When the Irish rebels were pulled out of the General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street 90 years ago, they were jeered and spat upon by the locals. Decaying fruit was hurled at the wounded and the maimed. The Easter Uprising in 1916 was a courageous, futile affair – another link in the chain of glorious failures that peppered Irish attempts to throw off the English yoke. The victorious British commander, however, made the mistake of shooting many of the rebel leaders and turning them into martyrs, thus igniting the passions of republicanism which eventually led to the founding of the Irish Free State. While the British ambassador attended commemorations of this event, the political struggle of republicanism’s Sinn Fein in the six counties that form Northern Ireland, still a part of the United Kingdom, continues.
Significantly, today’s republicans in Northern Ireland have embraced Palestinian nationalism and hang PLO flags from their rooftops as symbolic of their own struggle. (The Protestants responded by hanging out Israeli flags.) Yet few republicans know that their struggle deeply impressed Jewish nationalists and influenced their revolt against the British in the 1940s. Zionists and Irish republicanism both confronted British imperialism at approximately the same period in history. Understanding and learning from Irish Republicanism became an integral part of devising a more militant stand for Zionist nationalists particularly after the killings of Jews in Hebron and Safed in 1929. In October 1930, Abba Ahimeir, one of the originators of the Zionist far-Right wrote that “One of the greatest sins of Zionism is its faith in the kindness of nations. Zionism has forgotten Sinn Fein’s principle, the principle of ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ the principle that the nationalist Irish have placed first and foremost in their movement.” Lehi’s Avraham Stern later translated part of P.S. O’Hegarty’s book The Victory of Sinn Fein into Hebrew.
The insurrection of 1916 was a forlorn hope and a deliberate blood sacrifice. The men who planned it offered up their lives as a sacrifice to call the nation to heroic deeds, to remind the people that they were a nation and not a dependency. Never did any body of men go forth on a more desperate enterprise, with purer hearts or more unfaltering courage. They played for the soul of Ireland and they knew it was a sheer gamble. Although Sinn Fein won the 1918 election, it was not allowed into the Versailles conference. But this philosophy of “blood sacrifice” struck a chord among the leadership of Betar and the radical Revisionists in the Yishuv. One essential ingredient was the importance of attacking Britain when the country was at war. Both Stern and Menachem Begin proclaimed their revolts against British rule in Palestine when the British were still fighting the Nazis – albeit at different stages of the conflict. Yitzhak Shamir studied Irish Republican literature during his time in the underground and adopted the name “Michael” as his nom de guerre after Michael Collins. As head of operations for Lehi, Shamir based himself on Collins among others.
Yet the mentor of Begin’s generation, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, throughout his life virtually ignored the fight of the Irish republicans because he clearly believed that the path of armed struggle on the Irish model would not succeed in Palestine. Jabotinsky was totally dismissive about the Easter Uprising. In 1916, he was, of course, cultivating the British in the hope of establishing the Jewish Legion – and even a fleeting sympathy with Irish nationalism would have been counterproductive. In an article in the Russian press in mid-May 1916, he commented that “the worst thing is not that these people [the rebels] perished, but that they perished for an unjust cause and the country which loved many of them was obliged in both conscience and honor to reject them and abandon them to their destruction.” Jabotinsky further commented that although Ireland’s past was terrible, a revolution could not be undertaken simply to avenge the past. In further articles, he argued that life was actually becoming better under British rule and Irish demands could have been attained through non-violent means. He suggested that a Home Rule compromise was the best solution with autonomous status for the six Protestant provinces of Ulster.
It was only in 1938 that Jabotinsky acknowledged Irish Republicanism when he met Eamonn de Valera – but as the head of the Irish state rather than as an IRA revolutionary. The Irish had opposed the proposed partition of Palestine because of their own experience. Today, the very idea of the Irgun as Zionist Sinn Fein would cause embarrassment and incredulity to leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who are well versed in the course of Irish history. Yet as Padraig Pearse, a rebel leader, proclaimed 90 years ago, “In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty: six times during the past 300 years they have asserted it in arms in the face of the world. We hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a sovereign independent state and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of freedom, of its welfare and of its exaltation among the nations.” Perhaps Irish nationalism and Zionism have more in common than the current leaders of Sinn Fein are willing to admit.