Seeing Scotland through its Jewish community

With increasing antisemitism and a shrinking community, Scottish Jews are still proud of their history and country but wary of the future.

February 18, 2017 06:21
Scottish Jews

Garnethill synagogue, Glasgow’s first permanent synagogue, where the Scottish Jewish Archives Center is based. (photo credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN)


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Scotland, once acclaimed by its Jewish residents for being the only country in Europe where a Jew has never been murdered for being a Jew, seems to be experiencing a rise in antisemitism and a drop in Jews.

The number of antisemitic incidents in Scotland doubled in 2014, making Jews the most likely religious group to be targeted, according to a report by the Community Security Trust. Reported incidents throughout the UK exceeded 1,000 in a single year for the first time.

According to the most recent census, there are about 5,800 Jews in Scotland, the majority of them in Glasgow, down from 6,400 10 years ago, said Kenneth Collins, author of The Jewish Experience in Scotland. At its height, in the middle of the last century, there were around 15,000 Jews in Scotland.

“It’s just an extension of blaming Jews for the ills of the world,” said Nicola Livingston, co-chair of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. Yet she admitted the council and the Scottish Jewish Student Chaplaincy, for which she is a former chair, have seen a spike in incidents since the 2014 Gaza-Israel war. She said for its first 40 years, the chaplaincy program saw only a handful of hate incidents. In the last five years, “it has been a constant problem.”

“I used to get calls asking where the kosher shops are or where students can go for the holy days,” Livingston recalled. “Now people ask, ‘Is it safe?’”

The Scottish parliament has become attuned to growing concern by Jewish residents. In 2015, Scotland’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, met with the Jewish community of Glasgow more than once. During those meetings, community members expressed their fears. Sturgeon tried to allay them. She made it clear that incidents of antisemitism will not be tolerated. She likewise affirmed Israel’s right to exist.

Sturgeon said, “This is a community [whose members] are scared in many respects but are nevertheless determined to stake their claim to the country they live in and say to me that they want these concerns addressed,” reported the London Jewish Chronicle.

SAMMY STEIN has fond memories of growing up in Glasgow across the road from the synagogue and around the corner from the Jewish day school. He was involved in the then-active Habonim Zionist youth movement and sang in the synagogue choir.

“My whole life revolved around the Jewish community,” said Stein, who moved to Scotland from Israel when he was 10 and has lived there for more than four decades. Stein’s father was a kosher butcher. Today, the community gets its kosher meat from Manchester.

The first Jews came to Scotland in the late 1600s, and arrived in Glasgow in 1790. The city today has the largest Jewish community in the country, according to Fiona Brodie of the Scottish Jewish Archives Center. The archives are housed in a building adjacent to Glasgow’s first synagogue, Garnethill, established in 1881.

Brodie said Jews came to Scotland in the 1700s to study medicine because Scottish universities were the only UK institutes of higher education that did not require doctors to take their oath on a Christian Bible.

Additional synagogues, cemeteries, a Jewish geriatric center and Jewish newspaper all opened and thrived over the last century. Brodie said the community peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, at which time there were 19 synagogues in eight cities. Today, there are eight synagogues in four cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee). Two synagogues have closed in Glasgow in the last two years.

Brodie recently had her own brush with antisemitism. A young non-Jewish boy on one of her school tours of the archives asked, “Why are you living in Scotland? Why don’t you go back home [to Israel]?” Brodie was born in Scotland.

THE LINES between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism are often blurred in Scotland, said Stein, especially on university campuses, where Jewish students report hiding their Jewish identities because of rampant anti-Israel activities.

The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (Scojec) carried out inquiries in 2012 and 2014 and found that the manner in which some academic and research staff expressed their views about the Middle East has contributed to students feeling discriminated against or compelled students to deny their religion.

Scojec showed evidence that staff criticized students’ work if they did not agree with their viewpoint on Israel.

One student said he was told to take an exam on Shabbat or fail the class. Another student said she no longer studied in the library for fear of being harassed or attacked.

In October 2015, 10 Scotland-based academics were among 300 from British universities to announce a boycott of Israeli universities in protest of what the professors deemed “intolerable human rights” violations by the Jewish state.

Livingston said Scotland has an active Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has managed to infiltrate the campus and much of civil society.

“BDS and other Palestinian groups take full advantage and actively invade the universities, local councils, public domains and they have managed to have great support with the trade union movement,” said Pastor Arthur O’Malley, a Scottish Evangelical Christian and Israel advocate.

“When our major cities choose to fly the Palestinian flag in a show of solidarity… it shows you the impact they are having,” he said, referring to an incident in August 2016 when entire sections of fans at Glasgow Celtic’s stadium displayed Palestinian flags to protest Israeli “occupation.”

Scotland’s dominant party, the social- democratic Scottish National Party (SNP), which holds 63 of Scotland’s 129 parliamentary seats, supports the Palestinians, said Stein. This has led to a large number of anti-Israel motions. Between May 2011 and this time last year, of 355 foreign affairs motions in Holyrood, 65 were about Israel. Only 13 were about Syria.

In an effort to infuse greater balance in the party, Stein and three friends joined SNP and launched SNP for Peace in the Middle East. Stein also runs Glasgow Friends of Israel. Each Saturday, he and other members set up a stall and table in the Glasgow city square.

Vicky Stein, Stan’s wife, said she created an Israeli flag tablecloth to drape the table. She wove together the Israeli and Palestinian flags for bunting and they hang the Scottish flag from on top.

Some people come and spit on the Israeli flag, she said, but many more come and ask questions.

VICKY SAID she is not convinced Scotland is as antisemitic as people perceive. “I’ve heard about 20% support Israel, about 20% support the Palestinians and the other 60% aren’t even engaged.”

Dr. Mira Spiro, a lecturer in Jewish studies at the University of Glasgow, expressed similar sentiments. She has been in her position for three years and commended the university for hiring a Jewish studies lecturer when many other UK universities are cutting such positions. She said much of what Jews perceive as antisemitic stems from ignorance, and that Glasgow is no worse than any other campus on which she has worked.

“Anti-Israel activists and activities exist on most campuses in Canada, the US and the UK today – Glasgow is not an exception,” Spiro said, noting the greater challenge is that Jewish students are often asked to answer for the Israeli government or are made to feel like they have to answer for being who they are.

Vicky Stein insists that while some Jews have left Scotland because of the threat of antisemitism, the majority has left because they are studying abroad – such as in London, Israel, Australia or America – and choose to stay. Parents/ grandparents often follow.

Also, there is ever-increasing assimilation and a high-level of intermarriage. All the Steins’ five children married out of the faith.

However, many Scottish Jews still are not ready to sign on a fate outside of the country of their birth. Vicky notes that the Glasgow city tagline is, “People make Glasgow,” and she said the Jews feel they are part of those people and are determined to keep it that way.

“Glasgow Jews are very proud of their Jewish history,” she said. “There are many places that I would not want to live as a Jew today,” adds Spiro, “but I think Scotland is a comfortable place.”

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