Each time Israel’s supporters in Ireland decide to smear the Palestine solidarity movement, there is a strong likelihood that a man called Barry Williams will be quoted in the media.
Williams and his group Irish4Israel have featured prominently in two recent stories.
First, they objected to a conference on Israeli “exceptionalism” which is being organized by professors at University College Cork. And next, they depicted a protest against a visit by the Israeli ambassador to Trinity College Dublin as a denial of free speech.
Despite the group’s persistent claims that the Dublin media harbor a pro-Palestinian bias, Irish4Israel has enjoyed an easy ride from journalists. The mainstream press has not bothered to ask who Williams represents or to examine how his arguments are riddled with contradictions.
Irish4Israel only demands free and uninterrupted speech for Israel’s apologists, not its critics. Responding to the Trinity College protests last week, Williams declared it “sad” that police and security guards “didn’t do enough.”
What exactly did he mean? Did he want a peaceful protest to be broken up aggressively?
Williams’ championing of free expression is inconsistent with other positions taken by Irish4Israel.
Last year, the group took pleasure in how Bank of Ireland had decided to close down the account of the country’s main Palestine solidarity group. “This is amazing news,” stated Irish4Israel in a message to its supporters. “Without a bank account their work is extremely restricted.”
Irish4Israel, meanwhile, has made the spurious claim that a slogan chanted during the Trinity protest was “genocidal.” The slogan in question was “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The claim reflects a well-worn tactic of the pro-Israel lobby: infer that there is an anti-Semitic motive behind a simple call for equality and justice.
The irony is that Williams has responded in a tepid manner when Israel’s supporters have displayed a lust for extreme violence.
In November 2012, Israel bombed Gaza for eight consecutive days. When a Facebook page was set up for a pro-Israel demonstration in Dublin, one man posted his opinion that Muslims “must be destroyed or at least driven out of Israel.”
Williams replied by writing: “Sorry guys, this forum is public and is probably being looked at by those who would love to demonize us. Comments supporting driving Muslims out don’t help. We must always put our best side out for Israel.”
The 2012 demo was organized by Naomi Dara Gibson. The previous year, she had commented on Facebook that her dream would be to see God destroy Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque – one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Williams has himself expressed a desire for Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a document seen by The Electronic Intifada. And his insistence on putting “our best side out for Israel” sits uneasily with a willingness to defend the most outrageous pronouncements of that state’s diplomats.
In December 2012, Israel’s embassy in Dublin issued a Christmas message, which read: “If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians.”
The message spawned many unwelcome headlines, yet Irish4Israel argued that the embassy was “stating the truth.”
That willingness to go to bat for Israel might explain why Williams is the embassy’s favorite lobbyist, judging by how eagerly it promotes his group on Facebook and Twitter.
Until a few years ago, Tom Carew of the Ireland-Israel Friendship League was regarded as the top pro-Israel lobbyist in the country. Carew resigned as chair of that organization in 2013, after publicly opposing an assault by Israeli troops on a French diplomat.
Williams has filled the niche that Carew used to occupy.
From its modest beginnings as Williams’ hobby in 2010 – when he was a Cork-based student – Irish4Israel has morphed into what looks like a slick propaganda machine.
BlueStar, a US-based organization, is known to have raised funds for Irish4Israel. Yet Williams is generally secretive about how his activities are financed.
He did not reply to a request for comment.
At the moment, Irish4Israel is running an essay competition for students, with the prize of a free trip to the Middle East.
An earlier version of this competition was won by Sean Tyrrell, a candidate in 2014 elections to Ireland’s local authorities.
I was told by a reliable source that Tyrell is now working for the Israeli embassy in Dublin.
When I called the embassy asking to speak to him, a receptionist asked me who I was. After I identified myself as a journalist, the receptionist said “where did you get Sean’s name?”
“From a contact, I cannot say who,” I replied. I, then, enquired “You do have a gentleman by that name working at the embassy, yes?” “No, we don’t,” the receptionist said.
I have also emailed the embassy, asking how much money it gives to Irish4Israel. My request has gone unanswered.
The embassy’s reticence looks uncharacteristic. Last weekend, the embassy responded rapidly when I and others challenged it – via Twitter – about Israel’s bombings of Palestinian hospitals.
Last September, lawyers in Israel filed freedom of information requests asking the government to reveal its covert financial support to foreign organizations and individuals assisting Israel in its propaganda efforts.
A documentary broadcast by Al Jazeera in January revealed how Israeli diplomats in London were courting students.
Something similar is happening in Ireland.
Last autumn, Irish4Israel notified its supporters that the country’s first pro-Israel student society had been formed in Maynooth University. Alan Lyne, one of the group’s founders, had gone on an Irish4Israel junket to the Middle East.
In a recent message to its supporters, Irish4Israel indicated that it hopes to facilitate more such trips for students. Participants in previous delegations have been selected “for their potential to be future leaders, politicians or journalists,” the message added.
Can groups like Irish4Israel have an influence on policy? The short answer is yes.
Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s current foreign minister, is among a number of Irish politicians who are openly sympathetic to Israel. During Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, Williams said that Ireland’s ruling coalition had been more “even-handed” than previous governments had been in comparable situations. The foreign ministry, Williams added, was “not trying to lecture Israel.”
His comments were revealing. Even though there is widespread public affinity with the Palestinians in Ireland, elite figures are willing to accommodate Israeli apartheid.
Barry Williams is trying to convince the elite that it should hug Israel even tighter.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 1 March 2017.