History echoes from Londonderry hills to Jerusalem

In his memoirs, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wrote that he chose the name "Michael" as his underground alias while leading the Lehi group (called "Stern Gang" by the British) as a tribute to another man who had challenged the mighty British Empire decades earlier.

The Michael in question was Michael Collins, subject of the epic film of the same name by Neil Jordan starring Liam Neeson (familiar to fans of "Schindler's List") which has opened to rave reviews recently.

"The spirit and circumstances of his [Collins'] struggle against the British came to life for me in faraway Poland and remained with me," wrote Shamir.

Though the passions and troubles of Ireland may be unfamiliar territory to most Jews today, there are connections and parallels aplenty to Israel's own struggle for independence and the lives of its leaders in "Michael Collins."

Both modern Zionism and Irish nationalism were products of the late 19th century, when a dedicated cadre sought to revive ancient languages to give new life to their nations. However, the revivals of Gaelic and Hebrew were accompanied by parallel military efforts which would also be needed to create new nation states.

Collins led the Irish Republican Army in its heroic struggle against Britain in the years after World War I and then made a fateful decision to accept peace with the British and the partition of Ireland, which led to his assassination in 1922 by Irishmen who saw the treaty as "treason."

Though we may think of the current IRA (a poor shadow of its namesake that fought the British under Collins) as gun-crazed killers who have allied themselves with Moammar Khadafy and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the IRA of Collins' day were heroes to the leaders of the armed Jewish resistance to British rule in Palestine before Israel was born.

Men like Shamir and Menachem Begin, commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi and future prime minister and peacemaker, looked to Collins' strategies as they waged their own war against the British.

And the British often played right into their hands just as they did with Collins, by giving the resistance martyrs and responding brutally against civilians. Jewish fighters, just as their Irish role models had done before, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the courts that sentenced them to death.

Though Britain's stake in Ireland was far greater than in Palestine, there were limitations on what public and parliamentary opinion would accept to sustain a nasty war with little hope of settlement in either case.

Collins' decision to raise the stakes in his war by assassinating British officials in the streets of Dublin was parallel to Shamir's decision to launch his own assassinations campaign, the most notorious of which was the gunning down in Cairo of Britain's Lord Moyne in 1944. Begin's decision to take British soldiers hostage in retaliation for sentences of death against Jews was also an IRA tactic.

And like Collins, Begin would be forced to make good on his threats and execute two British sergeants in retaliation for the hanging of five Jews. This terrible act, like Collins' move to unleash his "12 apostles" on Dublin's "bloody Sunday," hurt Zionism's image, but it's seen by historians as helping convince Britain to quit Palestine.

When we hear Collins say that he hates the British not so much for their own crimes but for "making hate necessary," we hear the echoes of Golda Meir — who said she could forgive the Arabs for killing Jewish children, but not for making it necessary for Jews to kill Arabs in turn.

Collins' assassination also cannot help but remind us of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. Like the religious fanatic who murdered Rabin, Collins' enemies would not accept the democratic verdict of the Irish people. Collins, who decided that the treaty was his country's only chance for peace, might well be compared to Rabin, who made a similar decision about the Oslo Accords.

A better comparison might be made to David Ben-Gurion's acceptance of the partition of Palestine as the only way to achieve a Jewish state.

For Jews, the epithet "traitor," is an integral part of Rabin's assassination. Yet among Irish Americans, the old Republican song "The Patriot Game" in which Collins is blasted as one of "the traitors who bartered and sold" is still very much alive.

Another comparison is more favorable for Israel. Unlike Collins' opponent Eamon De Valera (played by Alan Rickman) who unleashed a civil war when he lost the vote over the treaty, Begin's finest moments came when he refused to allow the Irgun to be goaded into civil war with Ben-Gurion's Haganah. Both in 1944, when the Haganah turned in Irgun members to the British, and in 1948 when Ben-Gurion ordered the young Rabin to fire on the Irgun ship Altalena, killing several Jews, Begin refused to fire on fellow Jews and helped save Israel.

Ironically, the fortunes of the political heirs of both Collins and Rabin were equally poor. After the civil war ended, De Valera defeated Collins' party in elections and ruled Ireland from 1932 till his death decades later.

Only six months after Rabin's murder, his political foe Benjamin Netanyahu, who was innocent of the much repeated charge of inciting Rabin's murder, would defeat Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres. Like De Valera's Ireland, Netanyahu's Israel is still stuck, for better or worse, with the reality that his fallen opponent had created.

History can indeed turn around. Columbia University scholar J. Bowyer Bell, author of authoritative works on the IRA and the Jewish underground, reported in the epilogue to his "Terror out of Zion" that he was given his copy of Begin's memoir "The Revolt" by an IRA cell commander in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

It had become, just as Collins' writings were to previous generations of Jewish rebels, "a handbook for aspiring revolutionaries."

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.