Independence Day - for a pro-Palestinian Scotland?

The Scottish national cause has inherent appeal to Jews: A tolerant, liberal, highly educated population seeking to restore its historic independence. But can its nationalists repeal its conflation of Israel and Judaism and repel Europe’s xenophobic influence?

James McDonald
James McDonald
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Yes campaign and No campaign posters stand outside a polling place in Edinburgh, Scotland. September 18, 2014.
Yes campaign and No campaign posters stand outside a polling place in Edinburgh, Scotland. September 18, 2014. Credit: AP
James McDonald
James McDonald

With the break-up of the United Kingdom a distinct possibility, Scotland’s independence referendum has drawn the eyes of the international community to the northwest corner of Europe. World leaders from the U.S. to the EU, NATO, China and even North Korea have weighed in on the matter, but now all that’s left for them to do is watch events unfold.

The cause of the Scots is one that should inherently appeal to world Jewry. The best educated population in Europe and a once-proud nation that disappeared for three centuries (albeit less than our two millennia), there are a number of parallels between our small communities. But in a Europe increasingly showing the strain of ethnic and religious tensions, what would an independent Scotland mean for Jews? Could the liberal and sparsely populated state provide a haven for Europe’s increasingly beleaguered Jewish population? Or will the rise of nationalist fervor send it along the xenophobic path Europe is currently treading?

The history of the Jews in Scotland is a relatively short one, with the first community recorded in 1816. As would be expected, the current population of anywhere between 5-10,000 is located primarily in the largest cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is also a remarkably bright history, with no recorded instance of a Jew being killed for his or her religious identity. Of course, with its Jewish community being scarcely older than two centuries and the country having avoided Nazi occupation in the mid-twentieth century, such a statistic is perhaps not very surprising.

Overall, Scotland today is a tolerant and liberal society. The Scottish National Party announced its intention to legalize same-sex marriage before the rest of the U.K., although David Cameron’s Conservative Party managed to push the legislation for England and Wales through a few months ahead. Scots overwhelmingly support increased social welfare, free university education and the removal of nuclear weapons. While the British government is currently navigating calls to leave the European Union, with a possible referendum by 2017, Scotland has expressed its desire to remain within the supranational organization. Historically, Scotland has always been far more European than England, importing continental ideas and culture through its vast trade networks with France, the Netherlands and Belgium, and the Baltic.

Perhaps this suggests that an independent Scotland would remain free from the xenophobic pitfalls inherent in many other nationalist drives. While a level of Anglophobia is identifiable, it is primarily the conflicting interests and values of the Scottish electorate and that of the rest of the United Kingdom that have brought the issue of self-determination to a head. The population of Greater London far outstrips that of Scotland, making it impossible for Scottish votes to impact general elections in any way. Scotland is more open to immigration than the London-based British government, and seems to envision a more multi-cultural future. The celebrated Scottish historian, David Daiches, characterized his dual Jewish-Scottish upbringing as one of harmony, noting that Jewish groups have even appropriated Scottish symbols like the bagpipe and haggis.

But being a country with such a small Jewish population carries risks. The five years I spent studying at Scotland’s two oldest universities, St. Andrews and Glasgow, were marred by some unsettling events. In 2011, Paul Donnachie was convicted of a racist attack for breaking into the room of an American Jewish student at St. Andrews and defacing an Israeli flag while calling him a terrorist. Then in 2013, a charity event hosted by the St. Andrews Jewish Society was forced to relocate after the venue withdrew its services following threats made by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which was opposed to the society’s support of the Jewish National Fund and Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. The location of the rescheduled event had to be kept secret, and plain-clothed police officers were brought in as added security.

While legitimate criticism of Israel is not the same as anti-Semitism, the backlash against European Jews during Operation Protective Edge served as a stark reminder that the two are often closely related. Scotland has long been far more critical of Israel than the rest of the U.K., with widespread support for the BDS movement from secular parties and even the Church of Scotland. My personal experience attending a St. Andrews talk with an Israeli official, where loud protests outside occasionally forced the speaker to pause, could have been much worse. At an event at Edinburgh University in 2011, members of SPSC stormed the venue and pulled down the podium, preventing Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khaldi from speaking at all.

The Scottish government is highly sensitive over the issue of religion, necessitated by its long history of sectarian tension between Catholics and Protestants. Instances of anti-Semitism are roundly censured, and there are always attempts to frame protests of Israel as purely political matters. Yet we’ve seen time and again that anti-Semitism can often use the mask of anti-Zionism or anti-Israel rhetoric to lend an air of respectability to religious prejudice.

Given the nature of the Scottish independence movement, there is no reason to believe that there would be a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment following a successful vote – or at least, no more severe than that currently being seen across the British Isles. However, given the more extreme bent of its support of the Palestinian cause, a Scotland in charge of its foreign affairs would likely be a far more vocal critic of Israel. This fact heightens the need of SNP leader Alex Salmond, in the event of victory, to ensure that the conflation of Israel and Judaism doesn’t see Scotland fall victim to the dark anti-Semitism currently on the rise throughout Europe.

James McDonald is a historian and writer living in New York. He studied for an MLitt in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesian7

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