Why Israel's Occupation Isn’t More 'Brutal and Ferocious' Than Britain's in Ireland

Gideon Levy's assertion is a simplistic bending of history to suit a political script. The centuries of massacres of Catholic civilians by British forces and of famine are still deeply rooted in Irish memory.

Colin Shindler
Colin Shindler
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A paramilitary mural is seen on a wall in East Belfast in Northern Ireland, October 20, 2015.
A paramilitary mural is seen on a wall in East Belfast in Northern Ireland, October 20, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Colin Shindler
Colin Shindler

The Irish Ambassador to Israel would laugh at Gideon Levy's assertion in his opinion piece ‘Don't Celebrate the Israeli Occupation's Impending Demise Just Yet’ that “It took the Irish 750 years to get rid of the British occupation, which was much less brutal and ferocious than the Israeli one” – even taking into account the fact that Ireland has been one of the most vociferous critics in Europe of the Israeli presence on the West Bank.

The massacres of Catholic civilians in Drogheda and Waterford by Cromwell’s roundheads in 1649 are still remembered in Ireland today. The rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798 was put down with great violence by British forces in which tens of thousands of rebels were killed.

In Drogheda, the garrison and the town’s inhabitants were slaughtered and the few survivors sent off in chains to the colony of Barbados. Cromwell told the House of Commons that this had been ‘a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches’. This incident is deeply rooted in Irish memory. Yet it was the same ‘progressive’ Cromwell who overthrew the monarchy, established a republic and allowed the Jews back into England in 1656. During the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, the population fell by a quarter due to starvation and emigration. British land acquisition and absentee landlords made the Irish totally dependent on potato crops - and made a bad situation far worse.

Levy’s throwaway comment is on a par to the assertion that ‘Israel is an apartheid state’ – a comment which many genuine fighters against apartheid such as Benjamin Pogrund have demonstrated to be simplistic and reductionist.

The Irish Protestants of Ulster did not 'occupy' northern Ireland. Belfast was not a British settlement. And their southern Catholic neighbours did not wish to drive them out.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is primarily a national one between two nationalities. It is profoundly different from the essentially religious and cultural Catholic-Protestant one in Ireland.

In past years, Irish republicans such as Gerry Adams have attempted to paint their movement in progressive colours rather than nationalist ones – hence an identification with the Palestinian cause. Yet the more accurate historical comparison is actually between Irish Republicanism and the Zionist Right.

The maximalist wing of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement in the 1930s believed in the doctrine of military Zionism and looked to the Irish struggle for inspiration. Why? Because their struggle was the nearest in time to fighting a common enemy, British imperialism. Abba Ahimeir, the forgotten ideological mentor of the maximalists, wrote an article entitled ‘Sinn Fein’ as early as 1930.

While Jabotinsky believed that the best solution to the Irish problem was home rule during World War I, he was silent about the Easter Uprising whose aim was to secure Irish independence while British attention was directed towards the trenches of Flanders. Its leaders were executed by the British – and turned them into martyrs for the cause in April 1916.

Jabotinsky’s maximalist disciples in Betar and the Irgun the 1930s were not so particular. Jabotinsky was prepared to meet Eamon de Valera, the head of state, in Dublin at the beginning of 1938. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Avraham Stern however preferred the revolutionary De Valera of the pre-state days.

The Stern Group, later Lehi, were particularly interested in the Irish. Avraham Stern read Irish republican literature and translated into Hebrew P. S. O’Hegarty’s The Victory of Sinn Fein for his followers. Yitzhak Shamir, the head of military operations of Lehi, also studied the Irish struggle in the underground and took the name of ‘Mikhael’ as his nom de guerre. Why? Because he admired Michael Collins, the progenitor of the IRA.

The Jewish IRA member, Robert Briscoe, became a member of the Irish parliament – and introduced Jabotinsky to De Valera.

Avraham Stern believed in 1940 that the British were the central enemy of the Jewish people. He believed that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – and this persuaded him to send an emissary to the German Legation in Beirut. He erroneously viewed the Nazis as the latest in a long line of persecutors and not as exterminators.

In Dublin there were similar views. There had been, for example, several initiatives by Sean Russell, the Chief of Staff of the IRA, to make contact with the Nazis even before the outbreak of war. Plan Kathleen had envisaged an IRA uprising of 30,000, joined by a German invasion force of 50,000, to take Northern Ireland. This was then superseded by Hitler’s plan to invade Northern Ireland at the same time as the invasion of England in Operation Sea Lion in the summer of 1940. Northern Ireland, the Nazis argued, would provide a firm base for the Luftwaffe to bomb targets in the north of England.

All this has been submerged by the leaders of the Irish republican movement today – and their opposite numbers on the Israeli Right are similarly none too keen to recall this period of history. The Palestinian issue has mesmerized both Irish republicans and the Israeli Right – and the past is now an embarrassment. In invoking the ravages of Irish history under English rule, Gideon Levy has become their unwitting ally in the art of forgetting.

Many on the Israeli Left come to Europe in the mistaken belief that they will find allies on the European Left, that the European Left think in the same way – with a full understanding of the tortuous history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. More often than not, this is not the case. They often do not find solidarity because the ideological price demanded of them as Israelis is too high. In an age of decolonization, some on the European left see the Zionist experiment as wrong because it does not fit theoretically into their world view – and some advocate that it should be dismantled, regardless of the occupation.

Gideon Levy should resist the temptation to participate in this closing of the progressive mind by such Irish nationalists, who ascribe to a combination of romanticism and nationalism with a thin leftist veneer on top. The situation in Israel-Palestine is profoundly different and more complex. In addition, Levy’s comment on the scope of the British occupation of Ireland also belittles the centuries of Irish suffering.

Bitterness at the occupation should not impair clarity of thought. Frustration should not bend history to fit a political purpose – no matter how worthy.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His latest book is The Rise of the Israeli Right, published by Cambridge University Press.

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