Ireland and the US: Poles apart on the Middle East

Letter from Wicklow/Larry Donnelly

I previously ventured in this space that public attitudes toward and consequent government policy to combat climate change might represent the single biggest difference in the worldviews of Americans and Europeans.  I withdraw that.  For since the horrific exploits of a demonic band of Hamas terrorists against 1,400 Israeli men, women and children on Oct 7, it has become clear that how we perceive the age-old conflict between Israel and Palestine is where the greatest divergence lies.

And it is in Ireland – not in larger nations such as the United Kingdom or Germany – that anti-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiment is strongest.  Albeit anecdotal, RTÉ journalist Paul Cunningham reported from Tel Aviv that numerous people he encountered, upon hearing that he was Irish, abruptly informed him: “You are not with us.”

Their suspicions are understandable, given that in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, and prior to any retaliation from Israel, leftist activists here voiced full-throated backing for the Palestinians and festooned their social media profiles with the Palestinian flag. 

Notably for Irish Americans who are enamoured of Sinn Féin, many of its elected officials have done the voicing – regardless of the massive dissonance between their stance on this vexed subject and how it is seen in New York and in other traditional strongholds across the Atlantic for the former political wing of the IRA.  Indeed, Sinn Féín endorsed a move to expel Israel’s Ambassador to Ireland, which did not garner a majority in Dáil Éireann (the lower house of Irish parliament).

A letter to the editor published in The Irish Times and signed by approximately 800 academics at Irish universities described what transpired on this occasion as follows: “The incursion by Palestinian armed groups on Oct.7 included criminal attacks against civilians.”  Speaking personally, I was disappointed that colleagues, plenty of whom I have the utmost respect for, could affix their names to a grotesquely understated portrayal of what was a barbaric slaughter of innocents.

The Irish government has condemned the Israeli response to Hamas’s massacre in language that would perhaps be associated with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and the relatively minuscule group of elected officials of her ilk stateside.  Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar has proffered that Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip “isn’t just self-defence” and instead “resembles something more approaching revenge.”  Minister Simon Harris has argued that Israel is a country “blinded by rage waging a war on children.”

It may be controversial to say it in the US, yet Varadkar and Harris are not wrong.  By any objective measure, Israel’s reaction has been grossly disproportionate.  Thousands more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis were on Oct. 7.  Much of the physical infrastructure in a crowded territory has been razed to the ground, with no exceptions made for hospitals or educational institutions. Despite the increasingly vocal pleas of the international community, the scandal-plagued Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had allowed only minimal “humanitarian pauses” in the onslaught before recent ad hoc ceasefires were held.  

President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, though it is likely that the two men privately wish for an immediate halt to the fighting and killing, will not call upon America’s staunch ally to stop it altogether.  Part of this is real politick; notwithstanding the oft-touted shift in the mindset of young people, who tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the majority of the electorate still instinctively favours Israel and recent polls reflect it.

The America Israel Political Action Committee continues to wield outsized influence on Capitol Hill.  It plans to spend $100 million to defeat Congresswoman Tlaib and her liberal colleagues in the “Squad.”  Arab Americans are not as well organized.  There has been slippage in their support for President Biden lately in the key state of Michigan.  But the Democrats’ dispassionate wager on this front has to be that they are hardly going to defect to the GOP, which they deem blindly pro-Israel.

Since Oct. 7, I have been continually asked by friends here and back in Boston to explain why views are so diametrically opposed in the US and in Ireland.  Without wanting to be simplistic, glib or quasi-historical, some of the reasons for the gulf in perspective are apparent.  That is not to say they are entirely straightforward.

In the US, we are taught – explicitly and implicitly – that Israel is our friend, that we are inextricably linked to this stable democracy in an otherwise distressed region.  Its citizenry and culture are akin to ours.  They are extremely security-conscious because they have to be.  They are surrounded by implacable foes who reject democracy, who are not like us and them, and who are prone to despising us and them and to sympathising with those culpable for lethal aggression against us and them.

In Ireland, even if it is not a wholly valid or meritorious comparison, there is a sense that, similar to the English occupying a substantial chunk of this island, the creation of the modern state of Israel in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust displaced very many.  Ever since, a state actor has perpetuated discrimination and violence in order to maintain authority over a location that it lacks a legitimate claim to.  That engendered armed resistance from the IRA and Hamas et al, but there is no moral equivalence between the misdeeds they have committed out of desperation and what the vastly more wealthy and powerful state actors did or have done habitually to copper-fasten their control.

Of course, musings as to why this troubled spot in the Middle East divides opinion significantly in Ireland and America are decidedly secondary at the moment.  The world collectively hopes and prays for an end to war and a path to peace, even as they seem implausible in the midst of devastating human suffering.

It would be good, however, if external observers who identify uncompromisingly with either protagonist would acknowledge that abundant fault can be found on both sides – and do so without attempting to prevaricate, contextualize or excuse.


On a lighter note, the visit of my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew has alleviated my annual November hankering to be in my native East Milton celebrating Thanksgiving with family and dear friends.  As I write, we are enjoying the glorious sights and sounds of Wicklow, eagerly anticipating a weekend in the fabulous city of Edinburgh and gearing up for a special Thanksgiving 3,000 miles away with turkey, ham and all the fixings.

I highly recommend that BostonIrish readers with loved ones here imagine an Irish Thanksgiving.  They would love to have you; they will spoil you with food, drink, and fun; it won’t cost you as many vacation days; and the flights are a lot cheaper than they are in August!  Worth planning for 2024…?  


Larry Donnelly is a Boston born and educated attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway, and a regular media contributor on politics, law and current affairs in Ireland and the US.  @LarryPDonnelly