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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Leah Farrell via

President Higgins "We must share vigilance of not letting anti-Semitism spread again"

World Jewish Conference delegates hear Higgins address concerns over ‘walls’ and ‘fear’ challenging the world.

This speech was delivered by President Michael D Higgins yesterday to a reception for delegates of the the World Jewish Conference at Áras an Uachtaráin.

In it, he expresses concern that we are living through a period where “we see barbed wire being raised, and walls being erected – walls of fear and insecurity: walls between nations, walls between rich and poor…”

He also addresses “cultural integration” and how that is playing out in reality in Europe right now. 

Distinguished guests,
Dear friends,

May I extend to you all, and in particular to those of you who have travelled from afar, a very warm welcome – céad mile fáilte – to Áras an Uachtaráin and to Ireland. I also wish to thank Maurice Cohen, Chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, for his support in organising today’s reception.

As President of Ireland, it is my great pleasure to host this assembly of delegates of the World Jewish Congress. Ever since its foundation in 1936, your organisation has been working tirelessly to vindicate the rights of Jewish people around the world, and today it represents the Jewish communities of a hundred countries across six continents.

I am aware that this is your third Annual Conference, and the fact that you are holding it in Dublin is testament to the commitment and dynamism of Ireland’s small Jewish community, a community that has made, and continues to make, such a rich contribution to the life of this island – to Irish arts, professions and politics.

You are coming to Ireland at a time of great global and regional uncertainty in so many places. A time when, close to home, Ireland, and Europe, are still reflecting on how to adjust to the historic decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

A time when, in so many quarters of the world, we see barbed wire being raised, and walls being erected – walls of fear and insecurity: walls between nations, walls between rich and poor, walls between those on the move and those who feel threatened in their self-definitions of rootedness and are seeking to assert claims to exclusive forms of propriety and entitlement.

Ours are times indeed when the universal principles of human rights, which may have been lodged in ancient forms, including the faith systems of the world, and upon which the nations of the world sought to rebuild the international system in the wake of WWII, are being challenged by a new surge of religious intolerance, nationalist passions and divisive identity politics.

We live in an age of unprecedented interdependence at global level, and yet we are witnessing a landside movement towards entrenchment and fragmentation, both within and between our societies. Racism and xenophobia are garnering electoral power in many countries; and one of the most important international agreements recently secured for our humanity’s common future on this fragile planet is now being challenged in the most alarming way.

It seems to me, dear friends, that Jewish communities and organisations around the world have a distinctively important contribution to make to any concerted international response to those urgent challenges. Yes, indeed, as the children of communities who have suffered unspeakably from the most extreme sort of racialist hatred, an ancient hatred, as a scattered nation with a deep understanding of the migratory condition, but also as a people who have a long experience of the sometimes conflicting demands of universalism and particularism, and as the continuators of a long, deep-seated intellectual and philosophical tradition, there is so much that you can bring to that global conversation.

Jewish people have, at several junctures in their history, been the victims of the worst kind of racism, which often sought to exploit ignorance.

This was most tragically the case during the Second World War, when the Nazi ideology and its genocidal system led to the destruction of a third of the world Jews. Last month, at the 75th anniversary commemorations of the massacre in the Babi Yar ravine, in the outskirts of Kiev, the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, said how “remembering this ominous event [was] more important than ever.”

All of us, Jewish and non-Jewish, still weep at the thought of Auschwitz and Babi Yar, and it is indeed of the utmost importance that we continue to remember the unprecedented, unique, almost unthinkable, tragedy that the Holocaust was, and that we do so in a respectful, historically accurate, and meaningful manner. It is of the utmost importance that we never forget the devastation that never fails to stem from ideologies that refuse to see other people as “fully human”.

Recognising the full humanity of others, rejecting amnesia, being committed to an ethical use of memory, must not cause us to be frozen by the burden of memory; it must, instead, sustain our capacity to engage with both present challenges and future possibilities. With experience such as yours comes the opportunity and challenge of discerning the universality of human rights wherever and in whatever circumstances they are being denied.

I know that all of you who are delegates of the World Jewish Congress are particularly wary of not letting the poison of anti-Semitism spread again. No, it is not acceptable to see armed police outside synagogues and Jewish schools across European cities.

