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Echoes of my ancestors’ experiences of anti-Semitic bigotry resonate around me today

In Ireland, what we saw in TCD and UCD mirrors the sentiments of a concerning portion of Irish society

There is a wry joke in Joyce’s Ulysses that betrays a dark reality of Ireland’s history: “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted Jews ... and do you know why? ... because she never let them in”.

Indeed, there are very few Jews here. I have borne witness to two things in the past few months. Firstly, how easily one can dehumanise a group of people when they are an abstract. Secondly, the human capacity for extreme cruelty when one believes there will be no consequences.

My Jewish ancestors, who were ethnically cleansed from Lithuania, were among the few who were, in fact, let into this country. I know very little about this experience of ethnic cleansing. They were there, they were forced to leave. A story that spans across continents and generations: so unexceptional in the Jewish experience that it didn’t even warrant a name. I don’t know where my ancestor’s shtetl was: one they resided in at the mercy of people who never considered them fellow Europeans. This identity was only bestowed when it could be weaponised to deny Jews sovereignty.

The story of our family, the Moiselles in Ireland, is one that I am well educated on and proud of. Our family’s contribution to Irish society is woven into our culture: most notably in the renowned piece of Irish literature quoted above. Joyce used the names of real people in the Irish Jewish community in Ulysses, including my ancestors.


There is an additional resonance that Ulysses has held for me in the past few months. The protagonist, Leopold Bloom, was born to a Catholic mother and was baptised at birth, so is not a Jew in a formal Jewish sense. However, he is known throughout Dublin as a Jew and is treated as such. Likewise, I was raised Catholic, but am of ethnic Jewish heritage paternally.

Since October 7th, this Jewish identity-previously a secondary aspect of my personhood-has become primary as I witness (and have endeavoured to speak up against) the anti-Semitism that increasingly takes hold in this country: permeating society from the top down.

The echoes of my ancestors’ experiences of anti-Semitic bigotry resonate around me today in Irish society. My grandfather’s family ran a business, The Gramophone Stores, on Johnson’s Court in Dublin. This store was vandalised with anti-Semitic graffiti. My family are in possession of a photo that was taken circa 1940 that depicts swastikas written in chalk outside the store alongside three phrases: “Put Zionists in thier (sic) place”, “Expel the Jews”, and “Boycott the Jews”.

In November 2023 I took a photo on Grafton Street of vandalism that expressed this same hatred: a smashed window with a placard outside that read “there is blood on your hands”. In place of an “a” in hands was the Star of David.

While anti-Semitism is protean – mutating to adapt to the environment in which it finds itself – its ultimate manifestation looks remarkably the same. I am currently pursuing a doctorate at Trinity College Dublin, an institution where hostility towards Jews has festered: the recent four-day student-led encampment that contained some explicitly anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist banners advertised this to the world. There was a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) flag flown from the window of Trinity and banners inside the grounds. Given that the PFLP is a proscribed terrorist organisation by the EU, this is highly disturbing.

I couldn’t help but feel particularly unnerved by the anti-Semitic banners that read: “Break the Chains of Zionism” printed on a Palestinian flag and “Mothers Against Zionism” on a banner that contained a picture of former militant and member of the PFLP, Leila Khaled. The echoes of “put the Zionists in their place”, scrawled in front of my grandfather’s store years before the creation of the modern state of Israel, resonated loudly. My family has been here before: “anti-Zionism” used as a cover for anti-Semitic abuse; Zionism being the belief that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state on the Jewish ancestral homeland.

A fellow Trinity student and chair of Trinity’s Jewish Society Agne Kniuraite, writes of her own experience: “What is most felt is the isolation – from one day to the other, peers, classmates, friends turn against you. You find yourself asking: ‘How could they do that? They know me!’ As a Jew on campus, I become ‘the other’, and every plea for consideration of my humanity is met with obtusity. There are no words that can accurately convey how finding yourself on the other side of this divide affects you,” she writes.

“It is a divide based on a decades-old conflict that does not concern the vast majority of students partaking in it, students who treat it like a game with no personal stakes; students who hop on the trend and proclaim their hatred of Zionists fail to see that, for some of their peers, it is more than just a social movement – it is their existence being misconstrued and debated. The vast majority of Jews are Zionist. For many Jews, Zionism is synonymous with survival and self-agency: to misconstrue that, whether from ignorance or malice, isolates those who have no such choice to reject this part of themselves. The distinction between the constructed identity of the ‘anti-Zionist’ versus the real, immutable identity of Zionist Jews is stark: one is a trend fuelled by decades of anti-Semitism, the other a necessary result of relentless persecution for millenniums. The dehumanisation and ostracism of Jewish students because of their reality opposing the ‘trendy’ mainstream thought contributes to the isolation felt by Jews on campus.

“Ultimately, many young Jews don’t feel welcome, not at TCD or UCD, and, eventually, not in Ireland as a whole.”

Indeed, there is one large difference between the anti-Semitism on campuses in the United States and the anti-Semitism on campuses in Ireland. With the former, this doesn’t reflect society at large. In Ireland, what we saw in TCD and UCD mirrors the sentiments of a concerning portion of Irish society, including from politicians and some in the media who engage in one-sided reporting at best, anti-Semitism at worst.

The Jewish population of Ireland reached around 5,500 in the 1940s. According to a 2016 Census, this declined to about 2,500 in 2016 and 2,193 by 2022. Cork’s 89-year-old synagogue closed in 2016. Now that the Jewish population in Ireland has been reduced to the smallest fragment, my great fear is that in 20 years it will be reduced to nothing at all: due to this lack of welcome in a land that purports to offer a thousand of them. Irish people will follow the well-paved path of the citizens of so many nations before them: walking through quarters where the whisper of Jewish memory lingers, a memory that may, over time, also be erased.

Rachel Moiselle is pursuing a PhD at Trinity College Dublin. Agne Kniuraite, who contributed, is an undergraduate student at TCD.