Earler this year at St Andrews university in Scotland, American Jewish student Chanan Reitblat suffered an attack on his Jewish identity when student Paul Donnachie desecrated his Israeli flag.  In a landmark ruling, a Scottish judge found Mr. Donnichie guilty of a racially aggrevated offence for his desecration, done whilst verbally abusing Chanan.  Chanan flew back from New York to give evidence, and ultimately Mr Donnichie was found guilty, in a case which re-affirms the right of Jewish students to express their Jewish identity through Zionism.  

The case has gained widespread media coverage in the United Kingdom and beyond, and I sat down with Chanan, to find out the effect this experience has had on him, and what he hopes the long-term effects will be.

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Oliver (WUJS Chairman) –


 Firstly can you give some details about what happened on the night in question?

Chanan (Reitblat) –

Well I had come back  Shabbat evening, and my roommate came in, being escorted as he was passed out drunk. He was put to bed, upside down in the recovery position.  Half an hour later Paul [Donnachie, the defendant] came in with a friend to check in on them.  I let them in and went to bed.   They tried to wake him but couldn’t, then they started saying things to me about Israel being a terrorist state,that the Israeli flag was a terrorist symbol, and that I’m terrorist.  They said Israel has no history, then started unzipping their trousers and I think you know what happened from there. 

Oliver –

What did happen?

Chanan –

They pulled down their pants, pulled pubic hair off and rubbed it on the Magen David on the flag.  I screamed at them to leave but they wouldn’t, they kept repeating the same things.   I managed to get them to leave, then the other student urinated in the sink and jumped on me whilst Paul was by the door.  It all happened in 2 or 3 minutes. 

Oliver –

When did you next take action?

Chanan –

I initially spoke to my hall warden and decided to calm myself down before taking action. The next morning I went to my JSOC (Jewish Society) to tell them what happened.  That afternoon Paul posted on Facebook that he supports victory for the intifada and that there was a Zionist in the hall, and said the IDF can go fuck itself.  This was the same day as the Itamar massacre, I think it was an attempt to taunt or intimidate me.  At that point I packed and went to see a friend who I could stay at.  That afternoon I went with the President of JSOC to report to the police what had happened.  That evening I was told by the warden that they had been arrested.

Oliver –

How did that make you feel?

Chanan –

I was relieved.   On Paul’s Facebook there were comments and people approving of what he said, I was worried about extremists that he was associated with.  I went to Glasgow for a few days to calm down and reassess my situation; I didn’t feel comfortable at St Andrews. 

Oliver –

And what happened next?

Chanan –

There was a court case for during Pesach which was moved, and then it was moved back until May.  We went to the court and Paul had his lawyer fired the day before to delay the court, because they knew I was going home to America.  The judge said it wasn’t fair to have Paul represent himself.  He offered me the opportunity to testify by video. 

Oliver –

And you chose to come back to Scotland anyway.  Why?

Chanan –

If someone was going to publicly defame me, I want to be there in court to face the person and stand up for myself and my rights, and I knew it would be more powerful in person.  I wanted to stand up for all the Jewish students in this country.

Oliver –

And did you ever expect that this case would have generated this kind of media attention?

Chanan –

In terms of media attention, I think this is a pretty landmark case, but I didn’t expect this much attention.  I’ve had a lot of emails and support from around the world, from Jews and non Jews.  The Scottish PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign) ran a campaign specifically targeting me before and after the trial, misrepresenting my views.  There was a Facebook group called Justice for Paul that was openly anti-Semitic, saying things such as “Jews Should Go to Hell”, and calling me a “Zio-Nazi”, “Ashkenazi”.  Many of these comments came from current St Andrews students, and I think many Jewish students are feeling a bit unsafe.

Oliver –

And the reaction of anti-Israel organizations?

Chanan -

I’m deeply offended by the actions of the Scottish PSC and Scottish Jews for a Just Peace, and as a son of immigrants who fought Jewish oppression in the FSU and YU student, I am deeply hurt by comments of Sarah Glynn of Edinburgh University and St. Andrews who said “as a Jew I should be ashamed” of fighting my right to express my Judaism.  I would never tell her how to express her Judaism.

Oliver –

How do you feel about the verdict?

Chanan –

Firstly I was relieved I had closure, I felt this was victory for all Jewish students. For anyone that believes in what’s right and moral. 

Oliver –

During the case, Mr Donnachie said he was making a political statement.  What in your view made this a hate crime, and not a political statement?

Chanan –

With regards to Israel, it crossed the line when it came to abusive behavior that targeted me for my Jewish identity.  I think it’s fine to criticize Israel, as with any state.  What happened here is that as well as making illegitimate comments, it was done in an extremely offensive way that targeted also my Jewish identity.  They caused alarm and distress with their comments.  
They had no right in the beginning to do this in the middle of the night in my private room.  When it crossed the line into a hate crime was when they accused me specifically of being a terrorist and did what they did to my flag.  This was never a political action.  I was sleeping in my room.  This was not a public space or a public protest.  I was entitled to put a flag up in my room if that expressed my identity. 

Oliver –

What do you think the precedent of this case will be?

Chanan –

Well, the sheriff said Judaism and Israel are linked and illegitimate criticism and abusive behavior towards Israel is a racially motivated crime, and in doing so he affirmed my right as a Jew to define my Jewish identity by my affiliation to Israel, If I should so choose to do so.  What is unique about Israel-haters is that unlike any other form of ethnic , national or religious bigotry, this is done under the cloak of “anti-racism” and “human rights”.  I hope this gives Jewish students a way to stand up for themselves and fight hatred in their campuses and their communities.

Oliver –

Do you have any other feelings, moving on past this attack?

Chanan –

To me, this attack struck a deep chord because in our history, attacks on Jewish people always began with attacks on Jewish symbols, but never stopped there.  The Israeli flag and the Magen David is a symbol representing the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and any pretense that attacking it is “political discourse” or “free speech” or “defense of Palestinian rights” is a facade.  As evidenced by their shameful conduct at trial, what SPSC is trying to do, in essence, is turn Scotland into a place where showing that you are a Jew or an Israeli creates a stigma, and that Jews should be ashamed of their identity, if they in any way associate with the Jewish state. In their mind, that somehow helps Palestinians
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