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Jews and the Irish Potato Famine

March 13, 2018 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

During Ireland’s hour of greatest need, Jews donated more aid than anyone in the world.

St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s national holiday, is a quintessential American holiday as well. Over two million people typically turn out to watch New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In Chicago, the city dyes the Chicago River green each year to mark the holiday.

The centrality of St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. points to a tragic history. Between 1845 and 1849, the Irish Potato Famine saw a plant disease ravage potato crops throughout Ireland. Already a poor country whose lower classes subsisted almost entirely on potatoes, the loss of potato crops had dire consequences: about one million people starved to death, and up to two million people emigrated from Ireland. Even after the famine subsided, Ireland never recovered, continuing to lose numbers as people left the depressed land and tried their luck abroad.

The Famine Sculptures, by Rowan Gillespie

Millions of Irish immigrants poured into Britain, the United States and other countries. Today, nearly 35 million Americans claim Irish heritage, over seven times the population of Ireland itself. As the community has flourished, many inside Ireland and the United States have memorialized those who died in the famine and thanked those who helped. Many of those who helped Ireland the most in her darkest hour of need were Jews.

“In some of the conventional histories, the story of the contributions of the Jewish community here has been lost to sight over the years,” Niall Burgess, former Consul General of Ireland in New York, has explained. In recent years, historians have uncovered just how much the world Jewish community came to Ireland’s aid.

“There is but one connecting link between us and the sufferers… That link, my brethren, is humanity.” So explained Jacques Judah Lyons, the chazzan of Sheareith Israel synagogue in Manhattan in a specially called meeting the evening of March 8, 1847. The crowd raised hundreds of dollars, a huge sum at the time. (Mr. Lyons’ niece was Emma Lazarus, the author of the famous “Give me your tired” poem written at the base of the Statue of Liberty.)

A nearby synagogue, Shaarey Tefila, had recently been established in New York, and one of its first activities was to hold a fundraising drive of its own, raising about $1,000 for Ireland. This translates to over $80,000 today.

Tragically, these amounts were among the largest donations received by those starving in Ireland. Many people at the time lacked sympathy for Ireland, viewing the famine there as a predictable result of what they viewed as flaws of the lower classes, including a lack of sophistication and high birth rates. The London Times urged readers not to donate at all, pronouncing that sending funds to Ireland was akin to throwing money away in an “Irish bog”.

As millions of Irish starved, U.S. President James Polk pledged the shockingly small sum of $50 for famine relief. Queen Victoria, whose British Empire ruled Ireland, was the largest single donor, pledging only £2,000. The 24-year-old Sultan of Turkey was moved to pledge £10,000 in aid, but reduced this to £1,000 when he found out how little Queen Victoria was sending.

Against this background of inadequate donations, it was a prominent London Jew, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, who founded a durable organization that would become the largest agency providing funds that were desperately needed in Ireland.

Lionel de Rothschild was a proud Jew at a time when Jews were generally excluded from public roles. In 1847 he became the first Jew elected to Britain’s Parliament; he refused to remove his hat and to take a Christian oath to assume his seat. (He eventually took his seat in 1858, after being re-elected four times, when a change in laws allowed him to retain his top hat and avoid taking a Christian oath.)

On January 1, 1847, Lionel de Rothschild convened a meeting in his home to address the famine in Ireland. A number of London Jews were present, including Rothschild’s brother Mayer, as well and David Solomon, an advocate for Jewish rights in England the first Jewish Lord Mayor London. Together, they formed the British Association for the Relief of Distress in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, also known sometimes as the British Relief Association.

Lionel de Rothschild

They appealed for donations across the world. Over 15,000 individuals contributed and the Association raised about £600,000. The group became the largest aid donor to Ireland, and Baron Rothschild oversaw the opening of schools and distribution centers to provide food across Ireland.

For years, the contribution of Jews to Ireland’s famine relief was little noted. That changed in 2010 when Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland, visited New York and formally thanked the Jewish community there for their help during Ireland’s time of crisis. She visited Shearith Israel and thanked both them and Shaarey Tefila for the funds they’d sent over 163 earlier.

Speaking at a national famine memorial in Ireland, President McAleese lamented that “there were many who should have helped but did not or who responded very inadequately” during the famine. She then told her compatriots about the visit she’d made to the synagogues in New York and the way they came to Ireland’s aid: “There were others who came to Ireland’s help because they were moved by compassion and human kindness.”

Rabbi Tarfon advised, “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). In the 1840s, in Ireland’s hour of greatest need, Jews in Britain, the United States and elsewhere heeded that call, donating money and working to alleviate some of the suffering of the Irish Potato Famine. We can be proud of our great great grandparents’ actions today.

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