Jews on Scottish Independence: More Faintheart Than Braveheart

The second in a series of articles on Scottish Jewry gauges the community’s thoughts on the possibility of Scotland gaining independence from the rest of Britain in 2014. The main response seems to be a shrug of the shoulders rather than a call to arms.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

GLASGOW - "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule." This quote is from the Declaration of Arbroath, a 14th-century letter by Scottish nobles to the pope in Rome, petitioning his support for an independent Scottish kingdom. It can be found, among other places, at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.

The Declaration of Arbroath is a text much beloved by today's Scottish nationalists, eager to sever Scotland from the United Kingdom and transform it into an independent state. It is also a document oft-quoted at events and in official documents of the Jewish community in Scotland, since it contains the words, "There is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman."

Does this earliest known iteration of equality for Jews in any statement of national identity encourage the Jews of modern Scotland - the rare European country never to have persecuted or discriminated against its Jews - to support their compatriots' demand for independence from London? Or is the cosmopolitan community worried about nascent stirrings of nationalism?

Simple yes-no question

Earlier this month, Scotland's First Minister (top political leader ), Alex Salmond, met with British Prime Minister David Cameron to set the parameters of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Cameron is deeply opposed to any notion of breaking up the Union, which has existed officially for over 300 years, since the 1707 Acts of Union (and, unofficially, for additional centuries during which England dominated its northern neighbor ). But whatever he or any other politician in Westminster may say, Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, could have used the majority his party enjoys in the Scottish Parliament (established in 1999 and responsible for most issues of domestic policy, even as foreign affairs and defense continue to be run from London ) to force a referendum anyway.

Rather than allow a constitutional crisis and an irreparable rift between the main components of Great Britain, Cameron is prepared to allow the referendum to go ahead, in the hope that British identity and the benefits of remaining in the Union will be enough to convince most Scots to vote against independence, and to lay the issue to rest for at least another generation. Behind the scenes, there has been a tug-of-war between the two men over the terms of the referendum. The final deal included concessions from both sides - Salmond agreed to have just a simple yes-no question on independence, which many believe will intimidate voters. Cameron conceded that anyone over the age of 16 will be eligible to vote - a bonus for the nationalists, who believe younger Scots are more independence-minded.

Now that the terms have been agreed upon, a two-year campaign is kicking off, with voting scheduled for fall 2014, shortly after the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn - a rare victory for the Scottish army over the English and commemorated to this day in the unofficial Scottish national anthem, "Flower of Scotland," sung at football and rugby matches.

But despite his party's full name being the Conservative and Unionist Party, Prime Minister Cameron will not be leading the campaign to preserve the Union. The Tories are deeply unpopular north of the border and have been for generations. Despite the Conservative Party being the largest in the current parliament, out of the 59 members representing Scottish constituencies, only one is a Tory. Cameron wouldn't like to admit it, but if he were to become the standard-bearer, he would be benefiting Scotland's pro-independence camp.

Ironically, the opposition Labor Party will be fighting alongside the government as it takes on the SNP in a battle over definitions of patriotism and nationalism within the leftist camp. Scottish politics are predominantly left-wing politics, and the local Jewish politics are also mainly of the left.

Representing less than quarter of a percent of the wider population, Scottish Jews are hardly a representative group, but from the interviews I conducted, there is a consensus view that the great majority of them lean left, like the rest of Scotland. "We are a very left-wing country," says Mervyn Lovat, a lecturer at the Glasgow Business School, "and very much a giving and caring society. This is reflected also in the ideals of the Jewish community, where everyone is involved in some kind of volunteerism - especially in caring for the elderly and the needy. This and the good relationships [between] the community and the local government here make me and other Jews open to the idea of independence."

The referendum is still two years away, and Lovat hasn't yet decided how he will vote, but he says he "is probably more pro-independence, and people here will feel a lot more comfortable if we have an independent Scotland." He is not worried that an independent Scotland would be weak commercially, noting that "Glasgow has good trade connections with North America." With regard to Scottish xenophobia, he believes that the SNP's left-wing credentials ensure that "it's not hard nationalism."

Jews played a proud part in Scotland's radical-left history, especially among the "Red Clydesiders" - a movement of militant trade unionists who, in the 1920s, seemed to many in Britain to be the vanguard of another Bolshevik revolution. One of the Red Clydeside leaders, Manny Shinwell - the son of Polish emigrants - was a leader of the strikes and demonstrations, and was imprisoned for five months. He went on to become a member of Parliament, senior Labor Party minister and, despite his radical beginnings, a lord.

Scotland's Jews have come a long way from the days when most of them lived in the working-class slums of Glasgow's Gorbals district. The children of those immigrants went to universities and into the professions, prospering and moving out to the suburbs. Today, they are unlikely to be found in "red" circles of trade-union activism. The only prominent Scottish Jewish politician of the last generation is the Edinburgh-born Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who held a series of senior posts in the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and who is still a veteran Tory backbencher. The Conservative Party being so weak north of the border, Rifkind no longer represents a Scottish constituency but a well-to-do London one.

The prevailing mood among Scottish Jews is somewhere in the middle between the firebrand socialism of Lord Shinwell and the comfortable conservatism of Sir Malcolm. Most of the community would have been happy to continue living their quiet lives without having to bother much about politics, but the last decade and a half has been a turbulent time in Scottish politics.

