Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died December of last year at the ripe old age of 91, was, as one cynic once said, “An Irishman who wanted to be a Jew.” This was not only because he was not anti-Semitic in a rabidly anti-Semitic world, but also a supporter of Israel. He was something of a hero to me, a benchmark of honest individuality and fearlessness, the standard of a cultured, educated, analytical, and moral man.
I first became aware of him because my father admired him and encouraged me to read anything he wrote. At first I thought it was because of a family connection. My father had never lived in Ireland, but his parents are buried there. They moved to Dublin during the Great Depression because there was no work in London. But my father, a teenager at the time, was studying in Etz Chaim Yeshiva in London and so he stayed behind.
I remember going with him only once to Dublin to visit my grandparents, a year before they died in 1950. Ireland then had several thriving Jewish communities (at one moment in Anglo-Jewry there were more rabbis from Cork than any other city in the British Isles), and Jews and Irishmen in general got on very well. But the refusal of de Valera’s Ireland to join the war against the Nazis cast a pall on relations, even if one could understand the longstanding antipathy of Irishmen to the English.
It is difficult now to appreciate the extent and the bitterness of the class divisions in British society during the nineteenth century. These divisions were reflected in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews identified with the Labour Party. In my home the political heroes were all socialists: Clement Attlee, Aneirun Bevan, Jennie Lee, Michael Foot, and Hugh Gaitskell. Although we admired Churchill, and were immensely grateful for his almost singlehanded role in getting Britain to stand up to Hitler, we never indentified with the Conservatives. I’m not saying all Anglo-Jews felt this way, but certainly those who came from poor recent immigrant families did.
That is why there was always a degree of sympathy for Irishmen fighting for their freedom from British rule, and in particular for the Irish socialists–because by and large they were not violent murderers and political gangsters, but rather enthusiastic agitators. Ireland itself was a paradox. Primitive country priests catered to very poor disadvantaged communities. Yet Dublin was a cosmopolitan city, the home of Joyce and Yeats, and a great academic environment in which Catholic, Protestant, and atheist exchanged ideas and generated intellectual creativity.
Conor Cruise O’Brien was a product of this atmosphere. A Catholic who was given a Protestant education at Trinity College, he became interested in politics as an idealistic socialist who was always animated by idealism and hated the duplicity of politics, even though he had chosen to get involved.
He was sent to the United Nations and became the special representative of Dag Hammarskjold, the impressive Secretary-General of the UN at a time when the UN was still held in high regard and promised much (before sinking into corruption and decadence). He tried to deal fairly with the Congo crisis of 1961, but resigned in frustration and wrote To Katanga and Back in 1962. In it he excoriated the incompetence and duplicity of the UN. That book, more than anything else, turned me against the UN long before its abysmal record on Israel.
He became Chancellor of the University of Ghana and a professor at New York University before returning to Irish politics. He was not corrupt enough to be a success as a minister but gained fame, some might say notoriety, in condemning the IRA and its political front the Sinn Fein, and opposing violence. He fought against any compromise or power sharing with what he argued were murdering terrorists. He had a spell as editor of The Observer in London, but spent the rest of his long life writing and lecturing and fighting corruption and intellectual dishonesty wherever he saw it. He used to say that his role in life was to be “a shock to the Irish psyche”.
In 1989 he wrote The Siege, a history and defence of Israel’s struggle for survival, and this of course alienated him from the new wave of politically correct, intellectually crippled left-wing orthodoxy. The Siege remains one of the best books on the subject.
It is when I think of men like O’Brien that know why I became the person that I am–antiestablishment, nonconformist, a gadfly refusing to accept conventional wisdom or standards. It is the fact that there can be people who think for themselves and yet retain deep loyalty to both religion and national values that reassures me I am neither alone nor wrong! Thank you, Conor Cruise O’Brien, for your life.