Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Wandering in the Desert

Ruth Gilligan

Israelites in Erin: Exodus, Revolution, and the Irish Revival, by Abby Bender, Syracuse University Press, 288 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0815633990

Over half a decade ago, I decided to write a novel about the Jewish community in Ireland. What began as mere curiosity soon morphed into a rather sizeable research project, as I realised just how much unknown (to me at least) material there was about this group and its fascinating history. I confess that the idea for the project was initially sparked by my drawing some rather simplistic parallels between the Irish and the Jews – both boasted huge diasporas spread out across the globe; both had been a persecuted minority at various points in history; both were known for their stereotypically strident mothers! However, I soon discovered that actually the Irish have a pretty complex track record of drawing such parallels, particularly in the case of the Exodus narrative, which has long served as a metaphor for the Irish fight for independence.

Of course any inquiry into Jews in Ireland immediately leads to Joyce, given that Ulysses offers the most significant (and, to a novelist daring to undertake a similar topic, intimidating) example of Irish-Jewish overlap. Both in the novel and elsewhere, Joyce reveals himself alert to the Exodus story and its specific resonance within an Irish context. One of the many ways he does this is by reiterating the once popular parallel between the parliamentary leader Charles Stewart Parnell and the leader of the Israelites: “like any other Moses,” Joyce says, Parnell “led a turbulent and unstable people from the house of shame to the verge of the Promised Land.” However, critics have been surprisingly dismissive of the theme of Exodus in Joyce’s work, with Seamus Deane deeming it merely a “system of ordering”, and Emer Nolan insisting that any “allegorical correspondences” are purely for “mock-heroic parody … a kind of joke”. So the nuances thereof have remained largely unexplored.

Regarding analogies more generally, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford’s Ireland’s Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture (2002), offered a significant exploration into the longstanding process of drawing parallels between Ireland and other minority groups, as well as the ethical issues this process presents. Ultimately, Cullingford concludes that analogies are in fact “slippery things”, since “one man’s sympathetic identification is another woman’s cannibalistic appropriation, and the construction of aesthetic parallels that elide historical differences or asymmetries of power may appear racist or falsely totalizing”. However, although Cullingford’s volume does mention the Irish-Jewish analogy, this discussion is only brief and does not provide a more in-depth, contextual analysis.

Abby Bender’s Israelites in Erin: Exodus, Revolution, and the Irish Revival serves as a long overdue intervention in the field. Indeed Bender seems genuinely perplexed that an analysis of this kind has not yet been performed:

Yet if Israelite liberation was one of the central metaphors for Irish anticolonial struggle in the early twentieth century – such an important and well-documented period in Irish history – then why has it not received more critical attention?

What follows is a thoughtful and rigorous exploration of all aspects of this metaphor, drawing on a wide-ranging combination of historical, cultural and literary materials. This combination also serves to reveal the manifold tensions inherent in the Irish Exodus motif, as Bender contrasts the ongoing “Irish appropriation of biblical tropes” with the reality of their reaction to “the presence of actual Jews”. As Cullingford warned us, analogies are “slippery things”.

However, Bender makes it clear that slipperiness is not to be avoided but embraced; that for too long these parallels have been taken at face value, whereas actually their underlying tensions and contradictions are far more revealing. She also pays attention to the various tensions found in the Exodus story itself, outlining the different versions (and, crucially, the most common omissions) thereof. From here, her analysis of where and how certain writers and politicians have chosen to evade or foreground these different versions proves most illuminating. In this way, Israelites in Erin becomes a book as much about narrative as it is about nationhood.

One of the first tensions Bender tackles is the question of space. We are reminded that, in many ways, the “Promised Land” is but a metaphor itself rather than an actual location, since for many the Jewish quest for home still acknowledges the inevitability of future exile. The Irish, meanwhile, complain of being exiled from a land in which they already live, and long – though never having actually been a “nation” – to be “a nation once again”. As Bender explains, in both cases “Exodus has been repeatedly reimagined as a return from exile, and going forth has paradoxically become a metonym for coming home.”

