Does Scotland manage to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic?

Scottish Jews will proudly tell you that theirs is the only country in Europe where a Jew has never been murdered for being a Jew. However, a few will cynically add that although this may be accurate historically, the local community is small and relatively young, going back only two centuries. Also, as part of the British Isles, Scotland was one of the few parts of Europe not occupied by Nazi Germany.

How prevalent is anti-Semitism in Scotland? In a country where the official census records only 6,580 Jews – though the real number is probably somewhere around 10,000 – it is hard to gauge the scale of racism against the community, especially since no one I spoke to there seems to have ever personally experienced anti-Jewish bias. The numbers are not very enlightening. Twenty anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in Scotland in 2011, an increase of 66 percent from 2010, when there were 12.

But almost all these cases were of verbal abuse and minor vandalism, and in only one case was there any physical assault. This was still lower than the highest number recorded, 30 in 2009 – almost all of them verbal abuse. These numbers would seem to represent a rather low level of anti-Semitism: In all of Britain, there were 586 incidents in 2011.

Certainly the Jewish community is not the main focus of religious hatred in Scotland, where old sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics still remain. In 2010-2011, charges were brought in 400 cases of hate crimes committed against Catholics and 253 cases of hate crimes against Protestants. In the same period, there were charges in only 16 hate crimes against Jews, but since the Jewish community is so much smaller, this still means that a Jew or a Jewish institution is much likelier to become a target.

Increasingly, also, anti-Semitism – which is rarely felt by the communities within cities – is occurring on university campuses. “Families living within their community and neighborhood may not feel it,” says one source, “but it’s very different for a young student far away from home.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research reported that 52 percent of Jewish students studying in Scotland had witnessed or been subjected to anti-Semitism, compared to 33 percent in London. “Anti-semitism is very low in Scotland,” says Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC ). However, he adds that “Jews are more likely to experience hate crimes than members of other religious minorities.”

He divides the anti-Semitic incidents into two kinds: verbal anti-Semitism stemming from ignorance, which usually occurs in rural areas, far from the established communities – like the case of a mother who was told by her child’s teacher that Jews killed Jesus; and the other, more prominent, kind that Borowski says “is usually Israel-related. You can see that we had a peak in 2009 following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.”

There is a proud radical left-wing tradition in Scottish politics and public life, and Glasgow is often referred to as the most leftist city in Britain. Beyond a belief in trade unionism and the welfare state, this has also been translated into support of foreign causes favored by the left. This previously included the anti-apartheid struggle and, in more recent years, the Palestinian issue. Of course, this does not necessarily lead to anti-Semitism, as many within the Jewish community agree, but they are worried about the crossover. One Jewish lawyer in Glasgow says, “There is some knee-jerk reaction against Israel. I don’t believe it is mainly anti-Semitic, but it can be a gateway drug.”

Whether a gateway or a disguise, Jews in Scotland, just like other communities around the world, have seen how anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism can become combined. In 2006, at the height of the Second Lebanon War, anonymous hands painted the word “Hizbollah [sic]” in large white letters on the sidewalk outside the main gate of Glasgow’s Garnethill Synagogue. This was the first time in its history that the synagogue, opened in 1879, had been the target of any kind of attack.

‘Worse in Scotland’

“We know that not every criticism of Israel, even fierce criticism, is also anti-Semitic,” says Borowski. “If someone writes Hezbollah on a bus shelter, that’s anti-Israel. If someone writes it on a synagogue, that’s anti-Semitic.”

But even when it’s not directed against Jews, it seems that feeling among locals regarding Israel is much more negative than south of the border in England. The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions ) movement calling for a ban on anything Israel-related is particularly prevalent in Glasgow. In the city center there are weekly demonstrations outside branches of the Waitrose and Marks & Spencer chains, calling upon shoppers to boycott them until they stop selling Israeli products.

In Edinburgh, pro-Palestinian campaigners have lobbied the city council not to hire French utility company Veolia, due to its work on the Jerusalem light rail system. And while similar boycott efforts also occur in England, there is a consensus that “it’s worse in Scotland.”

