In Tuesday's tight Israeli election, the contenders can use any advantage they can get. So it hasn’t gone unnoticed by one of the frontrunners that the country is going to the polls on St. Patrick Day.
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At a recent appearance during his campaign, Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union party, said he hoped the luck of the Irish would be with him. He does hold a legitimate claim to being the scion in a line of distinguished Irishmen.
Dubbed by an Irish newspaper as being “almost-Irish,” the candidate is the grandson and namesake of Rabbi of Ireland Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who served as Ireland’s chief rabbi from 1919 to 1937 and was nicknamed "the Sinn Féin Rabbi" for his support of the Irish nationalist cause during the Irish War of Independence.
The rabbi’s son, Chaim, was born in Belfast, educated in Dublin, and immigrated to Palestine in 1935 - after serving in the British army in World War II (where his comrades in arms nicknamed him “Vivian” because they couldn’t pronounce “Chaim”), he rose to prominence in the new State of Israel, with a distinguished career in the military, law, diplomacy and politics, culminating in his service as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and later, his election as the sixth president of Israel for two five-year terms from 1983-93.
Last summer, there was a somber footnote to the Herzog’s family relationship with their homeland. In mid-August, during the height of the tensions over the Gaza war, a plaque that had been placed in honor of Chaim Herzog at his birthplace in north Belfast was taken down after it attracted anti-Israel graffiti, objects being thrown at the building and an attempt to remove the plaque.
Isaac Herzog called the removal of the plaque “quite sad for me and my family. The history of my family has been intertwined with the history of Irish independence and the story of Belfast itself, which is a city with huge history and which I admire and adore."
The Herzogs are far from the only family with deep Irish roots living in Israel. When the St. Patrick’s Day election was first announced, Malcolm Gafson, the longtime chairman of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League, said the double holiday was a cause for celebration.
A year earlier, in 2014, he said, the Irish community kicked up its heels when the Jewish party holiday of Purim and St. Patrick’s Day coalesced. Now, for the second year in a row, the close-knit community of Irish-Israeli expatriates could have a day off to “wallow in nostalgia” for the green hills they left behind.
The Irish embassy holds an official reception on the holiday, but his more informal community of several hundred former Irishmen and women - and their families - cuts loose in a more casual way.
As soon as he learned of the date, Gafson said he started working on campaign slogans designed at encouraging local Irish expats to effectively combine their traditional celebration with their civic duty - whether or not they planned to cast their ballot for Herzog.
“How about “Get your shot at democracy quickly so you can start doing your shots quickly,” he mused. “Or even better: “Vote early or you might not be able to find your way to the polls.”