In 1997, the Labor government in Westminster held a referendum on the issue of "devolution" - the establishment of a Scottish Parliament with wide-ranging powers over domestic policy and control over taxation. The referendum passed and the new Scottish parliament was duly elected in 1999, controlled by a Labor majority that formed the Scottish Executive. But in the elections of 2007, the SNP overtook Labor for the first time, emerging as the largest party and forming a minority government. And in the most recent, 2011, elections, SNP members were, for the first time, the majority. The party, heralded by political pundits as "the best campaigners in Britain" and headed by its energetic leader Salmond, has been pushing the independence agenda, though polls show that many of its electorate aren't convinced of the justification for an independent Scotland.

'Better together'

Polls currently have support hovering around a third of the electorate. According to a poll appearing earlier this year in The Economist, only 21 percent of Scottish voters would support independence if it would leave them 500 pounds a year worse off, while only 24 percent would vote to stay within Britain if that would cause them any financial damage. In other words, most Scots do not seem to care very much either way right now, as long as they will not be significantly out of pocket.

The parties opposing independence hope to campaign on the financial benefits for Scotland existing within a stronger economic entity and on the slogan of "We are better together" - as they believed was proved in this summer's London Olympic Games, where English, Scottish and Welsh athletes all contributed to the joint Team GB record haul of medals. The SNP isn't downhearted by the lack of enthusiasm in the polls - they reckon that two years is a long time to stoke up patriotic fervor. They also believe that giving 16-year-olds the vote will create a groundswell of national feeling from the younger generation.

Meanwhile, it seems as though the Scots who will be voting for the first time do not yet even understand exactly what the referendum will be about. Amy Jacobson, a student at City of Glasgow College, said that as a Jew born in Glasgow, "I feel that I am Scottish first, before being British, but I don't know how I will vote because no one has yet explained what the referendum is going to be about."

But it's not only the young who feel they can't make a call yet. "The bottom line is we don't know enough," says Alex Steen, a veteran community professional who runs the Scottish regional office of the United Jewish Israel Appeal, a leading Jewish and Zionist charity in Britain. "The people on the street are not as familiar with the question as you may expect, looking from outside. There hasn't been very good publicity on the issue."

"There isn't a Jewish position for or against independence," says Ephraim Borowski, the director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities. "My gut feeling, though, is that the majority are opposed." SCoJeC was established after devolution was voted through in 1997, to ensure that the Jewish community's interests were represented and protected within the new Scottish administration.

Borowski believes that Jews have nothing to fear from Scottish independence, noting that the community's relations with the SNP are very good. "The SNP is a single-issue party, but very few of them are nationalist right-wingers," he says. "Most would have been Labor party members if there was no SNP. Maybe people would be less suspicious of them if they were called 'Scottish Independence,' but they have been very supportive and have favored funding Jewish projects and outreach work, and have a general commitment to ethnic diversity. If the referendum was to pass in 2014, life would carry on as before."

Indeed, there is very little animosity to be heard among Scottish Jews toward the SNP, though many of the party's leaders are rather critical of Israel. As with many other Scots, their opposition to independence is rooted in financial considerations, not questions of identity or ethnicity. "A lot of people voted SNP for their education and welfare policies, but have no desire for independence," says Joel Conn, a lawyer from Glasgow in his mid-30s who is active in the community. "In my 20s I believed in an independent Scotland, but I am no longer convinced that we can work as an independent country. It would mean a huge upheaval - redeploying NATO bases, renegotiating EU membership. It's more a protest vote and less a clear policy."

Edward Isaacs, head of the Jewish Glasgow Representative Council, says that "the vast majority of Jews feel an affinity to the Union and wouldn't want change. We were welcomed in the U.K. and found asylum here." He is not worried by the SNP, though, believing them to be a moderate party, "not nationalists."

However, not all Jews are so confident. "I'm against independence because I feel that while the SNP is relatively harmless today, they won't stay the same," says one veteran member of the Scottish community, who asked to remain anonymous since he works closely with government officials. "For now they are restricting themselves to propaganda and signposts in Gaelic that no one really needs. But as a Jew who has relatively short roots in Scotland, and with friends and family in England and Israel, as much as I feel Scottish on the outside, I fear that one day people will start asking: 'How Scottish are you?'"

This is the almost unspoken fear of Scottish Jews - that the wave of largely benign nationalism will evolve into something more sinister. There is a very Jewish fear of change and, above all, nationalistic chauvinism. As one local Jewish academic says, "In an age when countries are coming together in the European Union, it doesn't make sense for Scotland to break away. Certainly someone who comes from an immigrant background should want to be more cosmopolitan."

Jim Murphy MP represents East Renfrewshire, the suburban area of Glasgow where most of Scotland's Jewish community resides. Until two years ago, he was Secretary of State for Scotland and, as a Labor frontbencher, is resolutely opposed to independence. Even so, he trusts the people of Scotland not to veer into xenophobia during the independence campaign. "Everyone involved in the debate over independence has a clear responsibility to argue for patriotism and nationalism in a responsible way," he says. "Conducting the debate aggressively can create a sense of 'the other,' but I'm confident that won't happen. Anyone who thinks to create a debate based on exclusion will be punished - a majority of Scots will say, 'If this is your vision of Scottishness, we don't want it.'"

Next week: Scotland, not anti-Semitic - but anti-Zionist.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond with a group of Jewish schoolchildren learning about Hanukkah.Credit: SCoJeC



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