"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture

Aidan Beatty and Dan O’Brien
Syracuse University PressC
€30 (paperback)

From the Conclusion

Irish history writing has often suffered from an inward-looking perspective. The twenty-six counties’ assumed status as a sacra insula post-independence finds an odd analogue in the bulk of the work on that state’s history. That events in Ireland might have been profoundly influenced by goings-on further afield has been downplayed in favor of what R. M. Douglas aptly calls, in his contribution to this volume, “an unarticulated Sonderweg thesis for modern Ireland.” Irish historians reassured themselves “that nothing that happened on the European continent need disturb the tranquility of their scholarly lives.” Indeed, much of the literature on the so-called Irish Revolution of 1912–23 has had surprisingly little to say about other contemporaneous revolutions, not the Bolshevism of Russia, Hungary, or Germany or the anticlericalism and land seizures of Mexico or the colonial transfer of power to the Wafd in Egypt. More recently, thankfully, this edifice has shown some cracks. The recent transnational turn in Irish historiography has done much to place Ireland into broader geographies and to show how porous are the borders of what James Connolly called the “combination of chemical elements [we are] pleased to call Ireland.”

The essays in this collection emphasize the value of placing Ireland in broader global currents. R. M. Douglas’s contribution shows how a comparative European perspective does much for the study of antisemitism in Ireland, and Sander L. Gilman’s essay highlights the structural similarities and shared trajectories of anti-Jewish and anti-Irish rhetoric in the nineteenth century. Dan Lainer-Vos highlights the comparabilities and key differences of Irish and Jewish American political activism and how, in both cases, a diasporic longing for home collided with the American realities of these two prominent white ethnic groups. In almost the same vein, Muiris Ó Laoire’s chapter explores how much the revival of the Irish language can be better understood when we compare it to the roughly contemporaneous revival of Hebrew. Seán William Gannon, in his contribution, reveals how large numbers of Irish people continued to operate within transnational British imperial networks well after 1922; Irishmen serving in the Palestine Police in the 1940s drew on both nationalist and imperialist ideas to understand their role as gendarmes in a Jewish Arab society on the verge of civil war. And George Bornstein’s chapter, a creative approach to autobiography, is a comparable commentary on how one “Irish” life was lived within transnational frames.

The chapters collected here showcase a number of innovative approaches to history writing. Natalie Wynn’s survey of the methodology of Irish Jewish history writing demonstrates the limits of previous studies of the Jews of Ireland, Cormac Ó Gráda’s Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce and Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland among them. As Wynn brings to light, these works, which have long defined what we think we know about the Irish Jewish community, have shown a marked readiness to accept the central myths of that community rather than engage in a more thorough deconstruction of the meanings of Irish Jewish identity. Peter Hession’s contribution, part of a number of recent spatially focused works of Irish studies, also shows how much an innovative approach to the past can elucidate what we think we know about Irish Jewish history.

Heather Miller Rubens’s analysis in this volume shows that many Irish Jews flocked to the cause of Irish nationalism in the crucial years before 1916, yet Jewish support for Irish nationalism was an instant source of controversy. Trisha Oakley Kessler chapter similarly shows how the de Valera government’s willingness to bring Nazi-era Continental Jewish industrialists to Ireland caused a stir among the antisemitic wing of mainstream Irish politics; Jews were seen as too foreign to ever become properly Irish. Abby Bender’s chapter shows how Irish identity and Jewishness have had a long and highly complicated history. And Stephen Watt’s contribution adeptly explores George Bernard Shaw’s investigations of Jewish Questions, in particular the work of the fin-de-siècle pessimist and convert to Zionism Max Nordau. Watt’s chapter also points to the need for Irish historians to pay greater attention to literature and literary scholars; the parochialism of Irish history writing is thrown into even sharper relief by the cosmopolitanism, interdisciplinarity, and innovative global borrowing of Irish literary theorists.