This paradoxical relationship with space inevitably leads to questions of diaspora; a question which remains at the heart of both Irish and Jewish national identities. Although, George Bernard Shaw, for example, dismisses any quest for “homeland” since, in his opinion, the Jews and Irish “languish in their own country, and flourish in every other”. Elsewhere, Bender explores the language issue – that is, the role the Hebrew and Irish tongues played within their respective nationalist projects – comparing and contrasting the politics of the vernacular in each case.

Other tensions she addresses include the use of the Exodus narrative by opposing political sides; “the irony by which, throughout Irish history, both colonial and anticolonial rhetoric enlists the same trope for opposite ends”. Later, she also reveals how “Irish Catholics and Protestants used biblical analogies and genealogies as a way of overcoming perceived differences in ethnicity (and real differences of religion and class) across Irish society”, employing the case of the Israelites “to designate all Irish people as chosen”. In this instance, she combines her historical reading with a discussion of the poetry of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Moore, indicating how broader cultural narratives manifested themselves in the literature of the time.

As the book progresses, Bender does this more and more – that is, roots her analysis in literary texts – and the arguments become richer and more insightful as a result. This richness is possibly also because the later writers – notably Lady Gregory and James Joyce – are precisely the ones who refuse to embrace any over-simplistic version of either the Exodus narrative or the Irish use thereof, instead deliberately embracing the complex layers at work.

As mentioned, Joyce liked to compare the revolutionary leader Charles Stewart Parnell to Moses, but he was not alone in doing so. The historian FSL Lyons argued that Parnell “embodied, to a degree no one had previously approached, the idea of the prophetic figure destined to lead Israel to the promised land”, while Michael Davitt called Parnell, quite simply, the “Moses of the Irish race”. Even despite Parnell’s eventual fall from grace, Bender reveals how, after his death, he actually became more mythologised than ever, in such a way that the Moses parallel continued to flourish.

It was this flourishing parallel which Lady Gregory sought to tackle – and ultimately dismantle – in her 1911 play The Deliverer. As Bender explains, by “putting pressure on the story of the Exodus, Gregory exposes its more unpalatable meanings”. These meanings include the Israelites’ ambivalence towards liberation, their religious hypocrisy, the dangerous ideology of female purity, as well as the people’s simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by Moses’s alterity. “Whereas Moses/Parnell’s Ascendancy background,” Bender explains, “is the very thing that makes him appealing to the people, it is also perceived as a threat to national unity”. As such, Gregory reminds her audience that, no matter how much they may now mythologise him, Parnell was ultimately rejected by his own people, and so too is the play’s Moses figure eventually stoned by his followers and thrown to the cats.

Bender’s reading of the play is most astute, as is her analysis of the hostile reviews it received across the board. Clearly, the public preferred the more simplistic versions of both the Biblical and national stories. That said, from here Bender traces how the Exodus narrative actually declined in popularity altogether, and how it was ultimately replaced by a Christian narrative instead. This was in part, Bender explains, to do with a growing cultural anxiety regarding Anglicisation. But it was also largely to do with the rise and rise of political activist Patrick Pearse:

Pearse would transform the Irish narrative of liberation from a Parnellite, Protestant, Moses-centred narrative to a revolutionary, Catholic, Christ-centred one; from a story about earthly struggle to one of spiritual martyrdom; from a story of ambivalence and hybridity to one that insisted, more than ever before, on purity.

Once again, Bender roots her analysis in Pearse’s play An Páis (1911), as well as in Lady Gregory’s subsequent passion play The Story Brought by Brigit (1924). In this way, she succeeds in dissecting the overall shift in national narrative, as well as the more localised reality of Gregory’s determination to produce a more warmly received piece of theatre.

This combination of single-author focus and wider cultural context culminates in the volume’s final two chapters which, unsurprisingly, are dedicated to James Joyce. Here, Bender reveals how, like Lady Gregory before him, Joyce was determined to expose the more difficult aspects of the Exodus story as a means to explore the more difficult aspects of Irish liberation. These included (but were not limited to) the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf, their yearning to return to Egypt, their eventual rejection of Moses and his resultant despair.

