President Higgins — no anti-semitism in Ireland?

Simon Lewis
6 min readMay 27, 2024

The Irish people are not antisemitic, quite the opposite, for example the first President here, Douglas de hÍde, spoke Hebrew among the five languages that he spoke.

So said President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins on meeting the new Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Yoni Wieder. The comments were made by Higgins in light of the many accusations from Israeli leaders that criticisms of Israel’s attacks on Gaza are due to anti-semitism.

While I would absolutely agree with the president that criticisms of Israel are not anti-semitic, to say that Irish people are not anti-semitic is problematic. In the same way I don’t believe Irish people are generally xenophobic despite the widespread protests outside accommodation centres for migrants, or in the same way I don’t believe Irish people are generally homophobic despite protests in libraries, I acknowledge there is a growth in all of them.

For example, when my adopted town of Carlow welcomed Rohingyan refugees about a decade ago, they were genuinely welcomed by everyone. If they arrived today, there would be protests outside the accommodation centres. Even two years ago when the first Ukrainian refugees came to Ireland, we couldn’t do enough to welcome them to our country. Only a couple of years later, people are openly claiming that Ireland is full.

For example, in May 2015, when the Marriage Equality Referendum passed, there were wild celebrations at Dublin Castle. Pride flags flew everywhere and the Pride parade was never more like a celebration than a protest. Fast forward less than a decade, the atmosphere has changed with a number of people claiming that it is a “woke agenda” and making slurs that we thought were part of the distant past.

Like many people from Jewish backgrounds, I am appalled by Israel’s actions in Gaza. I have been disgusted by Israel’s politics for many years — the final straw being the 2018 Nation State Law, which essentially made Israel, by definition, an apartheid state. Any country where some citizens are treated as second-class, like non-Jews are in Israel, is to be deplored.

Israel’s slow but sure occupation of Palestinian land since 1948 is unacceptable. I don’t buy the argument that Hamas’ refusal to recognise the State of Israel and its anti-Semitic policies are reason to simply take the land. There are other ways for peaceful co-existence.

Unfortunately, the Israeli government and its supporters are claiming that criticism of the above is rooted in anti-semitism. Most people who are critical are claiming they are being anti-Zionist, not anti-semitic, and that they are not the same thing. I completely agree. I am not a Zionist.

While most Irish people see the difference between Zionism and Judaism, some do not — deliberately or otherwise. In my view, it is naive and dangerous of President Higgins to claim that there is no anti-semitism in Ireland.

In my 45 years as an Irish citizen, before this year, I had only experienced 2 bouts of anti-semitism or racism. The first was as a teenager when my sallow skin tanned nicely in the summer caused two people to shout at me to “go back to my own country,” which, in fairness is probably not anti-semitic. The second definitely was. It was during the by-election a few years ago and I’ve written about it here:

However, in the last few months, I have been subjected to quite a number of anti-semitic commentary. I think it’s important I share them.

The above are some of the posts on Twitter that have been posted and screengrabbed. I have reported all of them but none of them seemed to be considered hate speech by X.

The next posts were added to my timeline by a few people. While these may not have been Irish people, and in fact, they might have been bots, it’s some more examples of anti-semitism directed to me.

Oddly enough, a head of an Irish trade union was also targeted by online trolls, which was a little worrying.

And then there is a particular poster on X who thinks I am from London and am a Protestant. Every so often he posts stuff like this. I have no doubt if he figured out I was Jewish, he’d be no better.

Anyway, you get the point. Some people will disregard the above as simply anonymous trolls that should be ignored, which is easy to say when one isn’t being targeted by them. Some people will rightly say that I’m getting away lightly and they’d be right. I am very aware that many people get far more abuse than I do. My goal here is not to be a victim because I don’t feel like one but it is to say that I am worried that I may become one in the future. President Higgins’ declaration, to me, jarred in light of the current low-level anti-semitism I am facing.

However, I need to also add that I believe that the sudden growth in anti-semitism has not been caused by anything else other than Israel’s attack on the Palestinian people. When Israel claim that they are doing what they are doing in the name of Jewish people, it is no wonder that some people will then begin targeting Jews.

I don’t come to this article with any solutions but I think we need to be very careful about claiming Irish people are not anti-anything. There is a slow creep of right-wing ideology growing slowly but surely. We can see it on the lamp posts in almost every county in Ireland where there are now posters of people standing in the local elections for parties like the National Party. In the last local elections, I don’t know if there was even one single right-wing wannabe candidate.

Up until this year, I never had worries about being from a Jewish background. I’m beginning to feel a little conscious now.



Simon Lewis

Primary school principal, podcaster and poet. 👨🏼‍🏫 Writes about the Irish primary education system. Tweets from @simonmlewis