Tánaiste's remarks at the Celebration of the Centenary of the birth of Chaim Herzog
Speech17 October 2018
Remarks by Mr Simon Coveney T.D., Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs
Celebration of the Centenary of the birth of Chaim Herzog, 6th President of Israel
Iveagh House, 17th October 2018
Ladies and Gentlemen
Allow me to begin by echoing the welcome from the Secretary General to all of you here today.
As we gather to celebrate the life of a great Statesman, a son of Israel, and a son of Ireland, I am particularly glad to welcome members of his own family. Isaac Herzog and I have shared some very fruitful and informative conversations over the last year in Jerusalem and I am delighted that I can now welcome him here to Dublin, the former homeplace of his father and grandfather, along with other members of the Herzog family.
I am also delighted that we are joined by Ambassador Kariv, and his wife Moriya. And I congratulate the Ambassador who presented his credentials to President Higgins just yesterday. It is particularly fitting that his first official engagement should be at an event to celebrate the many connections between Israel and Ireland. And I acknowledge our own Ambassador to Israel, Alison Kelly, whose presence here today is a further recognition of the importance of the occasion.
And let me offer a particularly warm welcome to the many members of the Irish Jewish community who we are delighted to host in Iveagh House. Your presence is a reminder to us of the depth of the personal connections between Ireland and Israel; but also of the valuable contribution that the Jewish people have made, and continue to make, to life in Ireland. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, Maurice Cohen, and his wife Bertha, who have been the driving forces in the organisation of today’s events.
Ladies and Gentlemen
We have the opportunity today to reflect on the contribution that Chaim Herzog, his family, and the wider Jewish community, of which they were an integral part, have made to the life of both our nations.
The Jewish community has a long history in Ireland. And while Dublin was, and is, the main centre for the community, one of the earliest accounts of Jews in Ireland is from my own county of Cork, where records show that one William Annyas was elected Mayor of Youghal in 1555.
Mayor Annyas was the first of many from the Jewish community who have been called to public life in Ireland. Their contribution and service has enriched our discourse and provided that all-important alternative viewpoint beyond what were, at times, narrow and homogenous horizons. I am delighted to see many friends from Ireland’s Jewish community here today, including my former Cabinet colleague Alan Shatter.
Chaim Herzog’s father was also one of that number. While not entering Irish political life himself, he was a central figure in the early years of the newly independent state. Rabbi Herzog was, of course, first and foremost a teacher and a spiritual leader who strengthened the Jewish community in Ireland and had an important and enduring influence on the spiritual life of Irish Jews. But he also found himself representing a minority community in a country that was soon to become riven by inter-community conflict. Protecting his community and maintaining neutrality required some delicate diplomacy, skills that may also have served him well during his future life in Israel.
And so it was that one hundred years and one month ago, on 17 September 1918, Chaim Herzog was born in Ireland, in Belfast, where his father was serving as Rabbi. Within a year Rabbi Herzog was appointed chief Rabbi of Ireland and the family moved to Dublin. These were tumultuous times. For the world. For Europe. And for Ireland.
It was a time when old world orders crumbled. Ireland emerged as an independent nation. Society changed. In among the political upheavals we saw a Literary Revival, the suffrage movement, the struggle for workers’ rights.
In fact so extraordinary was the decade from 1912 to 1922 that 100 years later here in Ireland we have designated this period as the ‘Decade of Centenaries’.
Our country was embroiled in wars and revolutions. This month, for example, we are also commemorating the sinking of the RMS Leinster and the SS Dundalk with the untimely loss of hundreds of lives, among the many millions who died during World War One. And next month we will commemorate and reflect on the centenary of the end of that ‘war to end all wars’.
It was also a decade which saw a growing interest among Jewish people in the establishment of a Jewish national home.
It was in this world and at these times that the young Chaim Herzog did his growing up. That one of his earliest memories is of a gunfight on his street, one of many during Ireland’s civil war, was perhaps a signifier of the life he was destined to lead, at the forefront of his future country’s independence efforts. For all his delicate diplomacy we know that Rabbi Herzog was a supporter of the cause of Irish freedom, in which he must have seen resonances with Zionism. He was also a friend of Eamonn De Valera, who often visited the house in Portobello in the company of Bob Briscoe.
Ladies and gentlemen
The year of Chaim’s birth also saw the publication of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, whose main protagonist is a lapsed Jew, Leopold Bloom, who spends the novel wandering the streets of Dublin. In choosing this figure as the hero of his most famous novel, Joyce highlighted the unique place of minorities and the perspective they bring, being both of the society and separate from it.
In his memoirs Chaim Herzog reflected on the conflicts of growing up as a Jew in a western society; on the one hand, adhering to Jewish traditions imposed by parents, while on the other seeking to assimilate with the wider community. His enduring Dublin accent and his love of college rugby were certainly two aspects of his personality where the latter won out.
In Ireland, we as a people are very familiar with the complexities of identity. We are acutely aware of the many Irish-Americans who identify with this country; many Irish people take great pride in being European citizens; and there is the provision in the Good Friday Agreement for those born in Northern Ireland to be both British and Irish.
This recognition that identity can be drawn from many sources comes in large part from the fact that – like the Jewish nation – Ireland is a nation of migrants. Exile is deep in our psyche. And yet the connection to home endures. It is doubtful that Irish independence would have been won, or achieved when it was, without the support of the Irish diaspora around the world. In recognition of that, Ireland’s relationship with its diaspora is enshrined in our Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, which states that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. The Irish diaspora were central to the birth of the Irish State and have remained supporters and enablers of our growth as an independent nation, just as the Jewish diaspora has long championed the State of Israel.
The most successful of our emigrants embraced their new nationalities and became part of the societies of their new homes, yet were able to maintain a connection to their familial roots. They combined their identities to the benefit of both their old and new homes.
And so we can claim some understanding of what it means to be Jewish and Irish, and to be Israeli-Irish, and that there should be no contradiction between those identities.
When Chaim Herzog left these shores in 1935 he did so with the hope of contributing to the founding of a Jewish home. That aspiration drove him through dark and desperate times in the Second World War, witnessing the horrific aftermath of the Holocaust – and then later, the promise of statehood for his people. Just as he was witness to the birth pangs of the Irish State so he played a central role in the birth of another new nation. He was present, in one capacity or another, at nearly all the major, sometimes tragic, events in the history of the young State of Israel; nurturing and protecting it, and ultimately leading it as Head of State.
His return to Ireland in 1985 on an official State Visit brought full circle that journey and provided an opportunity for us to celebrate the many ties that bind us. Again it was Cork that upstaged Dublin, with former mayor Gerald Goldberg welcoming President Herzog in fluent Hebrew.
And while I might argue with him about his description of Irish as ‘an impossible language’, I have to admire the lengths he went to in order to ensure he was able to speak the cúpla focal during his State visit in 1985. In those efforts he was assisted by two Irish officers serving with the UNIFIL troops in Lebanon, a reminder to us of the role the Irish Defence Forces have played over many decades in keeping peace along Israel’s borders.
Chaim Herzog’s importance to the bilateral relationship between Ireland and Israel cannot be overstated. He was the embodiment of our shared struggles. Straddling our two societies he found the connections between them. He helped us know each other better.
As we celebrate the centenary of his birth, let us draw inspiration from his example and from his lifelong commitment to democracy, to human rights, and to peace among nations.
Thank you again for your presence here today as we commemorate a great son of both our nations.