Zionism and Irish Nationalism: Ideology and Identity on the Borders of Europe

Aidan Beatty. Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History. Volume 45, Issue 2.  April 2017.

This paper is a comparative cultural history of Zionism and Irish nationalism, focusing on themes of race, gender and identity. It seeks to highlight the strong similarities of both nationalist projects: to show how Zionists and Irish nationalists were both heavily invested in state-building projects that would disprove European racist stereotypes about their respective nations and yet, paradoxically, were also part of the general history of European nationalism. Both Zionism and Irish nationalism sought to create idealised images of the past and claimed to be rebuilding a glorious ancient society in the future as a means of escaping a degraded present. Both movements saw language revival as a key means of carrying out this ‘return to history’. And both emphasised martyrdom as a way to build up prideful ideals of devotion to the nation and used sport, militaries and agriculture as forms of nationalist social engineering. Despite their claims to the contrary, neither national movement was truly unique.

Jewish history is part of European history and should be studied as such, even though, in recent times, by a brilliant operation of inspired colonization and successful war, the Jews have occupied and gained political control of a small part of Asia, an Ulster in the great Ireland of Arabia.

Historians of Irish nationalism have generally avoided placing their subject in broader international frameworks. The scholar of nationalism John Hutchinson and the British imperial historian Stephen Howe have both gone so far as to label Irish revisionist historians ‘methodological nationalists’, due to the manner in which they avoid comparative analyses and shy away from questioning the historicity and ontological reality of the Irish ‘nation’. Instead, the dominant paradigm for the analysis of Irish nationalism, particularly for studies of the so-called ‘Revolutionary Period’, has been micro-historical county studies. The methodology employed here has led John Regan to justly note that ‘[i]n these approaches—local, personal, intimate—the greater political forces at play—abstract, impersonal, universal—too easily can go overlooked … Rather than liberating us this approach may be limiting, even voyeuristic … It also marginalises ideology as a motivational factor.’

A potential alternative to such micro-histories is the emphasis on postcolonial understandings of Irish nationalism, which has become one of the main currents within Irish literary studies (but with sadly little conversation between historians and literary scholars). In one of the most seminal examples of this, Declan Kiberd has suggested that bringing Irish studies into conversation with postcolonial studies would serve to ‘complicate, extend and in some cases expose the limits of current models of postcoloniality’. Yet this perspective is not without its problems either. As Sikata Banerjee notes, Irish nationalism does not quite fit a colonial model. Banerjee has identified ‘Ireland’s ambivalent position as both the perpetrator and the victim of the British imperial project’ and she points to ‘Ireland’s position in the borderland of empire—neither completely the “white” colonial Self nor the “racialized” colonized “Other”‘. For sure, Irish nationalism displayed certain aspects of postcolonial nationalism. And yet, it was still part of the European metropole. Irish nationalism was a metrocolonial phenomenon, as Joseph Valente succinctly observed. Conversely, Bill Kissane’s assertion that Irish nationalism follows the pattern of ethnic nationalism commonly associated by scholars with the nation-states that emerged in Eastern Europe after the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire is a worthwhile point that helps uncover the roots of political violence in pre- and post-partition Ireland. But it does not quite get at the point that Irish nationalists were animated by a set of anxieties about their contested Europeanness and about their contested whiteness. The paradox of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish nationalism is that it was simultaneously European and colonial. In this European/not-European bifurcation, Irish nationalism shared much with contemporary Zionism.

The study of Zionism has also suffered from an inward-looking perspective and a lack of comparative analyses. In a recent study of Zionist language politics, for example, the Yiddish scholar Yael Chaver states that: ‘Modern theories of nationalism recognize that the origins and course of Zionism … are unusual if not unique among late-nineteenth-century national movements.’ More particularly, for Chaver, ‘Unique among national movements, Zionism might be said to have been conceived in language’ and, indeed, Chaver finds much to agree with in Eric Hobsbawm’s assessment that ‘[b]oth the impulse which led to the creation of modern spoken Hebrew, and the circumstances which led to its successful establishment, are too unusual to set a general example’. That some of the most seminal scholars of nationalism take a similar line on Zionism’s conceptual uniqueness certainly gives a strong gloss to Chaver’s views. Hobsbawm’s views, as well as Hugh Trevor-Roper’s claim that Zionism was ‘the last, least typical of European nationalisms’, approvingly cited by Ernest Gellner, are all drawn on.

Consciously or not, such claims for Zionism’s uniqueness echo both Israeli claims of particularity (claims that are standard tropes in many nationalist ideologies) and much older claims about the Jews as a people apart or even a chosen people. Unsurprisingly then, recent scholarship on Zionism and Israel has begun to challenge the claims of Zionist particularism. Hedva Ben-Israel has produced a number of important papers in this vein. Other scholars have discussed how the Hebrew-language movement drew on similar ideals to contemporary ‘small peoples’ nationalism or how Zionism’s melding of the sacred and the profane can be compared to Irish or Greek nationalism. This scholarship can be placed in a broader trend in recent Jewish historiography. Scholars such as Israel Jacob Yuval, Daniel Boyarin, David Nirenberg and Elisheva Carlebach have all persuasively shown how ‘Jewishness’ is as much a product of dialectical relations with the ‘non-Jewish’ as it is a product of internal or hermetically sealed processes. Put simply, Jewish identity has always been profoundly influenced by non-Jewish factors. Scholars such Yuval or Nirenberg would probably find much to agree with in Trevor-Roper’s perceptive comment that ‘if the old Hebrew prophets and the medieval rabbis thundered about the distinctness of the Jews, that may well indicate a maddening preference, among their inattentive disciples, for assimilation’.

