Irish politics can be a strange place.
Journalists devote much airtime to issues of little importance: the gender of ministerial appointees, the Taoiseach’s fondness for Love Island, etc.
On the other hand, matters which are of great importance in other parts of the world do not register here at all.
One example of this occurred in early July, when the Fianna Fáil Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Deputy Niall Collins appeared on the Pakistani channel Indus News and made comments which would have ignited a firestorm in many other countries, but which caused no reaction here at all.
Guests on the ‘Scope’ programme were discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and when called upon to speak, the Limerick TD was quick to lambast the current Israeli government, as well as the American government’s role in supporting them.
So far, no surprises. Critics of Israel are invariably hostile towards the United States as well.
Anti-Israeli figures do tend to exaggerate the degree to which America backs Israel (unlike many of America’s allies, Israel has never had to call on US troops to fight its defensive wars or to guard its borders), but it is certainly true that America does support the Jewish state.
While the two major political parties in America have differed on key policy questions since WW2, they – and the broader American public – have been united in believing that the Jewish people have a right to their own state in the biblical homeland. This has not changed.
What was shocking about the comments of Niall Collins was not what he said about America’s support for Israel, but why he believes that support exists.
“[R]ight across corporate America, and right across America at every level, there is a huge Jewish lobby who have helped to create the problem that we are now discussing,” Collins claimed.
Now, that comment is significant, and worthy of more attention than it has received.
Anti-Israeli politicians, activists and organisations routinely draw a sharp distinction between the terms ‘anti-Israeli’ and ‘anti-Jewish’ (the use of the term ‘anti-Zionist’ is also common).
It should be said that not all of those who make this distinction are insincere.
Many Jewish people living in other countries do not have any close affinity with Israel. Furthermore, not all Israelis are Jewish: around 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, and Arab political parties sit in the country’s parliament.
But the sheer level of execration which Israel endures compared to that which is directed at the bevy of oppressive – and sometimes genocidal – regimes elsewhere in the Middle East makes it hard to believe that anti-Semitism does not motivate many members of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Brigade.
It is possible that Niall Collins is too poorly informed to have understood the significance of his words, because what the Fianna Fáil Foreign Affairs spokesperson said actually went far beyond any subtle insinuation.
Throughout history, one of the most popular anti-Semitic tropes is that of the scheming Jewish minority, controlling the economic and/or political affairs of the host nation.
As a result, the allusion to corporate America which Collins made was troubling enough, but referring to a “huge Jewish lobby” present “across America at every level” was far worse.
Not to mention ridiculous. In a nation of almost 330 million people, America contains only 5 million Jewish citizens.
Believing that they – or a significant portion of them – are working collectively as part of a huge lobbying effort is absurd as well as obnoxious.
Like so many fellow travellers on the paranoid fringes of the Right and the Left, Collins does not consider the other reasons why America would support Israel, even if the “huge Jewish lobby” was to take a well-earned rest.
For much of the last century, America has defined itself as leader of the free world, and as a guardian of the democratic system worldwide. Israel is a democracy, and its opponents are anything but (they also tended to be strongly pro-Soviet during the Cold War).
Americans are deeply attached to the idea of personal liberty. Israel is a liberal society where people can say what they like, practice whatever religion they believe in and live more or less as they choose. The other countries in the Middle East ban newspapers, oppress religious minorities and execute gays.
Over the last quarter of a century, America has been under concerted attack by Islamic fundamentalists seeking to obliterate Judeo-Christian civilisation in its entirety. In the war against Al-Qaeda, ISIS and every other Jihadi death cult, Israel stands with America in the front line. Does Ireland?
And yes, the Jewish community in the US plays a part in fostering the warm ties between the two nations, but not due to the vast lobbying efforts which exist in the imagination of Niall Collins.
Jews have contributed enormously to American life – economically, culturally, artistically and in every other way. No other small group has achieved so much, and in so doing they have encouraged American Gentiles to look favourably upon another nation which has given Jewish people shelter in a world that hates them.
Is Israel a faultless paragon of virtue? No.
But Irish politicians who insist on judging them should judge them foremostly against the other nations in the Middle East, and not against the standards of countries like Ireland that have the luxury of having no neighbours who wish to exterminate us
Israel must cope daily with the rocket fire of Hamas to the south, the existence of Hezbollah to the north, the presence of Assad’s Syria to the north east, and the reality of Iran’s nuclear threat.
Given the size of the country, the strategic position is stark. If Israel loses one war, it will cease to exist. One nuclear-armed missile would eradicate a large segment of the population.
Most Israelis would like to withdraw from the vast majority of the Palestinian territories. But seeing what happened when they withdrew from Gaza means that those same Israelis are not willing to pull back unless they know with certainty that the mountainous heights of the West Bank will not be used as a launchpad for countless rockets and mortar shells.
Throw in the instability in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere in the region and ask yourself what our domestic and foreign policies would be like if we had to trade places with them for one year, or one decade.
Niall Collins is not the sort of person to ask that kind of question.
Yet in a political and media environment where Israel is routinely demonised, and where no slander is deemed to be beyond the pale, he is the perfect exemplar of one of Ireland’s most enduring acceptable prejudices.