Be careful what you wish for

As Scotland looks to leave the United Kingdom, the Jewish population residing there may have to do the same.

By
September 17, 2014 13:56
Scotland

A MAN with a tattoo of Scotland on his back holds up a Scottish flag to support independence at a rally in Glasgow.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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It was June 1973. As part of the school English syllabus, I and my fellow Eastwood High School pupils had been dragged along to the Citizens Theater in Glasgow, forced to see the play, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil.

John McGrath’s groundbreaking musical and political drama sent shockwaves in all directions. One of those waves must have hit me, because that was the only explanation. I didn’t like the theater. I especially didn’t like musicals. They were all boring. So why had I been glued to my seat? Why had I laughed along with the crowd at the political jokes – that in truth, I probably did not understand? Why did I feel – yes, really feel – something special in the air?

I left that performance, giddy with the after effects of the play. However, I do remember, on the pavement outside the theater, greedily grabbing and devouring the literature that savvy members of the then tiny Scottish National Party were handing out.

That was my introduction to the SNP. That was the start of my belief in the idea of an independent Scotland. Then it was a dream. Recently, that dream has turned into a nightmare.

Let me explain.

I made Aliyah from Glasgow in the summer of 2009. I still have family, friends, and acquaintances in the Jewish community there, and have made visits for smachot, and to recharge my Irn Bru[1] taste buds.  Inevitably, the topic of the referendum has surfaced in polite conversation.

Generally, my impression is that most members of the community are opposed to Scottish independence; there are some pockets of SNP support, but they are in a minority.

If you had asked me six months ago about the effects of an independent Scotland on the Jewish community, I would have (perhaps naively) answered that I would not have expected any material change. Things would continue, as they have for other small diaspora communities, with people largely free to follow their religion without interference or harassment.

However, then came the recent Gaza war.

Part of that war was fought out in the arena of social media. There, many of the pro-independence groups lined up, resolutely and completely, with the Palestinians. They were not all Hamas supporters, but there was little sympathy or understanding for the position of Israel and its citizens.

That’s being polite.

A less restrained version of events would be that the conflict unleashed a veritable online tsunami of bigotry, hate, and defamation towards Israel, the idea of a Jewish state, and Jews. It was as if the poison had been bubbling away, hidden below the surface, waiting for the right moment to be pumped into the world outside.

Incidentally, I ventured into that sewer a few times and asked how a people struggling for their own state of independence – the Scots – could deny the right of the Jewish people to the same. The replies were full of delusional, incoherent, hate, and personal insults. It’s worth noting that it was clear many of the haters were ignorant about the most basic facts concerning Israel.

My memories of Scotland and the Scottish people did not include such vicious hatred. Sure, I had witnessed and experienced instances of out and out anti-Semitism.  However, they were far from commonplace. And all the time I lived in Scotland, I never felt threatened or at risk.

But, it appears, the last Gaza conflict has sparked a change.

For example, for as long as I can remember, on most weekends pro-Palestinian campaigners used to have a token presence – a table and chairs and tatty leaflets available for distribution - outside the Argyle Street, Glasgow branch of Marks and Spencers. But few noticed, they were mostly ignored, and I don’t recall any trouble.

Recently, however, the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement has surfaced for real. In Glasgow and Edinburgh it has launched what appear to be picket like activities, brimming with intimidation and bullying behavior directed at stalls in shopping centers selling Israeli products, and their potential customers.

As another example, take the enforced cancellation of performances at the Edinburgh Festival by the Jerusalem-based Incubator Theater, after Palestinian agitators held intimidating public protests. With their safety at risk, it was no surprise the Ben Gurion University student dancers withdrew from the Festival.

As yet another example, take the decision of some Scottish Local Authorities to fly the Palestinian flag in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Despite some cogent representations from the Jewish community and other parties, noting the divisiveness of such action, the authorities could not be persuaded otherwise. No authority was willing to fly the Israeli flag.

All such cases and others adversely affect the lives of Jews in Scotland. They create an atmosphere in which people are fearful of identifying as being Jewish or as having connections to Israel.

And that’s before independence.

This sea change in the political arena in Scotland has ended my belief in the idea of an independent Scotland. I no longer see it as something to strive for. Quite the opposite.

Much as it pains me, I fear for the welfare of the Jewish community in an independent Scotland.

I expect those in political power to make all the right noises about protecting minorities, and respecting opposing opinions.

But at the same time, I would expect certain actions to follow independence.

For example, during the Gaza conflict, the Scottish External Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf made an offer to treat wounded Gazans. Personally, it looked to me like political posturing rather than any serious attempt to do some good. After independence, there would surely be more of the same, but probably going beyond gesture politics.

Perhaps it’s not unrealistic to expect the establishment of a PLO office in Scotland, to be greeted with continuing exchanges of fraternal greetings and joint condemnation of Israel.

For sure, the country’s foreign policy – laughably touted as being ‘ethical’ – will be hostile to Israel.  

And I would expect BDS to be adopted as official government policy.

The referendum has succeeded in getting more people more involved in the political process than has been the case for a while. If there is independence, I expect some of that involvement to be used by anti-Israel interest groups outside the mainstream, to campaign for positions which are even more radical and anti-Israel. (Might an independent Scotland end up, unwillingly, mimicking Venezuela?)

I am hoping that outright acts of anti-Semitism will continue to be rare and isolated. But I fear that independence will bring about a drip-drip effect of measures that will increase the discomfort of the Jewish community.

I should say that the Jewish community has not been taking things lying down. A number of grass roots and communal initiatives that have impressed me with their fervor and energy. They fight a much better resourced and numerous enemy, but they are putting up a good fight.

Unfortunately, while I hope I am wrong, the future does not look good. The bottom line is that, eventually, I expect the community – or those parts that are able – to get up and leave.  It would be a sad ending for a community that has enriched Scotland with substantial contributions in the arts, sciences, medicine, the law, commerce, and elsewhere. But the realization of my dream of an independent Scotland, one that started with the swish of the curtain going up on The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, may ironically also signal the curtain coming down on the Jewish community in Scotland. Now that would be a nightmare.

[1] Irn Bru is a bestselling Scottish soft drink, often described as "Scotland's other national drink" (after Scotch whisky). It is not readily available in Israel.

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Ellis Simpson is a former Scottish lawyer, now a writer in the Israeli hi-tech sector. Married, with two grown up children, he lives in Ra'anana, and even after five years still misses the rain. His blog about life in Israel, gaming, and other topics of interest - at least to him - is at www.raananagamer.com.

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