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Jul 2003 Journal

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Irish-Jewish affinities

The phrase 'beyond the pale' - i.e. unacceptable, intolerable - derives from Anglo-Irish history. Medieval Ireland was physically divided by a palisade into an English-ruled enclave around Dublin and a much larger tribal area whose Gaelic-speaking inhabitants were considered uncivilised, 'beyond the pale'.

Pale has a related meaning in the Jewish context. When Russia incorporated a large part of Poland in the eighteenth century, the tsars confined their many newly acquired Jewish subjects within a narrow Pale of Settlement.

Irish-Jewish similarity does not end there. Although the overall population of Europe has been growing exponentially since 1800, there were fewer Irish by 1900 - and far fewer Jews by the millennium than there had been in 1900. The Irish famine of the 1840s not only killed one million, but drove thousands to emigrate. The impact of the Holocaust was, of course, even more devastating.

Both catastrophes had a 'linguistic dimension'. The potato blight almost depopulated the rural, overwhelmingly Gaelic-speaking, west of Ireland, and the Holocaust impacted totally on the Yiddish-speaking heartlands of European Jewry. In the 'Emerald Isle', however, language came second to colour as the emblem of resistance ('She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen/They're shooting men and women for the wearing of the green'). The Irish linguistic revival climaxed later - around 1900 - in the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The search for Gaelic roots made playwright Sean O'Casey change his surname to O'Cathasaigh for a while. Parallel name changes happened within the Zionist-inspired Hebrew revival - so that Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes became SY Agnon.

One must beware of overstressing Irish-Jewish similarities, however. Whereas modern Hebrew is the daily language of a majority of Israelis, Irish - though a compulsory school subject - is currently only spoken in the remote west of Ireland.

On the other hand, both groups are acutely conscious of their tragic folk memory. Jews fast on the Ninth of Av, eat hamantashen at Purim and observe Yom Hashoah; the Irish still refer to the 'curse of Cromwell', and remember the deaths of Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and the Easter 1916 rebels.

There is also an amazing correspondence of complexities within the respective national liberation struggles. In Ireland the Protestant CS Parnell championed the underprivileged Catholic majority - only to be politically destroyed by the Catholic bishops over an act of adultery. Among the Jews Herzl was likewise undermined by rabbis declaring that he was trying to pre-empt the divinely pre-ordained Messiah. In both cases too, the wars of liberation were complicated by internecine civil wars. In the Irish 'Troubles' De Valera had Michael Collins killed because the latter was prepared to settle for a Free State that left Ulster British. In Israel's War of Independence Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on the cargo ship Altalena, which ferried arms for Begin's men during a truce.

Since then Ireland has, of course, been rather more successful than Israel in liquidating the legacy of the war that accompanied its birth. But then Dublin only had to deal with the IRA and UDF - child's play by comparison with enemies like Nasser, Assad, Saddam and Arafat.

Finally, both Irish and Jews have looked to cultural achievements to compensate for past political weakness. Ireland glories in its pantheon of writers from Swift, Wilde, O'Casey and Beckett to the Noble Laureates Yates, Shaw and Seamus Heaney. The Jews have produced so many Nobel Prize winners, in all categories, that I lack the space to list them.

Let us hope, though, that Jewish-Irish affinities will ultimately extend into the most fraught sphere of all - and that Sharon's name will be mentioned in the same breath as those of the last few Taoiseachs.
Richard Grunberger

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