Irish heartbeat'From our shared Irish roots to our shared love of Israel'

Sinn Féin, Gaelic and boxing: Biden and Herzog connect over Irish heritage

In warm visit, presidents reference joint ancestral ties in public speeches and private meeting

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden (R) embraces President Isaac Herzog (L) during the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
US President Joe Biden (R) embraces President Isaac Herzog (L) during the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

A noticeable thread ran through the warm public statements and private discussions between  US President Joe Biden and President Isaac Herzog on Thursday — pride in their shared Irish heritage.

The first topic Biden brought up after stepping out of “the Beast” at the President’s Residence was his Irish roots. Herzog, who received him with First Lady Michal at the building’s ceremonial plaza, responded by bringing up his own familial connections to the country.

Biden’s mother, born as Jean Finnegan, had only Irish ancestors, hailing from Counties Louth, Londonderry and Mayo. One of his paternal great-grandmothers, Mary Ann Hanafee, was also born to Irish parents.

Herzog’s paternal grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was born in Poland, and grew up in England. In 1916, he moved to Belfast to serve as rabbi there. In 1919, he moved to Dublin, where the breakaway Irish authorities recognized him as chief rabbi during their war of independence.

Herzog, a strong supporter of Irish nationalism, was appointed chief rabbi of the new Irish Free State in 1921 after the war ended. Herzog learned Gaelic at the urging of his close friend Eamon de Valera, Sinn Féin leader, and future premier and president.

Herzog held the position until 1936, when he became the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine in the wake of the death of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cook.

US President Joe Biden, left, speaks at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, before President Isaac Herzog presents him with the Presidential Medal of Honor, on July 14, 2022. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv / GPO)

President Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog, was born in Belfast in 1918, and grew up in Dublin. As a teen, he became Ireland’s bantamweight boxing champion. After moving to Mandatory Palestine, he served in the British Army in World War II, and after Israel’s independence headed the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, rising to the rank of Major-General.

Herzog was appointed Israel’s UN envoy in 1975, where he famously tore up the “Zionism is Racism” UN resolution, condemning it in his Irish accent, “this resolution, based on hatred, falsehood and arrogance, is devoid of any moral or legal value.”

Then-Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Chaim Herzog addressing the General Assembly on November 10, 1975 at the United Nations, New York. (UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras)

Chaim Herzog served two terms as Israel’s president from 1983 to 1993. Dublin’s Páirc Herzog, or Herzog Park, was named after him in 1995.

“From our shared Irish roots to our shared love of Israel, we are united in heart and spirit,” wrote Biden in the President’s Residence guestbook before his private meeting Thursday with Isaac Herzog. “May our friendship endure and continue to grow! That is the Irish of it, as my grandfather Finnegan would say. God bless you. Joe. 7.14.22,”

Rising from the table, Biden said to the assembled onlookers, “You know, his grandfather was the chief rabbi of Ireland. His father was born in Ireland. His grandfather was referred to as the Sinn Féin Rabbi.”

Text written by US President Joe Biden in the guestbook of the Israeli President’s Residence during a meeting with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022. (President’s Spokesperson’s Office)

Making a fist, Biden said to laughs, “Him and my grandfather had the same heart.”

Herzog jumped in and told a story about former US president Ronald Reagan – also of Irish descent — meeting his father Chaim, and saying, “It’s a great day for the Irish.”

“I also think it’s a great day for the Irish today,” said Herzog to Biden as he slapped his shoulder.

Moving to Herzog’s private office for their one-on-one meeting, they continued the theme, The Times of Israel has learned. Biden recounted his six-day visit to Ireland as vice president in 2016, where he visited his ancestors’ villages and graves.

Daring and creative language. Rabbi Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Israel National Photo Collection)
Rabbi Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Israel National Photo Collection)

Herzog told Biden about his 2018 visit to Belfast and Dublin to mark the centenary of his father’s birth. In Dublin, he was received by Ireland’s President Michael Higgins, where they posed in front of the tree his father had planted during a state visit in 1985.

And, not surprisingly, Biden opened his warm speech before being granted Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction with a reference to their shared Irish roots.

“If anyone should understand my inclination to enthusiasm, you should be,” Biden said to Herzog.  “With a — with a grandfather who thought Sinn Féin was the future of Ireland, you should understand that.

Biden wrapped up his speech by quoting Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy: “History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, that longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up, and hope and history rhyme.”

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