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What Dublin official files reveal of ministers' private views on the Jews in 1950s

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Friday, January 3, 2003 -- Page 8.



Berry view of anti-Jewish feeling was rejected by colleagues

By Deaglán de Bréadún

DIFFERENCES in official circles in the 1950s as to the true level of anti-Semitism in Ireland at the time have emerged in documents released to the National Archives.

The then secretary of the department of justice, Mr. Peter Berry, claimed there was "fairly strong" anti-Semitic feeling throughout the State. However, this was strongly disputed by colleagues in the department of external (later foreign) affairs.

Mr. Berry claimed that the Jewish Community had refused to assimilate and appeared to have "disproportionate wealth and influence". Admitting Jews as refugees presented "a special problem" and the law had always been administered "less liberally" in their case.

If made public at the time, Mr. Berry's views could themselves have been a subject of controversy. He was one of the most powerful civil servants in the history of the modern Irish State.

The file in question concerns a proposal from the Fianna Fáil TD, Mr Robert Briscoe, a leading member of the Jewish community who later served as lord mayor of Dublin, for the admission of 10 Jewish families from the Soviet bloc in 1953.

Mr Berry commented:

"It has always been recognised in the departments of justice, industry and commerce and external affairs that the question of the admission of aliens of Jewish blood presents a special problem and the alien laws have always been administered less liberally in their case."

"Although the Jewish community in Ireland is only 3,907 persons, according to the 1946 census, there is a fairly strong anti-Semitic feeling throughout the country based, perhaps, on historical reasons, the fact that the Jews have remained a seperate community within the community and have not permitted themselves to be assimilated, and that for their numbers they appear to have dis-proportionate wealth and influence."

He continued: "No reasons have been put foward why this Jewish group should take precedence over the thousands - even millions - of European refugees and stateless persons seeking admission to Western countries other than that a Jewish international society will guarantee their maintenance ... Is the fact that international Jewry is prepared to put up the money to guarantee the State against loss to be regarded as a good and sufficient reason for allowing these people to 'jump the queue'?"

Even the financial guarantees were open to question, as "it has been the experience of the department of justice over many years that the Jews are prepared to put foward any plea that would enable an alien co-religionist to get over an immediate difficulty".

Despite the negative tone of the Berry memorandum, the government decided that five Jewish families should be admitted for a maximum stay of two years.

A note from a civil servant in external affairs expressed "considerable disagreement" with the memo: "I think we can, for the honour of our country, refute the suggestion of a 'widespread anti-Semitism'. I know of no such feeling except amongst a few fanatics. Moreover, our Constitution is so far as I know unique in giving specific recognition to the Jewish faith - surely a proof that anti-Semitism is not widespread."

A note in Irish, apparently by the minister for external affairs, Mr Frank Aiken, states: "Aontuím (I agree)". However, no action was taken to admit the refugees and, on June 22nd, Mr Berry wrote to Mr Thomas Commins at external affairs: "We have deliberately adopted a 'go-slow' policy in this matter as we have reason to believe that the Jewish community in Ireland and the international organisation abroad have fallen out as to who should bear the costs."


Related file on this website:

Our dossier on antisemitism and its origins

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