Would a Vote for Independence Affect Jewish Life in Scotland?

Senior Scottish Jewish figures are quick to dispel fears of community members leaving in a Yes vote; most are opposed, but there is not a singular community political stance.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A Yes campaigner and a No campaigner stand outside a polling place in Edinburgh, Scotland. September 18, 2014.
A Yes campaigner and a No campaigner stand outside a polling place in Edinburgh, Scotland. September 18, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

GLASGOW, Scotland – As Scotland goes to the polls today to vote in its long-awaited independence referendum, the local Jewish community has tried to keep a relatively low-profile. Passions are running high as a proud nation has a chance to achieve independence and no-one wants to make the Jewish vote into an issue. As it is, this isn't a great time to be mixing Jewish identity with politics.

Since the beginning of July, there have been 40 recorded incidents of anti-Semitism, or as they are recorded in Scotland, hate crimes directed at Jews. This is a higher number than all the incidents in the previous two years and it is of course connected to reactions to the conflict in Gaza. While none of these incidents have included actual violence towards Jews, only verbal abuse, vandalism and online anti-Semitism, and all have been dealt with professionally by the local police, the sensitivity of Jews today in Scotland is understandable. This hasn't played in any way into the referendum debate, though the left-wing tendencies of many Scots has lead to a deal of sympathy for the Palestinians, including the flying of Palestine flags form a number of local council buildings. But in some cases it has changed voting intentions.

"Two people who were planning to vote Yes in the referendum have told me that now they are voting No," said one member of the Glasgow community. "They changed their mind following the wave of anti-Semitism in the summer and even if it's not connected to the independence issue in any way, it has made them feel less secure."

Added to this are dark mutterings among some Jewish families of "packing bags" if Scotland gets independence. Senior Scottish Jewish figures are quick however to dispel such fears. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a native of Edinburgh and a member of parliament for most of the last 40 years, including 18 years as a minister, during which he was, among other posts, Secretary of State for Scotland, says there isn't such a thing as "a Jewish vote" in Scotland.

"This is not like the U.S. where Jews have a major political presence and tend to vote for one party," he says. "Of course if you had any controversy over issues that affect the Jewish community like Kashrut or support for Israel, then you can have a communal approach but on the vast majority of issues Jews vote as individuals."

Rifkind, as a veteran member of the Conservative Party, is resolutely opposed to independence and has spoken at numerous events in recent months to ensure that his party's supporters in Scotland will all turn to vote in favor of remaining in the union, but he doesn't believe that if his side loses in the referendum, it will harm the Jews.

"The community will not be affected by outcome one way in another. It has a very good relationship with the Scottish National Party (SNP) and while I'm against the nationalists, you have to point out in their favor that they have never said that to being Scottish is based on ethnicity."

Rifkind believes the majority of the Jews will vote against independence because it "reflects their social economic background as comfortable middle class professionals and businesspeople. That's true of non-Jews as well who belong to that social-economic sector, most of them are voting no."

Where their Jewish identity comes into it, according to Rifkind, is their heritage as refugees. "The question which is often asked here is: Are you more Scottish or British and what would you do if you had to choose? When my grandparents arrived in Edinburgh, they didn't think they were coming to Scotland, they thought it was Britain. Also many Jews here and married to partners who came from outside Scotland, and that also has an effect."

A few months ago, at a Jewish community event in Glasgow, a straw poll was held over independence and the result was 200-3 against. Since then, the community has not carried out any polls and its members seem to prefer it that way. , though . Communal leaders have instead tried to highlight the close cooperation they have with the Scottish government, that has been controlled by the SNP since 2007 and emphasize the fact that while there has been a lot of criticism of Israel by figures in the party, its minister for external affairs has publicly opposed calls for boycotting Israel.

Over the last fifty years, the number of Jews in Scotland has dwindled by about two-thirds from a peak of over 20,000. Despite its small numbers, the community, especially in its main centers of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also in far-flung corners of the Highlands, has succeeded in maintaining a vibrant Jewish life with dozens of organizations focused on welfare, Jewish culture and education – it is understandable that they are trying to juggle the concerns over anti-Semitism and xenophobia with a desire to continue projecting a stable and confident image in order to pull more non-affiliated Jews into the communities activities and not create an atmosphere where young Jewish professionals with job opportunities in Scotland will be frightened away.

Ephraim Borowski, Director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) treads therefore a wary path between issuing warnings over the large number of hate-crimes in recent weeks and smoothing down any resulting tension. He told Haaretz that "although the recent reassurance from the First Minister, Lord Advocate, and Chief Constable, that Scotland will not tolerate hate crime of any kind is very welcome, it is nonetheless clear from the messages that SCoJeC has received that many members of the Community are seriously concerned about the recent surge of anti-Semitic incidents."

He believes that at the end of the day, the referendum will not have an impact on Jewish life in Scotland "because almost all of day to day life is already governed from Edinburgh, the outcome of the referendum is unlikely to make much of a practical difference for the Jewish community."



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