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The Empathy of the Irish for Palestinians is in No Way Anti-Semitic

Israel’s response to the passing of the Occupied Territories Bill in the Dáil last week entailed, on the one hand, threatening to impose severe economic-political measures against Ireland, including taxing Irish imports and suspending bilateral economic and commercial agreements with Dublin. On the other hand, Israel accused Ireland of anti-Semitism, often weaponised against any criticism of the Israeli colonisation of Palestine and its ongoing infringements of international law.

There is no need for me to discuss the merits and effectiveness of the Bill here. It’s worth noting, however, that the settlements, from which products would be banned if the Bill becomes law, are considered illegal under international law. According to article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies”, making Israel’s building and transferring of its population to the occupied Palestinian territory illegal.

According to Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, more than 200 Israeli settlements have been established in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) since 1967; their current population is almost 620,000. Settlements, built on Palestinian (often privately owned) lands, impinge on Palestinian human rights as checkpoints that limit Palestinian movement are erected based on where there are settlements. Palestinians are denied access to farmland near settlements, and settlers regularly attack Palestinian schoolchildren and farmers in full view of the Israeli military.

Victimhood and supremacy

I am a Palestine-born Israeli Jew, indoctrinated with the dual message of Jewish victimhood and Jewish supremacy throughout my youth, and a citizen of Ireland for the past 50 years. Like increasing numbers of American and European Jews, I am an active supporter of Palestinian rights. I wish to discuss two central questions relating to the implications of the Occupied Territories Bill: first, is Ireland out of step with the rest of Europe as claimed by both Israel and the Fine Gael government? And second, is anti-Semitism the driving force behind the Bill and the broad societal support for Palestinian rights?

Historian Rory Miller writes that there was reciprocal sympathy in Ireland for the establishment of the Zionist state as Israel hoped for Ireland’s “intuitive understanding of the Jewish-Israeli predicament” and support for what it saw as its struggle for survival and security. Miller argues there is no overt anti-Semitism in Ireland, though I wonder whether the fact that the Republic allowed only 60 Jewish refugees fleeing nazism to settle in Ireland between 1933 and 1946 was due to Irish Catholic and State anti-Semitism.

That said, Ireland regarded Israel as an underdog under attack during the 1967 war, following which minister for foreign affairs Frank Aiken attempted to get the UN to consider Israeli concerns, leading Israel’s foreign minister Abba Eban, to call on other UN member states to follow the example of his “friend” Aiken. But overall, Miller argues that the Irish refused to translate the kinship between the Irish and the Jews into political support for Israel, as Ireland, and in particular the Republican movement, was increasingly supportive of Palestine, though the Irish Government’s official statements about Israel were never explicitly abusive. Miller notes the influence of the Irish Army’s United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon role in southern Lebanon as a major source of conflict between Ireland and Israel, and the role of NGOs including Trócaire, Christian Aid and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign – the latter now one of 20 NGOs banned from entering Israel and Palestine – in mobilising support for Palestinians under occupation and siege.

Illegal settlements

In relation to solidarity with Palestine, then, Irish society is not out of step with European civil societies. In fact, responding to public opinion and grassroots campaigning, the EU itself has recently introduced rules prohibiting itself from funding Israeli companies and bodies based in illegal Israeli settlements, and has warned businesses about the risks of doing business with illegal Israeli settlements; this is only one of the many achievements of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As in other EU states where governments uphold the Israeli state despite growing societal solidarity with the Palestinians, it is rather the Irish political leadership that is out of step with the public; it seems reluctant to give up high-level economic and research and development collaboration with Israel, including in the field of the arms trade. Furthermore, aspiring to play a role in the long discredited “peace process”, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney seems keen on Dublin becoming the new Oslo, despite the bankruptcy of the Oslo Accords after which the conditions of the Palestinians under occupation and siege have seriously worsened.

As a race scholar, I have researched anti-Semitism and the instrumentalisation of the Holocaust by the Israeli state and I totally reject the accusation by Israel and its supporters that criticising Israel’s policies of colonisation and occupation is anti-Semitic.

According to US group Jewish Voice for Peace, which has recently declared itself anti-Zionist, anti-Semitism, a term describing real experiences of Jewish people around the world, is often exploited to delegitimise the movement for the human rights of Palestinians. This manipulation has added to a flurry of unconstitutional pushes in the US and elsewhere to ban BDS campaigns.

As an Irish-Israeli citizen and a Jewish activist for Palestinian rights, I do not believe assertions by the Israeli government and its lobby groups that Irish support for Palestine is motived by anti-Semitism. Rather, such solidarity exists because of the human empathy between those who have been victims of colonial brutality. It continues the long line of Irish solidarity with oppressed peoples. The advancement of the Occupied Territories Bill reflects the huge solidarity with Palestine in Irish society which is largely committed, unlike the Government, to achieving justice for Palestinians.

Dr Ronit Lentin is chairperson of Academics for Palestine. Her latest book is Traces of Racial Exception: The Racialisation of Israeli Settler Colonialism (Bloomsbury 2018)

This column originally appeared in the Irish Times.

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