As one Israeli diplomat says, “Every appearance by an official Israeli representative in Scotland is like a visit to enemy territory.” The diplomat may have been exaggerating, but not by much. Every scheduled event in Scotland involving an official or even semi-official Israeli figure will be disrupted by demonstrators.

This was demonstrated very clearly in February 2011, when Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khaldi was invited to speak by the University of Edinburgh’s Jewish society. As he began to speak, dozens of activists from the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC ) stormed in, pulled down the podium and prevented him from uttering a word. Khaldi, a Bedouin, was called a Nazi by the protesters and, for over an hour, was not allowed to continue and eventually left without speaking.

While Khaldi, as a diplomat, should expect to have to stand up for the policies of the government he represents wherever he goes, often in the face of severe criticism – what about the case of a lone Jewish student attacked on campus for his affinity to Israel? The most traumatic example of this was at the venerable University of St Andrews. Late one night in March 2011, Chanan Reitblat, an exchange student from Yeshiva University, was visited in his room by two fellow students, who were checking on a friend who roomed with Reitblat and had passed out drunk. They noticed a large Israel flag that Reitblat had on his wall; one of them opened his trousers, rubbed his hands over his genitals and then rubbed them over the flag. Reitblat claimed that they had called him a terrorist and that one student urinated in the sink.

Five months later, a local court convicted one of the students, Paul Donnachie, of a breach of the peace – and, more significantly, that this had been racially motivated. Donnachie was sentenced to a 300-pound fine and 150 hours’ community service and was expelled from St Andrews.

Donnachie and his SPSC supporters refused to accept that any action directed against Israel could be categorized as “racist” and appealed the verdict, but lost again in the Scottish High Court this April. While the ruling was hailed by Jewish organizations in Scotland, the head of SPSC, Mick Napier, said: “All the hostilities by Donnachie were against an Israeli state symbol. We have a record of not tolerating any species of racism and anti-Semitism. We work very hard to distinguish between them and it is our opponents who seek to conflate the two issues. A national flag is a political symbol and an Israeli flag is provocation to people who see it as a symbol of a terrorist state.”

The rulings in the Reitblat case demonstrated that, despite the political and public atmosphere in Scotland, there was very little tolerance on the part of the courts and law enforcement for anything that seems like racism. In May, over 50 police officers took part in the arrests of five men and a teenager in Glasgow following a six-month investigation. Their alleged crime was posting racist comments on a Facebook page entitled “Welcome to Israel, only kidding you’re in Giffnock” (a suburb of southeast Glasgow where many Jewish families live ).

Facebook had removed the page in 2011, almost as soon as it received complaints of its anti-Semitic nature, though only after the page had already attracted over 1,000 followers. There are, of course, many thousands of cases of racism of all varieties on the Web. Most go unchallenged, at best they are removed, but a full-scale police investigation is almost unheard of in any country.

The sensitivity toward hate crimes is partly because of the Scottish government’s commitment toward minorities, but to a larger degree due to what is often regarded as “Scotland’s shame” – the sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics. While not as deep as in the past, the divide between Scotland’s two largest communities still exists. Many Catholic children study in separate “faith schools” and while illegal, there are still cases of discrimination on religious grounds, particularly in employment at private businesses.

But the worst sectarianism is still centered around Scottish soccer, especially the ancient rivalry between the two great clubs of Glasgow, Celtic (Catholic ) and Rangers (Protestant ). Years of anti-racism campaigns were unsuccessful in reducing the sectarian tension, and hate-filled songs would probably still be sung at “Old Firm” matches between the two if Rangers hadn’t gone bankrupt earlier this year and been exiled to the distant Third Division. This didn’t stop Celtic fans from posting hateful pictures of Rangers players as dead bodies or zombies.

Crossing the line

Some observers believe that the Protestant-Catholic hatred has been so strong in Scotland that other ethnic hatreds, such as anti-Semitism, had no space to evolve. Neither club has large numbers of Jewish supporters, but there is still a bizarre connection to the Middle East conflict: Celtic supporters identify with the Republican struggle to end British rule of Northern Ireland and, by extension, also support the Palestinian cause. Occasionally, they fly the Palestinian national flag, with Rangers fans responding with Israeli flags.

