DUBLIN — Many of the prayers posted last week on the mini Western Wall in Ireland’s Maynooth University undoubtedly yearned for peace in Israel. Student confided, however, that most were pleading for divine intervention during their upcoming exams.
“It was our most popular initiative during the Israel Society’s first ever Peace Week.” founder Alan Lyne explained. “The students were intrigued to learn that we plan to go to Jerusalem later in the year and place all the messages in the real [Western] Wall.”
At last week’s first annual Peace Week, the society hosted a series of events including Hebrew classes, baking with kosher recipes, and film screenings. The initiative ran from March 20 through March 24.
“The society is non-political and non-religious,” Lyne said. “We aim to promote Israeli culture and provide unbiased information about Israeli society.”
Requiring 30 signatures to have the society recognized by the college authorities, Lyne admitted he was nervous on registration day.
“I was overwhelmed, however, when 130 people signed up,” he said.
Situated in Ireland’s only university town, 25 miles from Dublin city, the college has a complement of 10,000 students. A third of its lecturers hail from overseas.
A computer science student, Lyne made his first trip to Israel after he won an essay competition.
“It was nothing like I had imagined,” he said. “I came home with a totally new perspective.”
So much so that he was moved to set up an Israel Society in his college. While the membership includes some Israelis and Irish Jews, the majority are local students like himself.
Lyne is mindful of the fact the society was formed on the day of Shimon Peres’s death, a man he greatly admires as a peacemaker.
“Our first action was to open a book of condolence for the late president,” Lyne said.
“Personally, my main reason for forming the society was that Israel was nothing like I had seen or read in the media. In fact, after my return I started to notice the disparity between the reporting and the reality,” he said. “I saw an equal society where people were accepting of each other’s background.”
Lyne took a pragmatic approach towards the program.
“If one person learns more about Israel and wants peace it will have been a success,” he said. “Who knows who these students will be in the future, one of them may be our future Prime Minister.”
‘No one thought peace was possible in Ireland so there is always hope’
While Lyne is an advocate of a two state solution, he is aware of the difficulty in achieving it.
“No one thought peace was possible in Ireland so there is always hope,” he said.
Of course not everyone agrees. Haim Tagamlitsky — born to Russian parents who moved to Ireland when he was a child — would like Israel to remain one nation accommodating both traditions.
“The land should be shared,” Tagamlitsky stated.
Tagamlitsky likes the Israel Society because it provides a place to have these discussions in a calm way.
Law student Daniel O’Dowd, the society’s information officer, believes that one of the problems is how the issues are discussed.
“I was drawn to the society because I believe that there is a lack of fair debate about Israel and the Palestinian conflict,” he said. “Peace comes in small steps, but it depends on honesty. Maybe we can make a contribution this week.”
Sara Epstein, society treasurer, was born in South Africa, raised in Ireland, and has family in Israel. She describes herself as a Zionist.
‘Israel is a freedom loving society. You can wear a burka or a bikini’
“Some of my cousins came to visit me. They were upset at what they heard at a protest one day in Dublin. They had never heard such things said about their country,” she said. “So I think the Israel Society is a brilliant platform to promote understanding of the real Israel in Ireland.”
“To me Israel is a freedom loving society. You can wear a burka or a bikini. You can be proud to be gay. Nobody cares. People in Ireland are victims of the lies they hear in the media.”
Like the society’s president, vice president Enya Harrison is not Jewish — but like him is also a staunch believer in free speech for all.
“Our Student Union has been very supportive of our society’s right to operate freely,” she was proud to report. “I was nervous about forming the society at the start,” she admitted, “but there are 10,000 students in the college and the vast majority support each others’ right to express themselves.”
“We have very good relations with the Islamic Society in the college and support each other’s events,” she added.
College life of course is not immune from the politics of the outside world and others in the college have proposed a ban on the sale of Israeli goods on campus.
“We will oppose the proposal,” said Harrison. “Moves like this hurt ordinary people, including Palestinians,” she warned.
There is no such problem, however, with the sale of the society’s Hebrew-inscribed hoodies.
“It’s very funny,” said Harrison. “We’ve been getting orders from around Ireland from people who have no connection with the college.”
18-year-old Sonia Tagamlitsky is a first-year student of science — or a “fresher” in college parlance. She first heard about the society at the Open Day and wanted to join immediately.
“It’s important to me personally to be involved in my culture,” she said, emphasizing that she was focused on “culture, not politics.”
Louiza Vasiliu, a native Romanian student of anthropology and philosophy, agreed. She joined up to explore Israeli culture and add her voice to the promotion of peace — but quietly.
Perhaps senior law and business major Goodwin Nugbasoro of Nigeria had the most obvious reason for joining the Israel Society.
“God is important to me,” he explained. “I just want to learn more about the Land of the Bible.”
The week’s activities ended with free Hebrew lessons provided by Slovenian graduate Anastasia Ostanek, who is fluent in the language.
“People just love having their names translated into Hebrew to show their family,” Lyne smiled. “It’s been a busy week.”