscoe opposed) and established an independent republic in the South. Upon the establishment of the Free State, he became an elected member of the lower Irish house, the Dail Eireann, which was no small achievement for a Jew in Catholic dominated Ireland.
In this role, he attempted to arraign for Jewish refugees from Europe to be able to enter Ireland during the Second World War, an effort that failed due to Ireland’s desire to maintain its neutrality.
However, this was not the extent of Briscoe’s involvement in Jewish issues. Ever the revolutionary, Briscoe took an interest in the struggle taking place under the British Mandate in Palestine and soon became friends with Irgun leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky whose opposition to any partitions of Palestine mirrored Briscoe’s own views relating to Irish partition. Briscoe supported Jabotinsky’s efforts and even instructed him in insurgency warfare against the British, sharing the lessons that he had learned with the IRA, lessons that Jabotinsky would put to use leading Irgun forces against British Mandate troops in Palestine.
Briscoe would go on to make Irish history in 1956 when he was elected as the first Jewish mayor of the Irish capital of Dublin.
The second notable figure who was a living link between the Irish and Jewish independence struggles was Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog. Rabbi Herzog was born in Poland and immigrated to Britain with his parents. After establishing himself as a gifted authority on Talmud, he moved to Belfast in 1915 to become the rabbi of the city. He would also serve as the chief rabbi of Dublin and after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921, as the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland. Like Briscoe, he cultivated a relationship with de Valera and even learned to speak the Irish language.
Due to his friendship with Rabbi Herzog, de Valera even consulted him for his input during the drafting of the Irish constitution. This document incorporated civil law with church dogma and doctrine to reflect the Catholic nature of Ireland, an effort that loosely paralleled Rabbi Herzog’s efforts to craft a theocratic-democratic Jewish state based on halakha, yet another parallel between these two ancient people’s struggle for freedom.
After fifteen years in the role of the “Sinn Fein Rebbe”, he was chosen to be the Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The British were concerned that a sympathizer of the Irish rebels would be coming to Palestine and he proved their concerns to be valid. After his arrival, he continued to resist British policies, ironically tearing up the White Paper which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine and reminding British officials of Irish resistance to partition to discourage them from the partition of Palestine.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Herzog became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Jewish State, and the first generation of an iconic Israeli dynasty. His son Chaim, who had been born and raised in Ireland, would spend a lifetime of service first as a general and then as the sixth President of Israel.
When I chose to inscribe a message in Hebrew on the Belfast peace wall, I was unaware of how deep the roots of Zionist revolution ran through the Emerald Isle. Looking back on that day, I like to think of it as a tribute to these brave men who dedicated their lives and efforts to Irish and Israeli freedom and self determination.