Last year, I had the pleasure of joining the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, for Shabbat while he was in New York for an event honoring a prominent Holocaust museum in Israel. The event happened to coincide with the annual New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and I had the chance to be part of a fortuitous meeting: the grand marshal of the parade, Dr. Brian J. O’Dwyer, took time from the festivities to meet Rabbi Lau and pay his respects. Seeing these two community leaders come together in the spirit of friendship and good will — one in a bowler, the other a shtreimel — has stayed with me. It was a potent snapshot of how our two communities have made a home in America, and in the process given so much to so many.
In honor of that incredible meeting, I’ve decided to dedicate this column to a topic that doesn’t get a lot of attention: Ireland and the Jewish experience.
When we think of the story of the Jewish people, of our migrations across the world for more than 2,000 years, we rarely consider Ireland as anything more than a very green, very Catholic country. Admittedly, the Jewish population in Ireland is a small one, and while Jews have had a consistent presence on the island since at least the 13th century, it’s safe to say that matzah won’t replace soda bread any time soon. At the same time, there are important parallels between the Jewish and Irish experiences, which become apparent when we consider our shared history of persecution, perseverance, and new beginnings in America. Those experiences can shed light on how we came to be where we are as a country and provide a map of where to go from here.
At the outset, it’s worth noting that the protagonist of one of Ireland’s most celebrated works of art, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” is presented as Jewish. The character, Leopold Bloom, was summed up by Gerald Yael Goldberg, lawyer, scholar, and the first Jewish mayor of the city of Cork, as “neither Jewish nor non-Jewish, Irish nor non-Irish, but a loyal, lovable, kindly human who bridges the gap between Irish man and Irish Jew.” Over the course of a single day in June, Leopold Bloom weathers persecution, displays courage, and inadvertently reveals the hypocrisy and paralysis that Joyce saw at the heart not only of Irish life, but of Western art and politics. Joyce’s decision to use a Jewish character to help tell his story is a powerful reminder of both the perceived threat and the actual value of the outsider — a role Jews were and continue to be all too familiar with.
It is also through “Ulysses” that we’re forced to consider the complicated relationship between the Irish and the Jews. While the famous 19th century politician Daniel O’Connell pressed for Jewish rights, anti-Semitism was not uncommon, coming to a head with the “Limerick Pogrom” of 1904 that drove dozens of Jews from the city. Commenting on this nativist resentment, a character in “Ulysses,” representative of populist antipathy, quips: “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why? She never let them in.” Although the line was written at the close of World War I, it proved particularly prescient, as Ireland would prove to be at best unsympathetic and at worst openly hostile to Jews attempting to flee Nazi persecution during World War II. Later generations of Irish citizens would go on to roundly criticize Ireland’s wartime immigration policies and disparage its neutrality, a lasting critique that now belongs to history. This in turn provides a lesson to those of us living in the United States in 2020: we will be remembered for our unwillingness to help those in need as surely as we will be celebrated from protecting the persecuted. As the Talmud teaches: “The mercy we to others show, Heaven will show to us.”
While immigration and refugee resettlement in Ireland during the war was hugely problematic, there are individual examples of Irish bravery from that period that deserve our attention. One example is Hubert Butler, a scholar and writer who was disgusted by anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazis in Europe. Working with Quakers in England and America, Butler traveled to Vienna to secure visas for 100 Jews who ultimately were shepherded to safety in the United States. He is credited with saving dozens of Jewish families over the course of the war. Another Irishman committed to fighting Nazi atrocities was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved more than 6,500 Jews and Allied soldiers while serving as a monsignor in the Roman Curia during the war. When Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS and of the Gestapo in Rome, learned of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s actions, he had a white line painted at the opening of St. Peter’s Square and ordered that the priest be killed if he crossed it. Under Monsignor O’Flaherty’s direction, the Church hid more than 5,000 Roman Jews from the Nazis in monasteries, convents, colleges, private homes, and even as members of the Palatine Guard. An application to have Monsignor O’Flaherty added to the rolls Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel is still in progress; it would be a fitting honor to an Irish ally of the Jewish people.
We don’t have to cross oceans to see how Irish and Jewish experiences are intertwined. Both groups faced significant oppression and religious intolerance upon arrival to the United States. In time, they would become increasingly integrated, celebrating the beliefs and cultural values of their Irish and Jewish forebears while forging ahead as allies unified by common cause and love of country.
Like their Jewish neighbors, the Irish have a proud history of public service, swelling the ranks of police and fire services and working in public office around the country for generations. They have proven time and again their commitment to this great experiment that is America. It is this unwavering dedication to serve and give back that gave us JFK, grandson of Irish immigrants and staunch supporter of Israel and the Jewish people. It is especially meaningful that his only grandson, Jack Schlossberg, is a descendent of respected Irish and Jewish families.
Over the course of my own career as an immigration attorney, I have had the good fortune to work with Irish people from all walks of life, from professionals and artists to internationally renowned performers like singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor. In every instance, I have been humbled by their willingness to embrace America as a new home. This is the promise of immigration — that today’s newcomers can become tomorrow’s friends and neighbors. So this March 17, let’s lift a Guinness and say “L’chaim” as we remember that no matter where we came from, we are all American.