This paper seeks to build on all this, by showing how the study of both Irish nationalism and Zionism can benefit from being placed in a comparative frame. This is not to deny the obvious points of contrast across Irish and Jewish histories. At the risk of being tautological, being Jewish has always been different from being Irish. In terms of Zionism and Irish nationalism, diasporas and ‘homelands’ played markedly different roles in both movements, and there is no analogue for the Palestinians as internal ‘Others’ in the history of Irish nationalism. Yet there are serious similarities, specifically in terms of how each ideology was affected by a status on the literal and metaphorical borders of Europe.

David Myers’s work on Re-Inventing the Jewish Past also offers a provocative alternative to the idea of Zionist uniqueness, one that is most useful for a comparative understanding of Irish nationalism. Myers argues that a complex paradox resided at the heart of modern European Jewish identity. To understand Jewish nationalism, he says we have to recognise that it is similar to other European national movements but that it simultaneously bears a close similarity to third world and anti-colonial nationalism in the manner in which it seeks to disprove racist stereotypes. While he does feel that this makes Zionism an ‘atypical’ nationalism (and to this end approvingly quotes Hugh Trevor-Roper’s pithy description of Zionist particularity), Myers’s insight might also be used as a starting point for a quite different analysis: a comparative study of Zionism and Irish nationalism that seeks to show that, rather than being unique, Zionism was quite typical of a nationalism that blended the European and the postcolonial non-European. This was the case in a number of different areas, with perceptions of the national past, present and future being one of the most obvious.

In his influential study of The Nation and its Fragments, the Indian postcolonial historian Partha Chatterjee devotes much attention to the familiar representational figure of the effeminate babu, the partially anglicised Indian man who unsuccessfully apes British ways. The babu was a common caricature of Indians in Victorian Britain. Propagated by British imperialists, the image of the babu provoked ‘rage and indignation’ on the part of the ‘colonized literati’, which inflicted ‘upon itself a fierce assault of self-ridicule and self-irony’. As such images of racial inferiority proliferated, Indians escaped into refuges of ‘imaginary history’ and ‘mythic time’ that Chatterjee evocatively labels ‘the past-as-it-will-be’. Indian nationalist intellectuals became increasingly convinced that they inhabited a degraded present under imperialism and created hyper-nostalgic images of their own past that simultaneously served as imaginary national futures when humiliating foreign control would be brought to an end. Much of this is standard postcolonial fare. Frantz Fanon, foregrounding the racial stereotyping and denigrations inherent in colonial rule, states that such stereotypes have a marked effect on colonial subjects’ sense of selfhood:

This is why the dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and of aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing …  During the period of colonization, the native never stops achieving his freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning.

The colonial subject, Fanon concludes with characteristic broad brushstrokes, ultimately develops ‘a fearlessness and an ancestral pride strangely resembling defiance’.

Whether or not Ireland was a colony in a conventional sense, there was certainly a marked colonial register to ways in which the Irish in Victorian Britain were seen as inferior on grounds of race, religion and class: ‘In British eyes, the eternal Paddy was forever a Celt, a Catholic, and a peasant.’ Victorian cartoons and caricatures often focused on the supposed physical deformities of Irish men and provide a useful insight into these perceptions. Irish men were depicted as ‘dark, heavy-jawed criminals, semibestial ape-men, or even outright inhuman monsters, [and] these Irish subjects inhabited a lower branch on the human family tree’. Alison Winter similarly observes the harshly negative perceptions that Irish immigrants to Victorian cities faced: ‘The English saw the Irish poor as the lowest of the low. By their reckoning the Irish were purveyors of physical and social disease, threatening the health of the social body by their very presence in the urban centers.’ And Theodore Allen, in his polemical study of The Invention of the White Race, notes the similarities between English perceptions of the Irish ‘race’ and anti-black racism in Anglo-America. Put plainly, the Irish were seen as an inferior race and these British racial accusations had a determining impact on Irish nationalists. Irish nationalism was a concerted effort to disprove these stereotypes and create a more prideful self-image of a properly European nation. Crafting an image of strong and racially redeemed Irish men was a key part of this. In fact, many literary scholars have argued that Irish nationalism should be understood as a postcolonial culture in the manner in which it strove to refute negative anti-Irish stereotypes.

