At first glance, the Irish and Jewish peoples seem radically different. But scratch the surface and they begin to look like twins separated at birth. The stories of these two wandering tribes share many extraordinary parallels.
The Irish writer Brendan Behan once remarked, "Others have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis." That may be putting matters a little harshly, but he was onto something: These two ancient peoples were destined to wander the world as outsiders, knowing suspicion and derision wherever they went. Through it all, both maintained tight and close bonds with their own kin, even in the farthest corners of the earth.
Both have homelands that are small, sacred and contested. And very ancient: Ireland and Israel both boast monuments far older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some even dare to speculate that the Irish may be connected to one of the "lost tribes" of Israel. Certainly, stone burial chambers called dolmens are found in both Ireland and Israel. These date from about 4,000 BC. Yet any such mysterious common origins are now lost in time.
In more recent centuries, the Irish and the Jews have inordinately swollen the ranks of genius. A disproportionate number of Nobel laureates have Jewish or Irish origins. And is it not an accident that the central character in James Joyce's Ulysses is an Irish Jew, notes Professor Thomas Casey of the Gregorian University in Rome: "Surely Joyce was struck by parallels between the Jewish and Irish experience: persecution, a lost homeland, exile and a global diaspora."
Other reasons for the choice of Bloom, Casey suggests, "may have been the fact that a Jewish 'good Samaritan' named Alfred Hunter came to Joyce's rescue when he was mugged in Dublin in 1904," but probably "the most significant reason" was Joyce's 16 years in Trieste, where he befriended many Jews, "the most famous of them being Italo Svevo, whom Joyce took under his wing, championing this previously ignored writer."
Both peoples also suffered death and cruelty at the hands of oppressors. While many now live in the small, beautiful, and intense homelands of Ireland and Israel, the greater portion of both tribes remain scattered to the four corners of the earth.
Both tribes most particularly found a home in the United States. From humble beginnings in America, these two ethnic groups rose to prominence by the middle of the 20th century. By the time of president John F. Kennedy's election in 1960, Irish and Jewish Americans were the two wealthiest and most successful ethnic groups in the US.
When these two peoples melded together in the great melting pot of America, they collaborated in some part of the most extraordinary human achievements of all time: the space race, the moon landings, and the defeat of communism and Nazism. This latter enterprise is attested to in cold white marble at the American cemetery in Normandy, where many Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans lie side by side.
In 432 AD, St. Patrick brought the Christian teachings and the ancient Jewish law to Ireland. Embedded intrinsically within Christianity is the Jewish law, the sacred Ten Commandments, and the knowledge of the one God, which both peoples hold in common to this day. We remember too that Jesus himself was a Jew. Here it was stored and nurtured it through the Dark Ages.
From Ireland, wandering monks then brought these teachings to Scotland, Scandinavia, and Continental Europe. From there, Christianity and its core of Jewish law eventually traveled onward to America, Africa and Asia. In the span of human history, Israel and Ireland both played pivotal roles in disseminating to the world the moral teachings of ancient Israel.
Israel declared Independence on 20 April 1948; Ireland, already partly independent, became a republic on 18 April 1949. Sadly, both nations have known much discord and violence since. Yet, amid the rights and wrongs, and the complexities, there is hope. As the Irish and the Israelis now hope to build lasting peace in their own homelands, it is heartening to note that in the tapestry of human life, we all share far more similarities than differences.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Jewish Chronicle on 19 March 2010.