Your vigilance is one in which we must all share, and it is also one that must enable us to better detect and combat all forms of discriminations and exclusions, wherever they arise, and whether they are based on race, religion, sexual preference, gender, cultural history, physical appearance, or mental abilities.

Irish history is, unfortunately, not exempt from some of the darkest features that have characterised the attitude of other nations towards their Jewish citizens. To grasp the highs and lows of Jewish life in Ireland, it is worth recalling the life story of the late Gerald Goldberg, who passed away just over ten years ago.

Born in a Yiddish-speaking household, Gerald Goldberg was, like so many members of the Irish Jewish community, the son of Jewish Lithuanian refugees – or “Litvaks” – who fled the terrifying outbreak of pogroms in Czarist Russia at the turn of the last century.

In Ireland, the Goldberg family then found themselves caught in the 1904 Limerick riots and boycott, created by a clericalist abuse of irrational fears whipped up to mob violence. Those events ruined Limerick’s Jewish tradesmen and led a majority of them to depart for Cork, a city of which Gerald Goldberg was elected Lord Mayor in 1977.

Asked once in an interview if he had encountered much anti-Jewish prejudice during his lengthy public career, Goldberg replied: “Oh yes. Yes, indeed.” And then, after a pause: “In Dublin, they always have the knife out for the Corkman.”

May I recall another piece of history that is available to us as exemplary solidarity. That is the story of Max Levitas of the Levitas family, a Jewish family who lived in the Harcourt Street area of Dublin City. Their story was recently the subject of an article in The Irish Times, by Joe O’Shea, who described how:

“Levitas’ father and mother had escaped the 1913 pogroms in Latvia and Lithuania and met in Dublin, where, three years later one-year-old Max and his brother and sister were put on the floor of their tenement by their mother as bullets flew during the Easter Rising.”

A few years earlier, Levitas senior’s efforts to form an Irish-Jewish trade union for tailors had been defeated by employers who blacklisted him. He was an ally of James Larkin.

Jewish families also took in children of those workers who were locked out of their workplaces during the Great Lockout of 1913, and thus it was that Max Levitas became a leader of the popular resistance to Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement, when, on October 4th 1936, thousands resisted Mosley’s army of Blackshirts who had the protection of the police.

Morris Levitas, Max’s brother, later joined the Connolly Column of the International Brigade to fight the fascists in Spain.

I wrote to Max on his 100th birthday, two years ago, and I have also had the pleasure of corresponding with his niece, Ruth Levitas, who is a Professor of Sociology at Bristol University, and alongside whom I spoke on the Utopian tradition at Limerick University.

Today, Ireland’s Jewish community is getting smaller. Many of the younger generation of Irish Jews have gone to live their lives overseas. To uncover the reasons which led so many of them to leave this island would probably teach us much about ourselves as a society.

Is this emigration the product of the restlessness of the young, or of the internationalism that an inter-generational migratory culture brings?

Is it motivated by the same factors that have recently seen numerous young Irish people of all backgrounds to depart, or are there specific factors – perhaps unspoken or less visible – underlying Irish-Jewish emigration? These questions are certainly worthy of study and debate.

In sustaining our vigilance against racism, we can, I believe, find great inspiration in the Jewish tradition of universalism, as an outlook which values humankind as a whole, above any single one of its components.

There is, too, a rich universalist orientation in the work of Jewish philosophers, from the earliest times, through the medieval period, which gave us the writings of the great Maimonides, who was born in Islamic Cordova, and on to Baruch Spinoza, who laid the groundwork for the 18th century European Enlightenment.

We can also think of so many philosophers in the modern period, such as, to name but one, Emmanuel Levinas, another son of Lithuania, who became a French citizen and adopted the French language, and whose ethical phenomenology speaks so beautifully of the unlimited responsibility that stems from our encounter with the face of the Other.

Of course Judaism has also, for centuries, striven to reconcile this universalistic orientation with an equally strong orientation towards particularism, the preservation and continuation of its unique traditions. Those frictions between universalism and particularism, such as they have historically been played out within Judaism, deserve our attention for they speak powerfully to our present condition.