That Zionist self-fashioning operated according to a similar raison d’être has long been recognised, even if overtly postcolonialist rhetoric is not always drawn upon. Myers points out that Zionist historiography in the post-1948 period was often predicated on ‘the familiar juxtaposition of downtrodden diaspora victims and triumphant Zionist pioneers’. As early as Leon Pinsker’s call for Jewish Auto-Emancipation (1882), Zionists were thinking about where a supposedly degenerated Jewish nation fitted within universal historical time. Focusing on the origins of Jewish statelessness in antiquity, Pinsker spoke of how the Jews’ lack of sovereignty had a deep impact on their sense of self. Lacking state sovereignty, the normative form of national existence, the Jews could no longer claim to be a normal nation. Ancient Israel may have been a glorious thing but nineteenth-century Jews inhabited a degraded present and, as Chaim Nachman Bialik grimly observed in his 1903 poem ‘In the City of Slaughter’, such people could not rightfully claim to be ‘the heirs of Hasmoneans … the sons of the Maccabees’. Much as with postcolonial nationalism, however, a better future could be imagined via nostalgic visions of the past. In an especially outré example, E. M. Lilien’s 1913 art nouveau painting Mose zebricht die Tafeln (Moses Breaks the Tablets) depicted Theodor Herzl as a born-again Moses. Herzl was now an ancient but also young and virile leader who would bring the Jews back to the Promised Land, back to state sovereignty and ultimately back into history.

The idea of an old/new nation also manifested itself in Zionist ideals of martyrdom. David Biale was only slightly exaggerating when he argued that suicide became ‘almost a cult’ in Zionism, ‘the most desperate statement of one’s commitment to unattainable ideals’. More than that, Zionist martyrs became paragons of a new, yet also old, masculine ideal. Oz Almog, for example, refers to this process in the memorialisation of the death of Joseph Trumpeldor at the ‘Battle of Tel Chai’ in 1920:

The myth of Tel Chai encoded a symbolic element of great importance to Zionism—reinstating the Jewish people’s lost honor. By the very act of fighting the Tel Chai martyrs became a symbol of what distinguished Zionism from the Diaspora Jewish tradition of bowing one’s head before the Gentile.

They ‘were viewed as new incarnations of great figures of the past’. Indeed, Zionism mined the Jewish past for ideals of martyrdom. The ‘martyrs’ of Masada in 70 CE, for instance, were held up as prideful ideals to which the modern Jewish nation should return, notwithstanding the fact that, in Rabbinical Judaism, these ‘martyrs’ had long been seen as bordering on the fanatical. Max Nordau praised Simon Bar Kochba, leader of the first-century revolt against Rome, in a similar vein: ‘Bar Kochba was not just a brave military hero or a politician who grasped the importance of fighting for the land of Israel against the Roman occupiers; he was a Jewish soldier who, when victory was denied him, “knew how to die”.’ The ‘New Jew’, a much promoted Zionist archetype from the 1900s onward, would be a return to Bar Kochba and other ‘noble Jewish heroes of antiquity’, defined not by their faith in God but as personifications of a regained Jewish honour.

Irish nationalism evinced a similar rationale. The collapsing of time was a common move in a lot of early twentieth-century Irish nationalist propaganda and was an important means of self-legitimization. It was a regular tactic in Eamon de Valera’s by-election victory in East Clare in 1917, one of the first of many electoral successes for Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) on the eve of the Irish War of Independence. In at least two electoral handbills, de Valera addressed potential voters as ‘Dalcassians’, a romantic term for the ancient Irish nation, and asked ‘Do you want a Hero to Represent you?’ In this manner, de Valera portrayed himself as a true Irish man, rooted in the national past, and, by voting for him, other Irish men could also feel rooted in that heroic past. His opponent, Patrick Lynch, was conversely placed outside Irish national time: ‘Sé de Bhaléra Fear na nGaedheal‘ (De Valera is a Gaelic Man) and ‘Sé de Bhaléra Fear na hÉireann‘ (de Valera is an Irish Man) while ‘Sé an Loinnseach Fear an Caisleáin‘ (Lynch is a man of Dublin Castle), the seat of British power in Ireland. Such reimagining of time and the claim that ‘we’ are the heirs of a glorious past are, in fact, quite conventional nationalist tropes, particularly in postcolonial situations. The Zionist chalutzim (pioneer settlers), for example, saw their kibbutzim as being not just a means of restoring Jews to useful manly labour, but also ‘reincarnations of the agrarian society of the Bible’. And, as mentioned, Partha Chatterjee notes how Indian nationalist historiography operates along similar lines with the obvious lesson that ‘we’ should become more like our proud forebears and thus build a perfected future. Consciously or not, de Valera and Sinn Féin were ploughing some familiar postcolonial furrows.

Like their Zionist counterparts, Irish nationalists also saw sport and war as ways to effect a future revival of a deformed and weak nation. Michael Davitt, a prominent Irish nationalist in the later nineteenth century, linked sports to both present decay and future national recuperation:

In any effort that may be made to revive a National taste for games and pastimes such as once developed the muscular power and manly bearing of our Gaelic ancestors, I shall be most happy to lend a hand … In this, as in so many other matters, we ought to cut ourselves adrift from English rules and patronage, and prevent the killing of those Celtic Sports which have been threatened with the same fate by the encroachment of Saxon custom, as that which menaces our Nationality under alien rule … There are, of course, many reasons why the physique of our people is not developed as it ought to be, but there is no doubt that one reason for the degenerate gait and bearing of most of our young men at home is to be found in the absence of such games and pastimes as formerly gave to Irishman [sic] the reputation of a soldier-like and self-reliant race.

