We need to talk about Zionism

The Irish Seanad reconvened for an special debate on Thursday 31st July, on the situations in Gaza and Ukraine. Some of the interventions from the speakers were informed and engaged, and others were muddled and lacking much of a point. There was near unanimous condemnation for Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. Several senators called for sanctions against Israel.

The call for sanctions was rebuffed by the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan. Flanagan has been criticised for what Fianna Fáil senator Averil Power described in the debate as his ‘ardent support’ for Israel. In the debate he was anxious to stress how consistent his own stance as Minister has been with that of previous Irish ministers and governments. On the matter of sanctions he said that “as a small trading nation, Ireland will only consider sanctions as part of UN or EU measures.While we would like to think otherwise, the reality is we are too small to affect matters on our own as far as the imposition of economic or social sanctions are concerned.” The official Ireland that gloriously “punches above its weight” when it comes to negotiations in the general interest of US and EU elites is notably too puny to do anything when it comes to doing anything that might jeopardise sweet smiles from above.

Though Flanagan had clearly got a lot of help to set out his stall, in light of the public anger arising from Ireland’s abstention on the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on the investigation of war crimes in Gaza, he flailed around in the bumbling and incoherent manner that has characterised his time at Foreign Affairs. He said that “Israel has a right to exist and defend itself”, and felt the carnage in Gaza needed to be weighed against “the attitude of Hamas towards the treatment of women and the imposition of Sharia law in certain parts of the region, about which we might not be so vocal”, a position that no doubt gave people in the Israeli embassy cause for a celebratory drink.

It seems fair to say that the Seanad debate came about as a result of a sincere desire to address the situation in Gaza politically, given the fact that the Dáil would not reconvene to discuss it, and given the public anger arising from Ireland’s subservience to EU interests at the UN. Although the public did not abolish it when it had the opportunity, lots of people are unsure what the point of the Seanad is, given its lack of legislative power. Some of the contributors to the debate, David Norris and Marie-Louise O’Donnell in particular, made eloquent and impassioned attacks on Israeli actions in Palestine. They were undoubtedly making the most of the official platform afforded to them to keep the issue in the public eye, and to hold the minister responsible to account. I find it hard to fault the use of the Seanad for this purpose, whatever my doubts about the wider usefulness of the Seanad.

But for all that, and the calls for sanctions are no small thing, I was struck by the overall lack of critical intellectual substance. Particularly striking was the absence of any mention of Zionism, or attempt to understand Israeli actions in terms of racism.

The absence of any mention of Zionism probably reflects a wider ignorance in Ireland of the history and contemporary reality of Palestine and Israel. You get the feeling that for a lot of people, the reflex on hearing the word ‘Zionism’ is to imagine that it is some sort of exotic insult directed at Israeli Jews, rather than the correct name for the historical phenomenon that brought the State of Israel into being. Zionism is manifest in every aspect of that State’s actions, including its continuing dispossession, oppression and murder of Palestinians, its view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat”, its drive to demonise Palestinians, to prevent their voices from being heard, to cast them as terrorists and the first waves of a dark demonic sea of Islamic barbarism.

It says a lot that Ireland’s supposed elite political chamber proved incapable of naming this reality. Many of the representatives were heavily critical of Israeli actions whilst simultaneously reciting stock Zionist phrases such as “Israel has a right to defend itself” or “Israel has a right to exist”. If you cannot name it as a reality, you cannot address it as a political problem.

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