Jim Murphy, a senior Labour Party MP representing East Renfrewshire – the suburban area of Glasgow where most of the Jewish community resides – and, until two years ago, secretary of state for Scotland, believes that sectarianism overshadows antipathy toward Jews.

“Sectarianism is a deep dark divide, which is beginning to improve,” Murphy says. “Anti-Semitism exists, but it is arguably less than in the rest of the UK, though of course we shouldn’t be complacent.” He sees very little hatred on the streets and is mainly worried about online racism. “You can’t control crazies on the Internet. When I was chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, I was getting the most abuse from the Internet and it wasn’t anti-Israel or anti-Zionism – it was sheer anti-Semitism.”

Whether or not it’s a gateway to anti-Semitism, Scots with a political conscience are usually pro-Palestinian. Dundee’s council voted to twin itself with Nablus as far back as 1980, and some members of the community remember anti-Israeli graffiti on the local synagogue around that time. In 2007 Glasgow was paired up with Bethlehem, but there are no similar relations with Israeli cities.

Anti-Israel motions and initiatives will usually be sponsored by a member of the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party. Unlike other major British parties, the SNP does not have a “Friends of Israel” association. “It’s the left-wing tradition but also the fact that the Muslim community here is much larger than the Jewish one, and SNP politicians are pandering for votes,” says one Jewish activist.

On the other hand, there is a general consensus within the community that the SNP has been very careful to differentiate between its policies toward Israel, and its warm relations with the Jews of Scotland. Few encounter animus in their daily lives. Ziv Dotan, an Israeli computer programmer living in Glasgow, says that “the average Scot isn’t interested in the Middle East. There is a small minority which is very interested and has taken it upon themselves to lead the anti-Israel line, but their voice is disproportional to their actual size.” Another community member says, “When I get back from my holidays and say at work that I was in Israel, people are mildly interested but no one is hostile.”

Occasionally, there are times when the Scottish media crosses the line, such as when popular columnist Tom Shields wrote a piece in the Glasgow Herald attacking Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. Titled “If Giffnock was Gaza,” Shields wrote that residents of that neighborhood and Newton Mearns – two areas with large numbers of Jewish residents – would find it hard to get to upscale supermarkets and private schools if they had to suffer travel restrictions such as those imposed by Israel on the Palestinians.

Many Jewish readers were incensed at Shields for dragging the local community into the Israel-Palestine conflict, and for ascribing to the stereotype of “rich Jews.” Shields was unrepentant, saying he had merely chosen two suburbs with a high proportion of supporters of Israel. The daily’s editor eventually apologized, saying there were no anti-Semitic intentions in the column.

The SPSC is considered provocative even by its English counterparts. Among the group’s stunts is the annual event it holds to commemorate the Holocaust with Hamas supporters speaking of Palestinian suffering. But SPSC head Napier insists: “We keep anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism strictly apart. Scots have always been very friendly to Jews.”

As in other countries, the distinction between harsh criticism of Israel and “judeophobia” is further blurred by the presence of Jews in the anti-Israel camp. In August, the Israeli dance company Batsheva performed at the Edinburgh International Festival, despite a petition by prominent Scottish writers and poets to boycott the show and attempts by SPSC members to disrupt the dancers mid-performance. . Meanwhile, members of Sukkat Shalom – the “Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community” – greeted each other from either side of the battle lines.Some arrived at the festival hall as concertgoers, along with Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and ambassador to Britain Daniel Taub; others, also members of the tiny Scottish Jews for a Just Peace group, were part of the demonstration favoring a boycott.

Life isn’t simple for Scottish Zionists, either. “We were always very strong Zionist left-wingers here,” says Mervyn Lovat, a lecturer at Glasgow Business School, “but it’s getting more and more difficult to be supportive of Israel, especially since two of my sons moved there. I just can’t understand why they [Israel] do those things.”

Despite those feelings, one community member who regularly fund-raises for Israeli and Jewish causes says, “It’s extremely rare that someone tells me they are not prepared to give any money for Israel, though it has happened.” Most apparently prefer to hide their criticism.

Says Nick Black, a member of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council: “You have to support Israel, whatever it does, because if you criticize here in Scotland, there will be those who exploit what you say.”