Michael Cusack, founder of the nationalist Gaelic Athletic Association and apparent inspiration for the anxiously antisemitic Citizen in Ulysses, similarly asserted in 1885 that ‘no sensible person will deny that, as a Nation, we have very considerably declined physically since we gave up our National game of Hurling’, and he placed this alongside other forms of national decay in language, morals and religion. Cusack also defined sports as a means of communing with a lost Irish masculinity and claimed that in his dreams ‘I was living with the men of Erin of pre-Christian times. In spirit I hunted and fished with Fionn’s invincible hosts from Antrim to Kerry. I hurled with the Fenians of sixteen centuries ago from Tara to Killarney. I resolved to bring back the hurling.’ He also claimed to have been visited in dreams by Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, Thomas Davis and ‘Famine’—all figures from the Irish past—all of whom urged him to revive hurling. Cusack’s rhetoric also drew broad links between sport and war. He believed that hurling, for instance, ‘was invented by the most sublimely energetic and warlike race that the world has ever known … It teaches the use of arms at close quarters’.

For Irish nationalists, as for Zionists, it is clear that this playing with time did important ideological work. Over and against accusatory narratives of Irish or Jewish racial degradation, nationalists fashioned an alternative temporal schema: a national golden age from before the conquest or the dispersion, a golden age that would return with national sovereignty in the future. Certainly, there was something markedly postcolonialist at work in both movements’ ‘past-as-it-will-be’. And yet this is also standard nationalist fare in many different political contexts. Anne McClintock has noted how national ideologies are regularly defined by a ‘temporal anomaly’, a ‘veering between nostalgia for the past, and the impatient, progressive sloughing off of the past’. The return to history promised by both Zionism and Irish nationalism could certainly be placed alongside the Janus-faced views of time of other European nationalist ideologies. Both national movements were simultaneously European and postcolonial.

Sports were not the only means by which both ideologies imagined a future sovereignty that would simultaneously be a reclaimed heroic past. Another medium was language. That Hebrew and its revival were seen as a means of reviving a degraded Jewish nation has long been recognised by scholars of Zionism. Naomi Seidman has traced the long history of Hebrew’s highly gendered battle with Yiddish and, as Amos Elon notes, the early Zionists had ‘a proclivity to redefine themselves with [Hebrew] names that denote firmness, toughness, strength, courage, and vigor’, names such as Yariv (‘antagonist’), Oz (‘strength’), Tamir (‘towering’), Bar Adon (‘son of the master’ or ‘masterful’) and even Bar Shilton (‘fit to govern’). Arieh Saposnik’s recent discussion of the lived experiences of those involved in the emergent modern Hebrew-language culture in late-Ottoman Palestine shows that many of them had highly negative views of ‘an unhealthy Diaspora and its decaying culture’. These early Hebrew-speaking Zionist settlers saw their work as in part a break from a weak and effeminate Yiddish-speaking diaspora.

In general, anxieties about the lack of a single shared Jewish language expressed a set of deeper fears about Jews’ racial ambiguities and Yiddish was at the forefront in these anxieties. This language, with its diverse roots in German, Hebrew and various Slavic languages, ‘seemed to bear out nineteenth-century racist European notions that people speaking a hybrid language were somehow inferior and incapable of clear, intelligible, and sophisticated thought’. As with so much else in Zionism, this linguistic anxiety bore more than a passing resemblance to contemporary antisemitism. Sander Gilman identifies this as a linguistic racism: ‘The Other cannot every truly possess “true” language and is so treated.’ The allegedly corrupt nature of Jewish discourse (whether in an indigenous tongue or in the use of gentile languages by Jews) was an antisemitic accusation with a long pedigree, and elsewhere Gilman observes, in a tone of resignation: ‘Is it of little wonder that modern Hebrew developed a set of sociolinguistic practices which were the antithesis of this ancient stereotype?’ Zionists certainly felt that Jews were linguistically flawed, and they saw modern Hebrew as the means to correct this.

David Ben-Gurion, for instance, while pragmatically accepting that other languages might have to be used within the Zionist movement, felt that only Hebrew could guarantee ‘our future as a healthy nation, united in its land’. A poster produced after 1948 by the Israeli Ministry of Education and Culture promoted the use of the national language by talking of ‘not seventy languages, one language, Hebrew’ (lo shiv’im lashon, lashon achat, ivrit), a biblical reference to the 70 nations of the world after the Deluge. Thus, in opposition to a confusing and inchoate Babel of tongues, Zionism would mark a return to a nation ‘of one language and of common purpose’. With greater harshness, a poster from the Israeli army’s cultural unit depicted European languages such as Hungarian, Romanian, and Polish as a multitude of signposts leading to the darkness of the concentration camps. In contrast, Hebrew was a single signpost pointing to a bright, bucolic vision of Palestine. ‘The language serves to create a single heart for all parts of the nation’ (ha-lashon ba’ah livro lev echad le-col chelekei ha-umma), the culture ministry declared, in a quote ascribed to the national poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. Eric Hobsbawm has spotted the congruence between early twentieth-century debates over racial purity (with their attendant ‘horrors of miscegenation’) and the contemporary nationalist focus on linguistic purity. Zionists saw Yiddish, and the diversity of diasporic tongues in general, as a sign of racial indeterminacy. Yiddish became a signifier that Jews were everywhere a minority and nowhere a cultural, linguistic or politically sovereign majority. Echoing such ideas, Yosef Chaim Brenner, novelist and prominent Zionist, conflated the speaking of Yiddish with an ‘inability to function “normally”‘ and ‘the worst aspects of diasporic life’. Even more blatantly, the poet Avraham Sholonsky spoke of the ‘catastrophe of bilingualism’ as being a form of national tuberculosis. Hebrew, which had long been a liturgical and elite literary language, was reinvented as the obvious national cure. In this, the Zionist language project shared a rationale similar to Irish nationalism, which also feared the dangers of language hybridity.

A number of recent important works of Irish-language scholarship have focused on the myriad anxieties at the heart of the late nineteenth-century Gaelic Revival. Brian Ó Conchubhair has observed how fin-de-siècle social Darwinism prompted some serious questions for Irish nationalists and language activists, playing into fears of degeneracy, weakness and an uncertain future for a racially and linguistically impure nation:

Where did it [Darwinism] leave Ireland and the Irish? As a healthy living race ploughing a singular path? Or as a failing race whose soul was weakened due to population decline after the Famine? Where did it leave the Irish language? As an energetic living language or as a polluted, besmirched dialect that would not be successful? Where did it leave the Hiberno-English of the people, the new emerging dialect, a mix of English and Irish? [Cár fhág sé [Darwineachas] sin Èire agus na Gaeil? Mar chine beo sláintiúil ag treabhadh leo ar chonair aonair? Nó mar chine teipithe a raibh an t-anam ag dul as de réir mar a laghdaigh lion an chine tar éis an Ghorta Mhóir? Cár fhág sé sin an Ghaeilge? Mar theanga bheo bhríomhar nó mar chanúint smálaithe thruaillithe nach mbeadh aon rath uirthi? Cár fhág sé Gall-Ghaeilge na ndaoine, an chanúint nua sin a bhi ag teacht chun cinn ar mheascán den Bhéarla agus den Ghaeilge í].

At the very heart of this, Ó Conchubhair persuasively argues, were a set of anxieties about Béarlachais (a pejorative term for a heavily anglicised Irish language), and the idea that a degenerated patois reflected a deeper racial degeneration. Similarly, Ríona Nic Congáil has discussed how Una Ní Fhaircheallaigh, one of the leading female revivalists, saw the Irish-speaking pockets of Ireland as pristine spaces free of the polluting impact of English and Anglicisation (nach raibh truaillithe ag tionchar an Bhéarla agus an Ghalldachais).

Anxieties about the Irish people’s racial status certainly underpinned much of the ideology of the Gaelic League. The League, founded in 1893, was the most important force in the Irish revivalist movement and indeed one of the most important social movements in turn-of-the-century Ireland.Speaking in Belfast in late 1899, the League’s president (and the future president of the Irish state) Douglas Hyde was cheered when he defensively asserted that ‘[t]he Irish were not negroes or uitlanders; they were people with a past, and had a great past behind them’. Hyde would later say that the return to Irish was a return to the country’s ‘pure Aryan language’. Hyde was certainly also worried by the racial implications of the impure Béarlachais popularly spoken by most Irish people:

If by ceasing to speak Irish our peasantry could learn to appreciate Shakespeare and Milton, to study Wordsworth or Tennyson, then I would certainly say adieu to it [the Irish language]. But this is not the case. They lay aside a language which for all ordinary purposes of every day life is much more forcible than any with which I am acquainted, and they replace it by another which they learn badly and speak with an atrocious accent, interlarding it with barbarisms and vulgarity.

For Hyde, as for most of the Gaelic League, the grammatically impure, the racially impure and national degeneration were three anxiety-inducing subsets of a broader whole. Or, as Hedva Ben-Israel has said: ‘Scholars like Douglas Hyde of the Gaelic League in Ireland, or Achad Ha-Am, the founder of cultural Zionism, decried in almost identical language the humiliation of losing national identity, becoming imitators, living off the crumbs of other cultures.’

In perhaps the most explicit example of this, Patrick Pearse, language activist, educator and militant nationalist, used his 1913 essay ‘The Murder Machine’ to describe Anglophone education (the eponymous ‘machine’) as being so great a danger to the nation that it was worse than ‘an edict for the general castration of Irish males’. A year later, in a speech delivered in Philadelphia during a tour of the US, Pearse talked of how an Anglicising education was ’emasculating our boys and corrupting our girls’. He saw this as clear evidence of an English government conspiracy to enslave Ireland and cut future generations off from a proud history. Thus, Irish schoolboys ‘were not taught to be brave, to be strong, to be truthful, to be self-reliant and to be proud’. Pearse, however, had a clear plan for halting this national castration of Irish boyhood:

A new education system has to do more than restore a national culture. It has to restore manhood to a race that has been deprived of it. Along with its inspiration it must bring a certain hardening. It must lead Ireland back to her sagas.

Within a system based on fosterage, the supposed educational system of ancient Ireland, boys should be encouraged to ‘recreate and perpetuate’ the traditions of legendary Irish heroes. This programme, of course, was to be carried out through Irish, as an integral part of bringing emasculated Irish boys back into contact with the language and their true, manly heritage.

As Sander Gilman observes, the Irish, like the Jews, spoke a non-national language and, with much nationalist sensitivity, were painfully ‘aware of the hidden agenda of Otherness present in the language to be adopted’. Indeed, that Irish revivalists held to a similar set of ideas to those of their Hebrew-speaking contemporaries is unsurprising. Both drew on a similar set of ideas about history and national revival and both sought to counter similar stereotypes about deformed language as a sign of a deeper national deformity. Even the titles of two of the most important Hebrew and Irish revivalist publications are remarkably similar: HaShachar (The Dawn), edited by Peretz Smolenskin the 1870s and 1880s, and the Gaelic League’s Fáinne an Lae (The Dawning of the Day). Both titles suggest a return to some lost national ideal after a long night (or nightmare?) of exile or foreign control.

What language revival also shows is that Irish nationalists and Zionists implicitly accepted the various accusations that lay behind anti-Irish and anti-Jewish biases, that they were racially weak peoples, lazy and incapable of self-rule or self-control. Both national movements, in their own idiosyncratic ways, were exercises in ‘self-hatred’.

The term ‘self-hatred’, popularised in Theodor Lessing’s 1930 work Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-Hatred), is one of the most loaded epithets in modern Jewish politics. It has been used to describe everything from the suicidal Austrian thinker Otto Weininger, who, despite being of Jewish background, saw Jews as an inherently neurotic and effeminate people, to, more recently, Jewish critics of the State of Israel. While there is often a strong dose of tendentiousness with which this accusation is thrown around, a large body of serious work argues that many modern Jewish thinkers and political movements held views of Jewish culture, society and tradition that were remarkably similar to contemporary antisemitism. Often in conversation with each other, and often drawing on a postcolonialist understanding of Jewish identity, this literature advances the argument that Jews, on the receiving end of a powerful complex of antisemitic stereotypes, in turn often internalised these stereotypes. As Sander Gilman says, ‘Self-hatred arises when the mirages of stereotypes are confused with realities within the world, when the desire for acceptance forces the acknowledgement of one’s difference.’ A movement like Zionism was, thus, not just a straightforward movement for national liberation, but also a movement to ‘liberate’ Jews from those aspects of Jewish culture that were so regularly decried by a powerful, antisemitic mainstream. A high level of national self-criticism, as well the attempt to craft idealised images of a ‘new man’ as a kind of national palliative, was the direct result of this ‘self-hatred’. Irish nationalism, the product of a not dissimilar quasi-postcolonial milieu, could be understood in the same light.

Compare, for instance, the similarities in form and content of Pinsker’s ‘Autoemancipation’:

With the loss of their country, the Jewish people lost their independence, and fell into a decay which is not compatible with existence as a whole vital organism. The state was crushed before the eyes of the nations. The world saw in this people the uncanny form of one of the dead walking among the living. The ghostlike apparition of a living corpse, of a people without unity or organization, without land or other bonds of unity, no longer alive, and yet walking among the living—this spectral form without precedence in history, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, could but strangely affect the imagination of the nations. And if the fear of ghosts is something inborn, and has a certain justification in the psychic life of mankind, why be surprised at the effect produced by this dead but still living nation.

with Terence MacSwiney’s Principles of Freedom:

the moral plague that eats up a people whose independence is lost is more calamitous than any physical rending of limb from body. The body is a passing phase; the spirit is immortal; and the degradation of that immortal part of man is the great tragedy of life. Consider all the mean things that wither up a people in a state of slavery … the aspect of that land and the soul of that people become spectacles of disgust, revolting and terrible, terrible for the high things degraded and the great destinies imperilled.

Pinsker, for all his innovations, was still operating within a deep history of Jewish tradition. As David Biale reminds us, the vast majority of Jewish thinkers after 70 CE

recognized the condition of galut (exile) as fundamentally abnormal and humiliating. In contrast to the memory (if not the reality) of a golden age of ancient sovereignty and the expectation of a messianic restoration, the galut was viewed as a period of abject powerlessness.

Whether it was done intentionally or not, Auto-Emancipation echoes Deuteronomy 28.25: ‘The Lord will cause you to be struck down before your enemies …  and you will be a cause of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth’. The accusation that Jews were a people who existed outside history has a long pedigree, informing Christian theology and eschatology from late antiquity onwards. Zionists like Pinsker, in battling such notions, were taking on an idea that had far deeper roots within European thought than anti-Irish racism. Nonetheless, by the nineteenth century, some conceptually similar ideas about the Irish nation’s place within historical time had emerged.

Lord Acton, a Catholic historian and Liberal MP for Carlow, claimed that Celts tended towards the ‘stationary’ [sic] or the ‘regressive’ and needed ‘foreign influence’, presumably that of the English, to set them in motion within history. Benjamin Disraeli, writing to The Times in 1836, expressed similar views, naming the Irish specifically, who, he said, ‘hate our free and fertile isle’. Seemingly leaving little room for hope, he talked of the Irish as a primitive and irredeemable people: ‘This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race has no sympathy with the English character.’ And, in terms of time, ‘[t]heir history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood’. Additionally, the overtly simian images of Irish men in Victorian caricatures, which Michael de Nie has exhaustively studied, had a distinctly temporal register. These caricatures suggested that the Irish were less evolved than their English neighbours, less advanced along a set path of historical development. While such perceptions may not have outlived the nineteenth century, they certainly cast a long shadow over Irish nationalist identity.

Pinsker shares with MacSwiney the idea that a lack of state sovereignty, the normative form of national existence in nineteenth-century Europe, has placed their respective peoples outside history and thus made them deformed and degraded. And, unlike antisemitic or anti-Irish stereotyping, which rigidly claimed that the Jews or the Irish were eternally incapable of redemption, both Pinsker and MacSwiney hold out the possibility of reform via political sovereignty. Moreover, the title of Auto-Emancipation points to a similar politics of social reform as the name Sinn Féin. Both carry suggestions that in the process of national liberation ‘we ourselves’ will also be emancipated, reformed and taught to be self-reliant (suggesting, of course, that ‘we ourselves’ were very much in need of such reform). Notwithstanding its more recent origins than in Jewish identity, ‘self-hating’ rhetoric was certainly a recurring and important feature of Irish nationalist propaganda during this period.

As early as 1909, Bulmer Hobson, a key figure in early twentieth-century Irish nationalism, claimed that ‘Ireland like every abnormal and unhealthy country is beset with difficulties unknown to free and healthy communities’. In a later pamphlet, Hobson spoke of ‘The Flowing Tide’ of Ireland, the ‘periodic swing and return to life’, through which the nation oscillated between heroic glory and weak and abject cowardice. Writing in 1914, Liam de Roiste, who would later rise to prominence as a Sinn Féin and Cumman na nGaedheal politician, said the Irish were a ‘childlike’ people, and, while he displayed a certain ambiguity about this, he also felt it would be preferable if the Irish could instead ‘realise the dignity of manhood …  It is high time some of us in Ireland grew up, high time that the little mean slave-mind were crushed.’ Decades later, the IRA belligerent Tom Barry recalled an operation during the War of Independence that brought him into anglicised Skibbereen, a town where even the great Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa had ‘failed to make the male population … stand upright’.

Its inhabitants were a race apart from the sturdy peoples of West Cork. They were different and, with a few exceptions, were spineless, slouching through life meek and tame, prepared to accept ruling and domination from any clique or country.

These views of the Irish nation extended beyond the small world of pre-1916 radical nationalists: a 1906 medical pamphlet claimed the Irish were racially and historically prone to bouts of insanity and further stated that the ‘history of our country is one unbroken record of stress from within and without. It is impossible, in estimating the mental stature of the people to-day, to shut out that history.’

That the Irish were incapable of self-rule, or were a child-like people in need of British parental supervision, had, of course, long been a claim of anti-Irish racism. But it was also a theme prevalent within Irish nationalism itself and was clearly underpinned by an anxiety about the Irish nation’s racial status. The founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, writing in a pamphlet at the outset of the First World War, accused his ’emasculated’ compatriots of having a ‘slave mind’. This, he held, was the root cause of the ‘lack of self-reliance’ in contemporary Ireland, something ‘which has reduced the stateliest race in Europe—the Gaels—to what they are today’. More than that, ‘It is a tacit denial that the Irish are the peers of other white men—a tacit admission that England is right in her treatment of us.’ This metaphor of ‘slavery’, much beloved of Griffith and others, can be placed within a broader Anglo-Saxon political tradition that often contrasted abstract notions of freedom with equally abstract notions of slavery. In a British imperial context, however, this should also be placed in a more specific context of an emerging ‘white’ identity that compared and contrasted white freedom to black slavery. Griffith was railing against a lack of state sovereignty that was equated with ‘blackness’.

Arthur Griffith was obviously offended by English accusations that ‘[t]he Irish are a people in a low stage of mental and moral development, turbulent, idle, improvident and intractable; naturally vicious, and incapable of any kind of ordered existence, except under a strong hand’. Similarly, writing during the War of Independence, Alice Stopford-Green, a popular nationalist writer, claimed the bulk of the English population rely, for their perceptions of the Irish, on ‘the tradition of Punch caricatures’. These representations sat comfortably, she felt, with ‘the pleasant English notion of an incompetent race which Providence has manifestly destined to conquest by a superior people’. While not totally disputing the veracity of these stereotypes, Stopford-Green did suggest the national struggle had created a different type of Irish character: ‘A race of keen intelligence, of singular physical endurance, with a long and distinguished tradition in history, has become conscious of its true dignity. They have recovered their old idealism’. Ernie O’Malley, a medical student turned IRA soldier, later remembered that one positive effect of the war was that ‘[t]he familiar stage Irishman had disappeared’, replaced by the confident, armed men of the IRA.

‘Self-hatred’, however, was as much a conscious strategy as it was the internalising of powerful colonial stereotyping. Though Irish nationalists agreed that the Irish were a debased people, they also saw social and political means of dealing with their degradation. Chief among these was to support Sinn Féin’s project of self-reliant state-building. Julian Carter notes, in his innovative study of race and constructions of ‘normality’, that such harsh self-critique and idealised self-fashioning can also occur in decidedly non-colonial and non-minority settings. Carter identifies a powerful paradox, one that he labels the ‘construction of whiteness as weakness’, whereby those at the apex of perceived racial hierarchies claim to recognise their own innate racial inferiority. Doing so ‘allowed activism on behalf of white dominance’ and reinforced the idea that ‘whites’, who are racially powerful enough to recognise their flaws and properly reform themselves, are therefore still racially superior. Both Zionists and Irish nationalists seemed readily to admit that their nations exhibited major defects, particularly in the case of Irish and Jewish masculinity. Doing this legitimised their (curative) control over the nation. Moreover, it is not always clear if they fully accepted these stereotypes or if they took them on strategically as a means of attacking the British rule or scattered diaspora that they claimed had caused national degeneration. As with the return to history with which it was so closely related, this ‘self-hatred’ was simultaneously a pan-European phenomenon as well as a postcolonial one. Fin-de-siècle anxieties about racial decline were in fact quite common in even imperial Britain and white America and a harsh level of self-criticism is a hallmark of many modernist ideologies; again Zionism and Irish nationalism were following European trends while being simultaneously different from other European national movements.

The comparative cultural history of Zionism and Irish nationalism highlights how both national movements shared a number of key similarities borne out of their development on the fringes of Europe. Both nationalisms should be seen as European postcolonial nationalisms, simultaneously part of the shared history of European nationalism and yet also departing from that model in important ways. Irish history writing has tended to avoid this kind of comparative analysis. R. M. Douglas has accused Irish historians, with due cause, of being ‘strongly resistant to placing the experience of the independent Irish state and society into any kind of comparative framework’. Rather, in a formulation as barbed as it was judicious, Douglas says that most Irish historians ‘have retreated into the comfort of an unarticulated Sonderweg thesis for modern Ireland, reassuring themselves that nothing that happened on the European continent need disturb the tranquillity of their scholarly lives’. With gentler language, Hedva Ben-Israel notes that ‘[i]t was only recently that the question was raised whether Zionism was like or unlike other national movements’, having previously been overwhelmingly understood within the strict confines of Jewish history. Both national historiographies could benefit from comparative work.

A major objection to this argument, as the opening quote from Hugh Trevor-Roper suggests, is that the Zionist project was one that was ultimately implemented outside Europe in a manner comparable to other settler-colonial endeavours. Irish nationalism, in contrast, appears a more conventional project of national liberation. Yet, even then, there are points of comparison and contrast worth exploring. Much of the analysis of Zionism-as-colonialism has focused on the spatial politics of settlement in Palestine, the ways in which Jewish settlers sought to prove their ownership of the national space while also disproving the existence of the Palestinians. Zionist utopianism certainly manifested itself in a recognisably colonialist format. Palestine was ‘imagined empty’ by the Zionists, ‘in order to start a new world from scratch’, which quickly became a denial of the Palestinians and their political rights. Irish nationalist utopianism, a possible example of internal colonialism, also sought to prove nationalist ownership of a set space. Indeed, comparing Irish nationalist and Zionist attitudes to space points to both the possibilities and the limits of ‘settler colonialism’, an increasingly popular paradigm for scholarly analysis of the Zionist project. If all national movements share some kind of obsession with space, then, when comparing Zionism to Irish nationalism, we should ask where the ‘nationalism’ ends and the ‘settler-colonialism’ begins. Moreover, it is worth remembering that this socio-economic space called ‘Ireland’ is partly a product of one of the earliest settler-colonialisms, the post-Reformation plantation of Ireland by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell. Indeed, as the Trevor-Roper epigraph at the outset of this paper openly avows, the Irish have often been seen as non-Europeans (thus ‘the great Ireland of Arabia’) and settler-colonialism has been regularly understood with an Irish vocabulary.

There is certainly no reason why Zionism could not be a product of European nationalism as well as an example of settler-colonialism (indeed, the two would presumably complement each other). Derek Penslar has argued that, rather than just being a form of colonialism, Zionism was ‘historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anticolonial and postcolonial discourse’. Penslar says the Haskalah (the Jewish Englightenment) and Wissenschaft des Judentums (The Science of Judaism) could be compared to ‘[a]nticolonialism’s emphasis on cultural revival’ as well as ‘cultural nationalism in nineteenth century Poland, Bohemia, Ireland and many other European lands’. In other words, the kind of comparative model advanced here can complicate our conceptual models and hopefully allow for a more sophisticated understanding of both Zionism and Irish nationalism, as well as postcolonial and European nationalisms more generally.