Should Jews Fear an Independent Scotland?

Proud of centuries of tolerance, Scottish Jews are anxious that a 'yes' vote gives free rein to Scotland's fierce anti-Israel rhetoric that this summer spilled into anti-Semitic threats and vandalism.

Y Y Rubinstein
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Pro-Union 'No' supporters gather during a rally in Edinburgh, Scotland on September 14, 2014. Credit: AFP
Y Y Rubinstein

On Thursday the 18th September, something truly historic will occur in my homeland. Scots will vote in a referendum on whether to stay part of the United Kingdom alongside England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or to break away and stand alone.

The official position of the established Jewish community in Scotland about where Jews should put their “X” on Thursday - is that they have none.

The community knows what happened in Quebec when their referendum to break away from Canada failed by the narrowest of margins. The "Jews" were blamed and anti-Semitism became so bad that significant numbers fled to English-speaking Ottawa. As opinion polls show Scots split 50/50 on independence, staying neutral makes a lot of sense.

In any case, Scottish Jews, with an intermarriage rate of above 75%, are amongst the most assimilated anywhere in the world. Most will vote on Thursday precisely the same way and for the precisely same reasons as every other Scot.

The Jews of Glasgow now only number around 2,000 and Edinburgh’s community is tiny, between 150-200. The “Yes” pro-independence campaign and the “No” camp have not felt the need to do much wooing of Scotland’s Jewish community, at least compared to the solemn pilgrimages both have made to Glasgow’s large Central Mosque.

But Scottish Jews are worried. Their concern is not so much about an upsurge in Scottish anti-Semitism, of which there has historically been remarkably little. Their concern is about Scottish anti-Zionism, of which there is an ample amount.

As a Scottish Jew, I have been very proud of my country’s treatment of its Jews.

The Scottish Declaration of Independence, signed in the town of Arbroath on the 6th of April 1320, stated:

"Cum non sit pondus nec distinccio Judei et Greci, Scoti aut Anglici [there is neither bias nor difference between Jew or Greek, Scot or English].”

That astonishing tolerance of the Jewish people, unique for its time, has changed in ours.

Scotland has been no more immune to the outbreak of anti-Semitism that recently swept across Europe than anywhere else. Scottish Jews became the target. The Scotsman newspaper reported a surge in as a result of the Gaza war, including threatening phone calls, e-mails and graffiti on synagogues.

I led a tour of American Haredi Jews during the conflict and was advised that they should not wear yarmulkes on Scottish streets. We probably would have suffered no more than verbal abuse, but it would be the result of being recognizably Jewish - not Israeli.

That same Arbroath declaration appealed to Pope John XXII for recognition of Scotland's status as an independent, sovereign state, and asserted its right, "To use military action when unjustly attacked."

The Scottish Parliament, however, does not believe that this right we Scots claim for our people and country should be extended to the State of Israel and its people when they are unjustly attacked by thousands of rockets.

The Scottish government has called on the UK government in London to review and reconsider the arms export licenses it issues to Israel. Scottish town halls have displayed as a token of solidarity with the people of Gaza.

I wrote an open letter to the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Sadie Docherty, a few weeks ago:

“In your recent , you express your sympathy for the people of Gaza. You offer no sympathy for the people of Israel who have had to endure thousands of rockets fired at them by the democratically elected government of Gaza, the Islamist Hamas.

Hamas shares precisely the same ideology as the London underground bombers, ISIS, and very importantly from my point of view, the two Islamist terrorists who tried to kill so many .

Hamas calls for the killing of all Jews anywhere in the world, whether they are Israeli, Zionist, or like me, non-Zionist. In short Lord Provost, Hamas calls for the deaths of Glasgow’s Jews...”

I did not receive the courtesy of an acknowledgment or a reply.

Despite the distressing acceleration of anti-Semitism in Scotland it has not, though, been worse than elsewhere in the UK. In Scotland, anti-Israel rhetoric during the Gaza war often spilled over into anti-Jewish rhetoric in letters to newspapers and elsewhere. In medieval Europe, all Jews killed Jesus: They were guilty as a collective. In Scotland as in England, a similar accusatory atmosphere has been prevailing, where all Jews are active partners in and responsible for the “cruel oppression” of the Palestinians. Only if they were critical of Israel was the shadow of suspicion and complicity lifted.

Scottish Jews fear that if Scotland gains independence, that “worse” is precisely what will happen.

Scotland’s politics, like its close Celtic cousin Ireland, are overwhelmingly left-leaning. Europe’s Left is the home of an anti-Israel bigotry and hysteria, which since “Protective Edge” has very often morphed into 1930’s anti-Semitism. Scotland’s government, the Scottish National Party, is left of center. In the entire country there is only one Conservative MP. The major levers of power, and an independent voice in international affairs, together with a seat at the table of international forums, are at present denied to Scotland’s anti-Israel politicians –a situation that may change irrevocably with a yes vote.

So is independence a good idea for Scotland? The Scots will decide this Thursday. Is Scottish independence a good idea for Scottish Jews? They too will decide on that fateful date.

I suspect after everything I have written, they will still vote Yes or No exactly the same way, in the same proportions and for the same reasons, as every other Scot.

They will though continue to worry whether Scotland’s historic referendum of 2014 was a moment that marked the erosion of that astonishing tolerance of the Jewish people that reaches back to 1321.

Y. Y. Rubinstein was born in Glasgow and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has been a regular broadcaster on U.K. national TV and radio, including the BBC, for over fifteen years. An Orthodox rabbi, he is the author of eight books on various Jewish and non-Jewish themes and is a speaker around the world. 

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