Current Affairs History Politics

Know-Nothings – The American Right And The New Anti-Irishness

This week, under the thrilling headline question ‘Why Is Ireland Such a Bastion of Anti-Israel Feeling?’, long-standing Atlantic columnist (and former Iraqi War cheerleader) Jeffrey Goldberg highlights a piece by the newspaper commentator Kevin Myers on the alleged anti-Semitism of the Irish people. The British-born Myers, a long time apologist for the United Kingdom’s presence in Ireland, historic or contemporary, complains that:

‘Israel – and its sole defender on the panel (is mise) – were then roundly attacked by members of the audience. But what was most striking about the audience’s contributions was the raw emotion: they seemed to loathe Israel.

But how can anyone possibly think that Gaza is the primary centre of injustice in the Middle East? According to Mathilde Redmatn, deputy director of the International Red Cross in Gaza, there is in fact no humanitarian crisis there at all. But by God, there is one in Syria, where possibly thousands have died in the past month.

However, I notice that none of the Irish do-gooders are sending an aid-ship to Latakia. Why? Is it because they know that the Syrians do not deal with dissenting vessels by lads with truncheons abseiling down from helicopters, but with belt-fed machine guns, right from the start?

What about a humanitarian ship to Libya? Surely no-one on the MV Saoirse could possible maintain that life under Gaddafi qualified it as a civilised state. Not merely did it murder opponents by the bucketload at home and abroad, it kept the IRA campaign going for 20 years, and it also – a minor point, this, I know – brought down the Pan Am flight at Lockerbie. Yet no Irish boat to Libya. Only the other way round.

And then there’s Iraq. Throughout the decades of Saddam Hussein, whose regime caused the deaths of well over a million people, there wasn’t a breath of liberal protest against him. Gassing the Kurds? Not a whimper. Invading Kuwait? Not one single angry placard-bearing European liberal outside an Iraqi embassy.’

This of course is the usual nonsense from the reactionary journalist: overblown, verbose rhetoric with himself, as always, at the centre of the action. Next week he will be back to lecturing people on why Irish men and women with an ÓMac or in their surname are genetically different from everyone else on the island. Which naturally makes Goldberg’s uncritical quoting of Squire Myers’ ramblings all the more remarkable.

Instead, the American writer could have looked at the historical links between Irish and Jewish revolutionaries dating back to the mid-1800s, when Fenian and Zionist militants rubbed shoulders in the radical circles of London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. There could have been mention of the many Jews in Ireland who dedicated themselves to the cause of Irish freedom and democracy (and language and culture too).

Where is the mention of Robert Briscoe, an officer of the Irish Republican Army and an elected Sinn Féin politician who fought in the 1916-21 Revolution? Who served in Dáil Éireann for decades, becoming lord mayor of Dublin, and who brought Ze’ev Jabotinsky, leader of Irgun, to Ireland for training in guerrilla tactics, and ran weapons and explosives to Israel during its War of Independence? What about Michael Noyk, the leading Sinn Féin lawyer, or the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Isaac Herzog (the father of Chaim Herzog, President of Israel), a noted Irish language scholar who was dubbed the ‘Sinn Féin Rabbi’ by the British? Where is the mention of Éamon de Valera, an acknowledged friend of the nation of Israel who saw the similarities in the experiences of the Jewish people with those of the Irish, in the dispossession of our lands and their settlement by others, and the great Diasporas that provided the road to nationhood once again?

Such simple facts could have been the beginning of an article destroying the fallacy of Ireland’s supposed anti-Semitism (amongst the American right-wing). Instead we get more of the same falsehoods. Goldberg’s Atlantic column features a follow-up article featuring an email from one Andrew Exum, that apparently provides ‘some depth’ on the matter (try not to laugh while reading it):

‘There are a few explanations for why the Irish do not have a lot of love for Israel. Here are two:

1.  During the Troubles, Ulster Protestant politicians consciously identified with the Israeli side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, comparing their own struggles against Irish Catholic terrorism with those of Israel against Palestinian terrorism. Irish Catholics, especially in Ulster, often reciprocated by sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians living under occupation. (The PIRA, quite separately, had close contacts with Palestinian militant groups such as the PFLP in the 1970s and 1980s.)

