TD Shatter breaks with tradition to support Israel

By Jason Stein

IT IS against fierce opposition that Alan Shatter, the Republic of Ireland's Minister for Justice and Defence, goes about his business.

Irish political sympathies have often gone to the Palestinians, so while business relations between Ireland and Israel are strong, Israel has never really had a friend on the Emerald Isle.

But Mr Shatter, now the only Jewish Teachta Dála (TD) of the Dáil Éireann, Ireland's Lower House, is unquestionably pro-Israel.

In his younger days, he worked on a kibbutz and he has visited Israel numerous times, professionally and socially.

In 1985, he visited the Soviet Union and held secret talks with Jewish refusniks.

The 62-year-old was first elected to the Dáil in 1981 and kept his seat until 2002 when he was unceremoniously dumped by constituents in Dublin South before he was re-elected in 2007.

"There are a number of very vociferous individuals who are completely obsessed with Israel and focus on issues relating to the conflict," Mr Shatter said.

"It is very unusual and they tend to ignore other major problems of similar standing.

"However, I have no doubt that there are some who comment about Israel who are genuine and have some concern.

"Yet there are others who are more obsessed and are anti-Israel despite having no attachment to the region whatsoever.

"However, some of the rhetoric around Israel has descended into antisemitism."

There have been many occasions when the minister has stood up for Israel despite howls of derision.

In 1989, he lambasted the Irish government for considering the granting of an office to the PLO in Dublin and, in August 1990, he derided the country's Middle East policies as being dictated to by "kidnappers in Beirut, by government ministers in Teheran and by Yasser Arafat in Tunisia".

On previous occasions, during the 1990s, he had the backing from two other, now retired Jewish TDs Ben Briscoe and Mervyn Taylor.

"I haven't found it difficult (to be Jewish) and thankfully there were two others TDs alongside me," he recalled.

"And I wouldn't be here without the support they gave me and the support of my constituents.

"My religion doesn't feature in my policy and politics, but unfortunately I do get targeted.

"But in that sense, I am not that different to other TDs who are targeted for their beliefs."

Ireland has long been perceived to have an Israel problem and a former Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Zvi Gabay, once said a typical day in the embassy in Dublin comprised of monitoring the television and radio airwaves for anti-Israel sentiment.

Ireland's current president, largely a ceremonial position, Michael Higgins has long held an anti-Israel stance.

In 2004, the 72-year-old attended a candlelit vigil in Galway mourning the death of Yasser Arafat and while Foreign Affairs spokesman, he delivered a glowing tribute to Arafat.

Additionally, he has signed petitions calling for boycotts of Israel and, in 2011, upon his election, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign welcomed his election and praised his "honourable and long-standing record as a supporter of Palestinian rights".

In 2007, President Higgins shared a speaking platform with former Lebanese politician Michel Samaha - someone considered a "global terrorist" by America.

"It would be unfair to say that his stance towards Israel has had a negative impact on relations," Mr Shatter said. "And I don't think that it is an issue.

"Not at any stage of his presidency has he said anything about Israel and there has been greater engagement with Israel since he was elected."

An avid Tottenham Hotspur fan, Mr Shatter was raised in a small Jewish community in Ireland and was educated at The High School, Dublin, and the city's Trinity College.

And he played football for Dublin Maccabi.

Mr Shatter's background is a diverse one. His father, Reuben, was English-born to Polish immigrants and met wife Elaine in 1947.

Mr Shatter's grandfather Jack settled in London's East End.

Away from the political arena, Mr Shatter says he is secular, but "culturally and philosophically Jewish".

Ireland's relationship with Israel has often focused heavily on high-tech, and on drawing multinational investments with a low-tax model that was lauded by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an example for other small countries, including his own.

Mr Shatter believes there is still more to be done.

"We have every reason to believe and hope that the two states will deepen their ties further and I believe that will happen in the coming years," he insisted.

"Each state can learn from the other and provide synergies. And that's not to say Ireland won't still have issues with Israel, but I hope we will see a greater understanding in the problems facing the country and vice-versa.

"There are a lot of good relations between the states such as cultural exchanges."

And the minister was at pains to point out that the current centre-right Fine Gael government has opposed boycotts of any description.

"We believe that two states can engage and the Irish government wants to see an end to this conflict through a two-state solution," he said.

Mr Shatter believes Ireland is wholly committed to a workable process that will secure a safe state for the Palestinians.

He continued: "Negotiations are fraught and what I regret is that what we learned during our own troubles isn't always fully articulated."

Yet the conflicts, he said, are different.

"The situation in the Middle East is a great deal more complex than the one faced by us in Northern Ireland," Mr Shatter explained.

"One of the issues is to build trust in terms of engagement. Because there is a great lack of that at the moment. That needs to happen through action and words.

"It took Ireland many years to understand this and one of our focuses has to be how we can help both sides."

During his speech at Ireland Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday, he urged the Irish community to remember that those who so "meticulously planned the final solution did not forget the Irish Jewish community".

There has long been a controversy over Irish soldiers who 'deserted' the army to enlist for the British military during the Second World War.

It was to his "great pride" that he was able to posthumously rehabilitate and publicly salute those who did so.

"For many years it needed to be addressed," Mr Shatter explained. "I was very pleased, but there wasn't a single member of the parliament so it was a privilege to do that.

"Of course it would have been better had legislation been enacted years earlier when many more were still alive.

"But it was one of the pieces of legislation I was determined to bring in.

"This was a long overdue recognition by this state of the important role that they played."

During his speech he reminded guests that it is right to remember that Ireland's doors were kept "firmly closed to Jewish families" who desperately sought to flee there from Germany for sanctuary during the 1930s.

He continued: "We recall, with moral revulsion, the advice in December 1938 of Charles Bewley, the then Irish minister plenipotentiary in Berlin, and a rabid antisemite, to the Irish government to do so."

The recent controversy over whether far-right Hungarian party Jobbik should be allowed speak in Britain did not escape his attention.

He remarked: "Far-right parties, such as Golden Dawn, in Greece, and the British National Party, are contaminating the political atmosphere and they are engaging in a form of rhetoric that can result in prejudice.

"The European Union was built on shared common values and built from the ashes of the Second World War with an understanding that the Holocaust will never happen again.

"That can never be lost sight of."

The minister recently called increased sales of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf "disturbing".

The industry is something that Mr Shatter would know plenty about given his own literary work has caused controversy in Ireland.

His 'steamy' novel, Laura, is the only publication to be referred to the Irish censorship board in the last five years, but no publication has been banned since 2003.

The book, written in 1990, contains sex scenes and centres around the troubled private life of a politician who is having an affair with his secretary.

One of the main points of contention is a section of the book that sees the fictional TD attempt to force his mistress to have an abortion in order to save his political career.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph