My people’s ancestral home is beautiful.
It is a place of wonder, steeped in history and meaning. My people were once mighty but later subjugated. They watched as their land was razed by foreign invaders. They began to forget themselves as their stories and language were taken from them and replaced with those of another land. My people left in an exodus. A diaspora. Where they went, they were distrusted as outsiders, although they built neighborhoods and communities of great pride and power. Those who remained in our ancestral land fought back. Great men and women made sacrifices to achieve self-rule. As the British left, our nation was sovereign once again. Although there is still conflict, inequality, and division, the nation remains a beacon to those who left it behind. One day, we hope for reunification. We hope for a single state that can reclaim memories from the culture that we have lost. A culture that still trickles through our blood and shines in flashes when you hear an ancestral name or see a symbol from our ancient home.
I am writing, of course, about being Irish.
What does it mean to be an Irish American today? No matter how removed an Irish American may be from their immigrant past, there lingers a latent pride in their connection to Éire. Often, it’s expressed in silly ways: overdrinking, an affinity for green accessories, or an appreciation for people with red hair. There is a hidden sadness in this. It’s never more apparent than on St. Patrick’s Day just how much culture has been lost by the Irish American population. There are no Gaelic songs sung and few glasses are raised to Michael Collins. We shrug when you ask us simple questions about the history of our far away island.
In many ways, that Irish American identity was subsumed by another: being white. The assimilation of early Irish Americans into American culture scrubbed away the few customs, practices, and language that had managed to survive millennia of cultural repression by the British. Whatever sense of community and nationhood that survived the boat ride over has, in many communities, faded. Except in that magic month of March, two Irish Americans sitting next to each other at a bar will see each other as nothing more than strangers.
Why has there been no national resurgence for this cultural group? Celtic Festivals and stepdancing are about as close as we ever got in my own community. My guess it that there are many reasons, but one of the ugliest is that there are issues when white men gather to embrace cultural nationalism.
Gaelic, Nordic, and Germanic symbols flew on flags in Charlottesville. It seems that “white cultural nationalists” (read: Nazis) have a tendency to co-opt imagery from ancient cultures in order to inspire the troglodytes at American Neo-Nazi/alt-right marches. These symbols have become stand-ins for an imagined form of white supremacy and an excuse to engage in Wagnerian fantasies.
Any civilized Irish American would repudiate this form of “nationalism”. By association, these images of white men banding together to push “white cultural” agendas can also encourage Irish Americans to be naturally suspicious of cultural nationalism in general. It’s a road that can lead to dark places. It’s a road that can lend itself to the wrong perceptions. And it’s a road that some feel is just best avoided in general — outside of a few St. Patrick’s Day traditions.
The Irish American ‘Jew by Choice’, such as they exist, must by necessity have a complicated relationship with another form of nationalism: Zionism. An Irish American has already decided not to return to their ancestral home, why adopt another? A studious Irish American is keenly aware of the “Troubles” associated with colonial rule and can no doubt see hazy, complicated parallels in Israeli-Palestinian relations. And, critically, many Irish Americans have internal inhibitions about the idea of cultural nationalism wholesale.
If an Irish American Jew by Choice is able to overcome all of this, they still must wrangle with discrimination against converts and Reform Jews present in modern day Israel. Israel: a place that may not want us. Israel: a place that many of us have never even seen!* It’s a tall order.
As my own Jewish studies continue, it has become abundantly clear that Israel is a challenging issue in almost every corner of the Jewish world. My plan is to continue learning about biblical and historical Israel, Zionism, and the connections between the Jewish people and the land. I know so little, and there is so much history to learn. But maybe you’ll forgive me if I tread carefully?
Zionism grew as a necessary response to the persecution of Jewish people everywhere. And I do not mean — in any meaningful way — to compare the thoughtful work of Theodor Herzl and other Zionists with the ignorant populism and mono-culturalism on the rise here in America. I do however recognize my own knee-jerk misgivings about any movement from which others are excluded.
Either way, as I’ve written in past posts, it’s a good thing that questions are welcome here.
* Birthright, understandably, focuses on those born with a right to Israel. Not us stragglers lagging behind. But, in our defense, Rabbi Akiva was also late to the party.