Israeli Scholar Trains an Eye on the Emerald Isle

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By Gabriel Sanders

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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As a student at Tel Aviv University in the mid 1990s, Jerusalem native Guy Beiner became interested in what the French call l’histoire des mentalités, history that takes into account how a people perceived itself and its world. In particular, Beiner began to consider folklore and oral traditions — sources often ignored by historians — as valuable tools in studying how a community lived and understood its moment in time.

Though he’d been studying the history of Israel, Beiner looked to Ireland, a country famous for its storytelling tradition, and signed up for a master’s program in Irish Studies at University College Dublin. The move bore unexpected fruit. Today, a full decade after his departure, Beiner — together with a Hungarian-born wife whom he met in Ireland and their three children — is back in Israel with a Ph.D. in modern Irish history, a groundbreaking new book, a professorship at Ben Gurion University and the distinction of being the only scholar in Israel specializing in Ireland.

The Forward recently caught up with Beiner (on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, as luck would have it) to discuss his academic path, differences in Irish and Jewish perceptions of the past, and his new life in Israel.

In speaking of his scholarly training, Beiner returned again and again to the language of liberation. “When I first arrived in Ireland,” Beiner said by phone from his home outside Beersheba, “I soon learned that I was the only student in the program. It gave me a free hand. I could go to any department I wanted and attend any class I wanted. I could tailor the program to my own needs.” Beiner also learned that in Ireland, there are advantages to being an outsider. Neither Catholic nor Protestant, he found he was free in ways that Irish scholars are not. “I wasn’t affiliated with any local conflicts or rivalries,” he said. “I could go and talk to anyone.”

Beiner ultimately chose as his area of focus an episode of Irish history known as the Year of the French. In the summer of 1798, large areas of Ireland were swept up in rebellion against English rule. After the suppression of a number of insurrections in eastern Ireland, a French military expedition arrived in the west and teamed up with local Irish soldiers. Despite some early success — and the proclamation of a French satellite “republic” — the rebellion was crushed in a matter of weeks.

In his new book new, “Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory” (University of Wisconsin Press), Beiner looks not at the official history of the rebellion but at the various way in which it has been remembered and memorialized — in song, story and stone — in the locales it touched.

“Scholarly orthodoxy today speaks of the ‘invention’ of tradition,” said Beiner, 39. “They’ll speak of how we’ve become detached from our traditions and have invented new ones.” Beiner disagrees: “The only real case of pure invented tradition would be Israel — an even that’s not true. In Ireland, it’s different. Yes, there are invented national traditions, but, unlike in Jewish Diaspora culture, there was always continuity in the land.”

Beiner, who speaks a fluid Hebrew-accented English with the merest hint of an Irish brogue, discussed how the study of Irish history has sharpened and redefined his ideas about the Israeli past — often in unexpected ways. Pointing to how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is commonly compared to the case of Northern Ireland, Beiner expressed reservations about making obvious connections. “It’s often in the less obvious questions that we find the most interesting insights,” he said. As an example, Beiner pointed to an article he published in Hebrew last year about trauma and triumphalism in the wake of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. The piece, he said, elicited a surprisingly warm response, with some readers drawing analogies to 1948 and others finding resonances in last summer’s war in Lebanon.

Beiner found that Israel had changed in the time he spent away from it. “When I left for Ireland 10 years ago,” he said, “there wasn’t an Irish scene here. There was one band playing Irish music. Suddenly, Irish pubs have opened all over Israel. Lots of Israeli musicians are now playing Irish music. They have direct flights to Dublin. There are high-tech relations with Ireland. With globalization, everything has changed.”

The spirit of globalization is palpable in Beiner’s classroom, too. “I have a good mix of people from different backgrounds: local Bedouins, Arabs who come from as far as the Galilee and Jews from all over. I’m thinking of introducing a new course on oral history, and it’s obvious to me that if I just get the students to interview family members, we can have stories from all over the world,” he said.

For an Israeli historian trained in Ireland and married to a Hungarian, it seems a perfect fit.

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.


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