It is not only Irish literary theory but Irish literature itself that can inform this debate. Ruth Gilligan’s novel Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan (2016) presents an expansive vision of Jewish-Irish relations that crosses borders of time and space. Divided into three sections, the novel follows a Lithuanian Jewish family who lands in Cork at the turn of the last century. Set fifty years later, the second section shows a traumatized Jewish adolescent navigating an Irish institution for troubled youth. The novel closes with a view of the present day, where a young Irish woman living in Britain contemplates conversion after falling in love with a Jewish Londoner. The book expertly investigates the intricate analogies between Irish and Jewish culture, laughing, as Joyce did, at much of the supposed correspondences but finding nonetheless (like Joyce also) a foundational commonality in the art of storytelling. Many of Gilligan’s characters are storytellers of one kind or another. One, an early Jewish immigrant to Cork, tells a fantastical tale of a group of women who have spent their lives knitting, “until one day they had an argument and tried to pull apart, only to discover that they had knitted themselves together—their clothes, their hair, even their eyelashes, bound into one.” This volume is the story of the Irish and Jews, bound together not by wool but by stories. Always multisided, often apocryphal, and never straightforward, these knotted yarns of connection are what this collection sets out to unravel.

In the recent essay collection Kingdom of Olives and Ash (2017), Irish novelist Colm Tóibín reflects on a visit to Jerusalem in 1992 in the wake of the re-election of Yitzhak Rabin: “It was hard… in reading about the early years of Israel, not to be reminded of the revolutionary generation in Ireland in the years leading up to the 1916 rebellion—their idealism, their belief in culture, their sense that they were making a better life for Irish people in the future.” He follows this memory with a caveat: “And it was difficult too in thinking about the fate of the Palestinians who suffered in the creation of Israel not to remember the history of dispossession in Ireland, of Irish Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries being removed from their land.” Like the literary critics Elizabeth Cullingford and Abby Bender, Tóibín highlights the ultimate futility of drawing stable parallels between ethnic, social, and national groups that are always, inevitably, in flux. The stories a nation tells itself are always open to reinterpretation. Writing in the same book, Tóibín’s fellow Irish writer Colum McCann records his recent visits to Israel and Palestine. There he met with two men—one Israeli, one Palestinian—who both lost daughters in the ongoing conflict. Their organization, Combatants for Peace, promotes dialogue between the two sides, as, they argue, it is only through the sharing of stories, the building of empathy, and the harnessing of shared sorrow that peace may succeed. As one tells the other, “It’s a disaster to discover the humanity and nobility of your enemy—because then he is not your enemy anymore.”

The study of the Jews in Ireland and the diasporas of Jews and Irish throughout the world can help readers reflect on today’s global issues of increasing immigration and growing intolerance. In “Shalom Park,” the Irish Jewish poet Simon Lewis writes of the former center of Jewish Cork:
As I leave through the Shalom Park gates
it sounds like a scene from the past,
the calls and screams of children,
their mothers shouting in Russian, Polish, Czech.
The old Jewish quarter has become home to the new Irish. In similar ways, the migratory patterns of the Jews and Irish provide models through which today’s migration can be studied. By exploring narratives of arrival, displacement, and belonging, Irish Jewish studies furthers the consideration of Ireland’s place in the world and the world’s place in Ireland.

Irish Jewish studies is not just the study of actual Jews who happened to live in Ireland (and whose history is often treated as a kind of separate existence in Ireland) but also the history of perceptions of Jews by some of the most important figures and institutions in mainstream Irish life. Irish Jewish studies can and should focus on the core of Irishness, not just on supposed anthropological oddities at the fringes. Studying “Jews” often means studying how particular societies use invented ideas of Jewishness as a means to draw borders around who does belong in society and exclude those individuals who do not. All the chapters in this collection are grounded in both Jewish studies and Irish studies and show how much each can inform the other. The Irish and the Jews were two of the classic outliers of Europe, with Irish nationalism and Zionism developing remarkably similar theories about how to end that “Other” status. This collection of essays thus makes a timely and important contribution to both Irish studies and Jewish studies.