WASHINGTON (JTA) — Conor Cruise O’Brien, the iconoclast Irish diplomat whose sympathy for Israel contributed to his opprobrium among doctrinaire leftists, has died.
O’Brien, 91, died at his home near Dublin, the Irish government announced Thursday.
O’Brien was an Irish nationalist whose writings caught the eyes of the young state’s diplomats, leading first to a foreign service career, and then to a U.N. role in Congo. His disillusionment in the 1960s with post-colonial Africa and with Irish Republican Army atrocities led him to distance himself from leftist orthodoxies; he detected beneath the IRA’s universalist pieties a profound and mean-spirited nationalism that led him to champion the rights of Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Writing about Israel in the 1980s, he similarly refused to buy into conventional leftist narratives about a pristine Arab struggle against a colonial oppressor, and his book about Israel’s founding, "The Siege," was clear-eyed in its criticisms of both sides. He argued that Israel’s claim to the land, stemming from a millennia-old exile. was at once compelling and impossible to explain in terms of other peoples; no other nation had held onto a dream of return for so long.
When Naim Atallah, a British Palestinian activist, told O’Brien that "a lot of people" saw him as a "stooge" for the British, O’Brien, according to a Daily Telegraph obituary, shot back: "For ‘a lot of people’ read the IRA and their stooges, some of whom you have clearly been talking to. Give them my regards."
O’Brien is survived by his wife and four children.