2.  A lot of Irish have served in southern Lebanon as part of UNIFIL. It is very difficult to serve in southern Lebanon as part of UNIFIL and come away with a positive view of the IDF and, by extension, Israel.  (Imagine spending six months in Baghdad in 2004 living with Iraqis and then drawing all of your conclusions about the United States and Americans from that experience.) It is a lot easier, by contrast, to strike up lasting relationships with the people of southern Lebanon. (There is a shop-keeper named “Rosie” in southern Lebanon who speaks English in the most incongruous and delightful County Cork accent as a result of decades of trading with Irish peacekeepers. She is a star of Irish radio – as a gag, they once put her on and had callers from all over Ireland guess where she was from by listening to her accent.)’

Seriously? ‘Irish Catholic terrorism’? Would that be like Islamic terrorism? Of course in Ireland we are very familiar with black-suited Roman Catholic terrorists blowing themselves up in Protestant churches while mumbling out a few decades of the Rosary or calling upon the congregation to follow the strictures of Vatican II in our ancient Gaelic tongue…

Jesus. Literally.

What Goldberg fails to mention before quoting from the email is that Exum is an ex-US military counter-insurgency and terrorism expert, a member of the Centre for a New American Security (‘Developing strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies’, a conservative Washington think-tank), a very well known blogger on Islamic militancy (initially behind an assumed non de plume) and has attended the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. So much for American journalism’s much vaunted boast of ‘full disclosure’.

And what Andrew Exum could have mentioned in his email is perhaps at least one reason for the antagonism towards the state of Israel held by a minority of Irish people. Namely the co-operation between Israel and Apartheid-era South Africa to supply weapons, explosives, funds and training to pro-UK terrorist groups conducting a campaign of violence in on this island. Such actions tend to make for enemies rather than friends.

The supposed anti-Israeli (for which read, anti-Jewish) feeling of the Irish has become the big myth of American conservatism – usually the lunatic fringe – but as can be seen by this piece of journalism it can make it into the mainstream too. The Atlantic is a relatively influential online publication on the United States’ centre-right. It is small ‘c’ conservative and well respected for its journalistic ethics. Yet even it can succumb to this modern version of anti-Irish bigotry.

And as Kevin Myers proves the Irish themselves are not immune to it. Or at least an anachronistic version of the Irish that hates all things of this island nation and looks to Britain for… well, everything. This atavistic type of British ex-colonial has embraced the anti-Semite myth wholesale. Largely to prove that we really were better off under dear old Blighty. As student non-radical (and non-sequitur) Bernard Mccabe writes over on The Commentator:

‘Where does all this hatred come from? Are my compatriots Nazi sympathisers? Has Ireland been taken over by a radical Islam that makes Ian Paisley look as harmless as Christine Bleakley? No, the truth is that anti-Semitism in Ireland has a long history.

In the old days, it came from (as it did across Europe) an extreme Catholicism. Latterly, anti-Semitism has found its provenance from Ireland’s consistently pro-Palestinian position. Ireland was of course for 800 years oppressed by the evil hand of British rule (that brought us roads, education, some form of civilisation), and the fight to ‘free’ her could take as many lives as possible.’

Ah. Well now we are getting somewhere. The British civilised the uncivilised Irish? Of course, we did have roads, and education and an advanced civilisation that sparked the Renaissance across western Europe long before the English, but hey, Bernie, don’t let facts get in the way of a good diatribe. Really, don’t.

Naturally, I have had my own run-ins with the extremist fringe of the American Christian fundamentalist right, that some American-Jews and Israelis now (foolishly) make common cause with. One article was so extreme that I found myself forced to comment, which led to a dialogue of sorts with the author of the piece that rapidly descended into the mindless white noise that US conservatism deafens itself with. The original can be found here, though you might want to hold your nose before clicking on the link.

One of the great failings of the American people is that they don’t do history: they simply don’t get it. Theirs is a nation that lives in the now, a country of the essential moment, which though admirable in some ways is also their great Achilles Heel. The Palins and Bachmans of US politics revel in their ignorance of historical fact over a-historical myth. They sneer at those who try and present the truth when they know that the Hollywood simplicity of the myth is all the greater and more malleable. You can have your myth and eat it too.

The alleged anti-Semitism of the Irish is the new myth of the American right. It is the new wisdom of the old Know-Nothings. It does not matter a whit that there is little or no real substance to it or that any (even casual) study of Ireland’s history shows it to be a manifest lie. American ignorance of their own history is so vast that I suppose one can hardly expect them to be aware of anyone else’s. But when that ignorance becomes dangerous, not in the educational or cultural worlds, but in the political one, where lives and jobs and money matter – then it is a far more serious thing. For The Atlantic enjoys an influential readership in the business circles of the United States. Circles where the conspiracy theories of the fringe can be taken as real if given enough airtime in the mainstream.

The editorial team of The Atlantic should know better. The sad part is they probably don’t.

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