Scottish Jews Nervous on Eve of Independence Vote

September 17, 2014  

Tomorrow evening Scotland will decide whether or not to break away from the United Kingdom and become an independent state. The looming referendum has been fiercely contested, with Scottish nationalist leaders advocating for independence facing off with politicians in London appealing to Scots to preserve “the union.”

Adding to the drama, current polls have been too close to call, with votes evenly split between the Yes and No campaigns as cultural, economic and diplomatic considerations all play a part.

But where does Scotland’s Jewish community stand?

According to Paul Morron, President of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, “the Jewish community tends more towards the no vote than the yes vote,” compared to rest of Scotland.

He said the tiny community feels far more anxious than most about the prospect of breaking away from the UK, due to fears that anti-Israel sentiment – which is more emphatic in Scottish politics than elsewhere in Britain- will take on a life of its own, to the detriment of Scottish Jews.

Until now, although Scotland has its own parliament and “First Minister”, foreign policy has been handled by the British central government in Westminster, rendering anti-Israel rhetoric by Scottish leaders largely symbolic. But given that the likely prime minister of an independent Scotland – current First Minister and Scottish National Party head Alex Salmond – has a long history of anti-Israel positions, it looks likely that at least some of that rhetoric will translate into action.

“Under an independent Scotland foreign affairs is going to be more prominent than it is at the moment,” says Morron. “The indication is that the Scottish government would be rather more hostile towards Israel, and there would be far more attention given to that hostility in the media, and I think that would put added pressure on the Jewish community here.”

“Having said that, the Scottish government have come out very firmly against any boycotts against Israel – but on the other side it is also calling for an arms embargo against Israel, and its record so far is fairly hostile and not even-handed” towards the Jewish state, Morron added.

And he emphasizes that anti-Israel sentiment is not limited to the SNP; “It goes far deeper than that.”

By way of example, he notes that PLO flags were flown during the recent Gaza conflict in councils controlled by the Labor Party – which has been campaigning against independence.

“Any parliament that is elected is likely to be unfavorable to Israel, at least for the medium term,” he predicts.

And while it is true that an independent Scotland would not be a particularly significant player on the international scene (it might even have to reapply to join the European Union), domestically, as this summer has shown, high levels of anti-Israel sentiment fueled by an exaggerated focus on the Jewish state can provide fertile ground for anti-Semites.

Over the 50-day war between Israel and Gazan terrorists anti-Semitism in Europe soared to record levels. In the UK, anti-Semitism quadrupled in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013 – largely due to an explosion in incidents over the summer months.

Scotland was effected by rising levels of anti-Semitism as well.

“We had an outbreak of anti-Semitism here which has been the worst in living memory,” Moron states, but adds that it was “nowhere near as bad or severe” as levels on the European continent, such as in France and Belgium.

Indeed, of the 21 reported incidents of anti-Semitism in the past eight weeks none involved violent assaults, he said. “It’s mainly been social media abuse, abusive phone calls, etc.”

Those figures are not as bad as parts of England during Operation Protective Edge, where several violent assaults took place. But the contrasting numbers can at least partially be explained by the fact that the Jewish community in England is far larger and more visible than Scottish Jewry. The vast majority of Great Britain’s 300,000 or so Jews live in England, while only between 7,000-7,500 reside in Scotland – 5-6,000 of whom are concentrated in the city of Glasgow.

Morron expressed confidence in the Scottish police to deal with individual instances of anti-Semitism. Their arrest rate in responding to anti-Semitic crimes is impressive – some two thirds of crimes reported over the past two months have ended in arrests, with some suspects already being prosecuted. He also noted that the community is regularly briefed by intelligence services, and that currently there were “no known threats” of terrorism against Jewish institutions.

That being said, many Jews there fear that a more consistently anti-Israel atmosphere would prevail in an independent Scottish government, which could fan the flames of hate further in the long-term.

But despite those fears, Scotland’s Jews are far from cowed. In fact, in true Scottish fashion, they’re rising to the challenge by mobilizing to make their case – and Israel’s – more strongly than ever before.

“In the last two weeks since the Israel-Gaza conflict we’ve been very, very active in making the case publicly – on TV, on the radio, in the press – for the Israeli case, and I think that is something we have to continue to do,” insists Morron.

“We have to bring the case for Israel to the non-Jewish community,” he continues, because the only way to tackle the issue of bias is to confront it head-on.

And he claims that campaigning is having an effect, with Salmond coming out publicly to “roundly condemn” anti-Semitism in the wake of the recent wave of incidents, and Glasgow city council showing a “more sympathetic attitude” towards concerns by Jewish residents after the Palestinian flag saga.

Although he acknowledges that the community “needs far more resources” to campaign in the long-term, Morron says that Scottish Jewry must ultimately fight its own battles. And he is confident the community is up to the task.

“We’re in touch with the Board of Deputies (of British Jews), but given the fact that we have an independence referendum, really the job has to be done in Scotland – with support from elsewhere. We need to lead locally.” 

“It’s our responsibility, and we certainly won’t be lacking.”

“People in Israel, you’re on the front line, but our job in the Diaspora, I believe, is to look after the back door while you’r looking at the front door… It’s certainly a duty that we in Glasgow take very seriously.”

Whatever the outcome on Thursday, the country’s Jews are proud of their identity as Jews and Scotsmen – and equally proud of their links to Israel, he says.

“We have to maintain confidence in ourselves – Scotland is our Scotland as well as anyone else’s, so we have to be optimistic and positive about the future.”

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