by Alexander Goldberg, Chaplain to the University of Surrey and an international consultant on community relations
This week has seen the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. For Ireland’s small community it was a watermark moment that changed the course of their history forever: both impacting on the creation of a future Irish Republic and a future State of Israel.
On the first day of the Easter Rising, 14th April 1914, a Jewish Volunteer, Mr A Weeks was killed outside the GPO in Dublin on the first day of action. Days before he had been laying the Foundation stone of the Adelaide Road synagogue. This was the first Jewish Irish nationalist who died for the cause though he was far from being the exception that proved the rule.
In the main, Dublin and Cork Jews were nationalists and republicans whilst many of Belfast’s Jews were loyalist or pro-British. Notable amongst the revolutionaries were Robert Briscoe, an IRA Captain and the first Jewish member of the Dail Eirann (the Irish Parliament) and Michael Noyk who worked closely with the revolutionary leader Michael Collins. My own great-aunts, Fanny and Molly Goldberg joined the revolutionary Cumann na mBan (Women’s IRA) and did everything but shoot: hiding IRA soldiers, nursing and marching. One of my own grandfather’s earliest memories was of his uniformed elder sisters going out on parade. On the other side of the political divide was notably the leader of Belfast’s community Sir Otto Jaffe. The divide at times was between families and communities: often Jewish families straddled what would become the north-south divide.
There are two obvious question in all this, firstly why did this community become involved at all? And secondly, how did they respond to other forms of nationalism emerging at the time, especially Zionism?
The community were Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews, who had fled the Russian Empire in the 1880s. Indeed, many of them were from neighbouring villages and often related to each other in what was a huge network of inter-related families. It would have been easy and logical for these families to stay out of the conflict. Indeed, the combination of the 1904 Limerick Pogrom, a growing and powerful pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church and the emergence of the overtly antisemitic Arthur Griffiths in the Irish nationalist movement, would have given the community ample reason to stand aside in the Anglo-Irish conflict but instead they decided to embrace politics.
The Jews identified with the struggle. They had left a country where they had been oppressed and arrived in a country where the majority population suffered from discrimination: seeing as they did from the neighbourhoods of Little Jerusalem in Dublin and Jewstown in Cork the absolute poverty experienced by the general population (living 20 people to a house in parts of Dublin) in what was one of the British Empire’s largest cities, the discrimination against the majority Catholic community coming from Protestant institutions and the unfairness.
Perhaps, like other disadvantaged groups, they dreamt that a new state could produce a new social order based on equality of opportunity and free from prejudice: a hope other Jews had across the world in joining liberal and socialist revolutions at the time.
There were pull factors too. Despite negativity and occasional antisemitism, Irish nationalists such as Parnell were philosemites. His intervention in the Cork dockers strike of the 1880s to take a stand against anti-Jewish sentiments there won over many including my own great-grandfather who would apparently read to his children from the Jewish newspapers, the parashat hashvua and the writings of Parnell every Friday morning. No wonder his daughters joined the uprising.
And Zionism? The dream of self-determination rubbed off on a generation of Irish Jews. In the midst of the chaos, the Dublin Jews convinced the young Rabbi of Belfast, Yitzhak Herzog to come and become the first Irish Chief Rabbi. He turned out to be a rabbi and politician: his experience in Dublin was again put into effect when he became the first Chief Rabbi of Israel. He was not alone in transforming his Irish nationalism to the Zionist cause.
Indeed the Irish supported Zionist causes: they trained and armed Jewish fighters in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. True, some supported Revisionist Zionists and others Socialist Zionists but a small community of no more than 4000-5000 that had put itself front of house building an Irish State would boast a future Chief Rabbi, President, one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force and so much more. The Easter Rising was a precursor for the creation of State of Israel: the Irish State a model of what could be.