Judaism tells us that it is possible to cultivate one’s particular cultural and spiritual identity while also cultivating reason, freedom of thought and enquiry, and the universal quest for liberty and justice, as values that bind all of the inhabitants of the world together, in their common humanity.

The primary, and essentially positive, inclination to care for one’s community, to cherish and nurture one’s specific and unique traditions, only benefits, I believe, from being compounded by an equally fundamental (although admittedly less instinctive) concern for universal human rights. The appeal to the latter is not limited to an appeal to reason. It invokes also the shared instincts of the wisdom of the heart, and of belief.

Such rich philosophical universalism is a source that can inform the policies, the language and the actions that are used in the necessary dialogue one must continually seek and sustain with the perceived other in situations of conflict.

This holds true, may I suggest, for our consideration of the current state of the political debate in Israel. While the fundamental right of Jewish people to the shelter and security of a state in which their culture can flourish is a principle that should never be questioned, we must never lose sight of the concurrent obligation for that state, like any other state, to respect universal norms and the rights of fellow human beings with valid claims, also, to land, and to life, memory, cultural flourishing, security in that land of their ancestors.

We must be free to invoke human rights in this universal way. It is not useful to dismiss, or even suspect of insensitivity to Jewish life, culture and security, those of us who seek to vindicate these values without borders, and who derive from our own experience of conflict and exclusion a willingness to bring those values and that experience to the shared conversation we need so as to build peace and mutual respect in the Middle East region.

It is precisely, too, from the memory of their people’s history of migration and exile that Jewish people can derive from the resources of empathy and understanding that are required to extend a hand of fraternity and solidarity to the destitute among the nations. Indeed, the collective experience of dispersion and exile is intrinsically linked to the Jewish standpoint in history. It is also one that finds deep resonance with us Irish, as a people who have also millions leave the shores of our island.

The life and consciousness of the migrant have too often been neglected as one of the most important experiences informing our human condition, both past and present. Our human sciences, for example, have often been sedentary in their assumptions.

Literature however was more perceptive, and has often embraced the transience of the migratory experience. James Joyce was a good example of this when he gave the world one of its most famous outsiders, the son of a Jewish-Hungarian migrant: Leopold Bloom.

I see much ethical value in the diasporic experience – the experience of a spiritual, non-territorial, form of belonging. At a time when unprecedented numbers of men, women and children are becoming refugees in alien lands, the relevance of the Jewish Diaspora, and of other Diasporas, such as the Tibetan one for example, to humankind as a whole deserves fresh consideration.

Irish and Jewish people do share, I believe, a common appreciation of what the late David Marcus called the “hyphenated heritage” of the Irish-Jewish community. We in Ireland greatly value the hyphenated heritage of all the members of our own extended global family, be they Irish-American, Irish-Australian or Irish-Canadian.

And as debates are raging, in a number of European countries, on the issue of cultural integration, I want to take this occasion to say that I, as President of Ireland, do see a very clear difference between the value of integration and any enforced version of “assimilation” – the process of reduction to “the same”.

Why should we ever require of Irish Jews – whose grandparents may have been living in a Russian shtetl, and whose remote ancestors were, perhaps, slaves in Babylon or exiles in Persia – that they forget the experience of their ancestors or their age-old dreams? There is absolutely no contradiction in the capacity for Irish Jews to care deeply about their distinctive traditions, while also being fully participating citizens in Irish society, or helping to define Ireland’s relationship to a wider world that is ever more interdependent.

A chairde, Dear friends, Ours is, indeed, a brave new world, threatened by unprecedented possibilities of mass destruction, be they military or environmental, but also faced with great possibilities for human advances, through science and technology, and, more importantly perhaps, through the possibilities that will flow from a new, or recovered, ethical awareness of the great web of life on our shared planet.

Through what new forms will this life continue its grand unfolding? What is our function in it? Our task as a people? Our duties as individuals?

My hope is that the many nations, cultures and traditions who share this world will respect and draw on each other, in such a way as might enable us, together, to accomplish tikkun olam: heal, repair and transform the world to allow for the flourishing of all of humanity.

Guím gach rath oraibh. Shalom.

Team Ireland visited the Áras today and there were smiles all round>

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