As well as outlining each of these elements in turn, Bender also uses these chapters to focus on Joyce’s time in Trieste, and crucially, what he was reading there. This rare and fruitful examination of his source texts allows for a rich understanding of Joyce’s Jewish preoccupations. Thus by tracing, for example, concepts found in Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstat, or the anthology Zionism and the Jewish Future, we come to appreciate Ulysses’s Exodus affinities more deeply, as well as the resonances Joyce recognised in them with regard to his own native land.

Of course, Bender also considers the most obvious manifestations of Exodus in the novel – from the overall journey structure, to Stephen’s story “A Pigsah sight of Palestine or The Parable of the Plums”; from the constant mentions of “fleshpots”, to the establishment of a “New Bloomusalem”. However, Bender’s final chapter takes a more conceptual approach, focusing instead on the notion of Jewish cultural memory. Here she explains how the Passover Seder involves the reading – or, more correctly, the retelling – of the Haggadah; that is, the annual reliving of the Exodus story. This is, Bender says, “both an exercise in cultural memory and an act of personal imagination”, and crucially, is precisely what occurs throughout Ulysses. “Exodus is happening,” Bender explains, “to Bloom on June 16, 1904.” This active reliving through the streets of Dublin brings the ancient Exodus narrative far closer to present-day Ireland than any simple analogy ever will. So Bender concludes “it is through a Jewish form of cultural memory that Joyce restores the relevance of Exodus for Ireland’s own complicated story of liberation.” As always with Joyce, it is through the use of form not content that he really succeeds in making his point.

And yet Bender knows it would be remiss to ignore the content altogether, particularly when, at the end of the novel, Stephen significantly launches into “The Ballad of Little Harry Hughes”, that is, a famously anti-Semitic song. In this way, Joyce – and Bender – is sure to remind the reader that the often-troubling reality of Irish-Jewish relations cannot and must not be overlooked, even as the analogy seems to flourish. “Analogies between peoples may be meaningful,” Bender warns, recalling Cullingford, “but still they must happen within history, not outside it.” As such, throughout her study, she returns again and again to the complex reality of Ireland’s Jewish population. She traces the arrival of these “metaphoric Israelites … literally, on Irish shores”, the growth and integration of their community, but also the various instances of anti-Semitism they experienced; instances which ultimately undermine any over-simplistic notion of Irish-Jewish solidarity.

The only disappointment in Bender’s book is that it has to end. Finishing with Joyce, and charting the decline of the Exodus analogy, Bender does not trace her study through the rest of the twentieth century. But what of 1948, when the Promised Land was finally established? What of Ireland’s extreme “neutrality” during World War II, which essentially manifested itself as a refusal to welcome any Jewish refugees, despite repeated pleas; despite this history of analogy? And what of the analogy itself, which has re-emerged in recent years, only this time in its opposite form? For, as a vociferously pro-Palestine country, many Irish now identify directly with the Palestinian people, so much so that numerous Northern Irish Republicans fly Palestinian flags, while their Loyalist counterparts fly the flag of Israel.

That said, Irish-Jewish comparisons do still appear from time to time. “There is an Irish nation,” politician Brian Lenihan, for example, stated. “But it is a diaspora. We are like the Jews. Ireland is a home base – like Israel, the promised land. We cannot all live on one small island, we have too much to offer the world.” Meanwhile, as recently as the 1990s, a New York and New Jersey Famine Curriculum was in operation which sought to align the historic potato blight with the Holocaust. Furthermore, even the now commonplace references to an Irish “diaspora” reveals a degree of analogy, since the term originated specifically in the context of the Jewish people.

In the year after Bender’s wonderful book was published, my own Irish-Jewish novel Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan came out. Shortly after that, poet Simon Lewis released a collection entitled Jewtown, while a group of academics launched a wonderful travelling exhibition entitled Representations of Jews in Irish Literature. So it seems that, even as the Jewish community – and the Exodus narrative – continues to dwindle, there is a renewed interest in the significant role it has played in the history of the Irish nation. The keen-eyed and generous scholarship of Israelites in Erin brings this significance to life, and leaves us longing for more.

1/7/2017
Ruth Gilligan is a novelist, journalist and academic from Dublin, now working as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She has published four novels to date, and contributes regular literary reviews to The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Irish Independent and LA Review of Books.

Categories