After the Referendum: Scotland and its Jews

A MAN with a tattoo of Scotland on his back holds up a Scottish flag to support independence at a rally in Glasgow. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The votes have been counted and those who dreaded the possible break–up of the United Kingdom have breathed a collective sigh of relief. The sense of relief has been especially noticeable in the Jewish community. In general older voters have supported the union and the Jewish community is certainly an ageing one. However, many of Scotland’s Jews have sensed that there is greater safety and understanding of Israel in the wider British society and this has also been a factor. There was an additional fear, for which there is little real evidence, that a narrow nationalism could lead to the kind of insular chauvinism which is on the increase in certain European countries.

In addition, the long referendum campaign has thrown up a number of issues which have more than just local significance. The voting caught the public imagination leading to turn–out figures of around 85 percent, higher than in any British election for over 60 years. As in many democracies, participation in British elections has been falling and this campaign, with its major implications for the future has, as commentators have said, energized the electorate.

One of the most intriguing questions posed by pollsters asked voters whether they would be voting with their heads or hearts. A very large majority of those polled indicated that they would be ruled by their heads suggesting that the emotional tug of nationalism would come second to the value that could be placed on the continuing union with the rest of the United Kingdom. The polls suggested that Scots were going to reject the opportunity for independence, yet as the debate progressed, it seemed that emotion and hope might even triumph. In the immediate aftermath of the election some voters indicated that they would have preferred Scottish independence but did not feel that the case had been made and therefore voted against it. British constitutional change remains high on the political agenda.

Scotland’s 6,000 Jews, less than half of the numbers a generation ago, have benefited from the devolved government which was set up in 1999. With decision making for most of the day–to–day issues moving to Edinburgh, there has grown a closer relationship between community and government. This has meant an understanding of many of the key Jewish issues, such as get legislation, health ethics and end of life issues, Holocaust commemoration and looted art restitution and many more besides. Jewish organisations, led by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC), have taken the lead in the various ethnic and religious minority organizations and have obtained significant financial support for a variety of social and cultural activities. The Government has also been supportive of initiatives which support Jewish activities in the sparsely populated Highlands and Islands and there has even been money to provide social activities for Israelis living in Scotland. The Jewish primary school is now completely funded by the local authority education department and will move to a new purpose–built education campus paid for by local government. The local authority’s social work department works with Jewish Care Scotland to provide community sensitive care to vulnerable families and individuals. Yet, there is a concern that all this financial input into the community is seen as ‘proof’ of the government’s pro–Jewish agenda while motion after motion against Israel is tabled in the Scottish Parliament.

The support has grown out of the Scottish attitude to multi–culturalism which means different things in different places. In England multi–culturalism has meant that each minority faith group carries on in its own way with little sense of an over–arching sense of Englishness. In Scotland, all the various minority groups are cherished and valued for their role in civic society but there is an understanding that all these groups are expected to form ‘threads in the tartan’ of Scottish life. In other words, there is a national as well as a parochial narrative so that Scotland as a whole has been seen to benefit from the contribution of the various minorities. The Scots and English have shared the same monarch since 1603 but Scotland’s political union with England only came about in 1707 following the failure of a scheme to establish a Scottish colony in Central America. The country was almost bankrupt and the union gave Scots access for the first time to England’s growing imperial presence around the globe. The country flourished during the Scottish Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century and the union preserved much of what was distinctly Scottish, such as the legal system, the Scottish church and crucially the education system which was topped by an open and progressive university system which became one of the drivers of British colonial expansion.

With the retreat from Empire, the decline in British world influence and an ongoing divergence in political allegiance between Scots and English, powers were devolved in 1999 to a Scottish Parliament which, it was believed, would satisfy Scottish nationalistic expectations and thereby strengthen the union. However, increasing popularity of the Parliament in Edinburgh and recent weaknesses in the Scottish Labor Party has led to a demand for more powers and led to a vision of the abyss of separation.

While Jews have seen increasing acceptance of their role in the wider Scottish society and greater support for communal activities there has grown a sense of unease about a latent anti–semitism which surfaces particularly during crises in the Middle East. SCoJeC has repeatedly warned of the dangers of targeting Jews for Israeli actions and this summer’s Operation Protective Edge showed that there were many Scots who criticized Israel’s attempts to defend itself against a group recognized throughout Europe as a terrorist group. The flying of the Palestinian flag from several town halls and the large number of anti–semitic incidents experienced has scared many in the community who see that what might begin as legitimate criticism of certain Israeli tactics regularly crosses the line into open anti–semitism. The Scottish Parliament is also perceived as being hostile to Israel and was a further reason for Scottish Jews to oppose independence. The Jewish community, especially in Glasgow, has played in increasingly activist role in defending Israel and supporting the rights of Israeli companies to trade in Scotland.

The referendum campaign, with 45% of the Scottish electorate showing clear distaste for London politics, will likely lead to major changes in the delivery of government throughout the United Kingdom. Scotland’s Jews will continue to benefit from a wide range of support for its activities but would not like to see this support as being a trade–off for anti–Israel policies emanating from Edinburgh.

Dr Kenneth Collins is a former President of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council and former Chair of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities.