The Jews of Scotland – integration without assimilation

Whatever the future holds, it seems certain that the Jewish community will remain an integral part of Scottish life and culture.

Ephraim Borowksi with members of SCoJeC in Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow, the  ‘cathedral synagogue’ of Scotland. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ephraim Borowksi with members of SCoJeC in Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow, the ‘cathedral synagogue’ of Scotland.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Individual Jews have lived in Scotland for hundreds of years, but it was only in the mid-eighteenth century that Jewish communities began to form in Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. At first the two were roughly equal in size, but the growing commercial economy of Glasgow gradually began to attract more Jewish traders and merchants, a position largely reversed in the latest census. Nowadays, in addition to the two main centers of Jewish life in Scotland, Jewish communities flourish in Aberdeen, Tayside and Fife, while there are also some Jewish families in the Highlands and Islands.
In the 2011 census just under 6,000 people in Scotland stated that their religion is Jewish. However when people who were brought up Jewish, or who wrote in “Jewish” as their ethnicity, are included, the total is likely to be between 9,000 and 10,000, representing some 0.1% of the population.
The late chief rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks, once described the Jewish communities of Scotland as combining “strong loyalty to our Jewish faith and way of life, with a deep attachment to Scottish culture and identity. That combination of integration without assimilation has been the delicate balance Jews have striven to achieve, and Scottish Jewry has done just that.”
That Scotland’s Jews are integrated into the fabric of Scotland’s social and political life is well known, and consequently opinion pollsters have sought only rarely to measure their views as a separate exercise. The last major political event on which UK, as opposed to Scottish, Jewish opinion was assessed was Brexit ‒ the nationwide referendum on the UK leaving the European Union. While the Brexit result across the UK as a whole was a clear majority to leave the EU, polls taken later showed that British Jews had voted two-to-one to remain, while a survey for the Jewish Chronicle reported that 59 percent of UK’s Jews were unhappy with the Leave result. The Scottish public voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, but a separate poll of the opinion of Scotland’s Jews was not undertaken. Assessments by Scotland’s Jewish leaders vary widely. Following the Brexit referendum Rabbi David Rose, the long-time rabbi of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation, said that his members have been tapping into their European root
s and “taking out European passports.” Journalist Rebecca Myers, writing in the Times, said that some leading figures in Scotland’s Jewish community had intimated that if there were ever a new referendum on Scottish independence ‒ an issue kept constantly in the political foreground by the Scottish National Party ‒ many in the Jewish community might back it on the grounds that the SNP is strongly pro-EU.
On the other hand, Micheline Brennan, the immediate past chair of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC, pronounced “Scojec”), pointed out that there are very few Jewish members of the SNP. She believes that the majority of Scottish Jews by no means mirror general Scottish public opinion, and are anti-independence. SCoJeC is the umbrella organization, set up after Scotland’s devolved parliament came into existence in 1999, in order to represent Jewish concerns to the government. Its director was, and remains, Ephraim Borowski.
Borowski believes that the life-long political allegiance of many Scottish Jews was profoundly shaken by Jeremy Corbyn when leader of the Labour party. In SCoJeC’s most recent survey, 60 out of 208 respondents said they had always voted Labour but could not vote for “that man”. Many also said they could not vote for “nationalists”.
In Scotland there is no single “Jewish view” on many political issues, but there is a great deal of unanimity on issues that directly affect the community. I asked Borowski about the work of the Council. He explained that establishing devolved government in Scotland had automatically created the need for an organization that could represent the interests of the Jewish community to Scottish ministers, parliamentarians, trades unions and others.
In addition to its political role, the Council provides a support network for the smaller Jewish communities in Scotland, and for families who live outside any Jewish community. It holds events throughout Scotland, arranges speakers and educational resources for schools, a program it has maintained virtually and in other approved ways during the Covid crisis. The Council promotes dialogue between the Jewish community and other communities in Scotland, working to promote equality, good relations, and understanding.
I asked Borowski what lay behind the apparent decline in the size of Scotland’s Jewish community in the period up to the last census. He explained that the census can only count people who tick the boxes, and that when it comes to Religion there is solid empirical evidence that the Jewish undercount could be as much as 50 percent. The findings were being probed in a project being run under the auspices of the Scottish Longitudinal Study Development and Support Unit called: “Demographic change in the Jewish population of Scotland 2001 to 2011”.
I asked about the two surveys undertaken under the auspices of SCoJeC, one in 2012 and the other three years later, relating to Scotland’s Jewish community.
The first was titled: “Being Jewish in Scotland”, and it returned a largely positive picture of the experience of Jewish people in Scotland. Barely a year later, in the single month of August 2014 when the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza was at its peak, SCoJeC received almost as many reports of antisemitic incidents as in the whole of the previous year. So many Jewish people reported feeling uncomfortable, anxious, and even afraid to go about their day-to-day activities, that the Scottish Government decided to fund a further study of how the experience of Being Jewish in Scotland had changed.
The 2015 survey (“What’s Changed About Being Jewish in Scotland?”) canvassed the opinions of around 300 Jewish people. The findings were extremely sobering. No less than 80 percent of respondents said that the events in the Middle East during the summer of 2014 had negatively affected their experience of being Jewish in Scotland.
Antisemitic incidents in Scotland have since declined. The statistics for 2020 now show them to be well below the rate in the UK as a whole on a per capita basis. The situation of Scotland’s Jewish community seems to be reverting to the long-established “integrated but not assimilated” position noted by Rabbi Sacks, best represented, perhaps, during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture in 1990 when the Jewish community mounted an ambitious Festival of Jewish Culture. The Jewish Arts Anthology attempted to examine what is Jewish about Jewish culture in a Scottish context, but came to no clear conclusion. There was only a polychromatic mosaic in which the Jewish community featured as much as any other element.
For example, the Glasgow Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade has long been proud to have the world’s only Jewish bagpipe band, while expatriate Scottish Jews in Israel host an annual Burns Supper complete with the toast to the (kosher) haggis, accompanied by copious quantities of Irn Bru, the Scottish carbonated soft drink.
History tells us that during the Tudor period the royal families of England and Scotland became intertwined, and that when Queen Elizabeth I died, the heir to the throne was the ruling King of Scotland. Accordingly in 1603 James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as King James I, and thereafter the monarchy covered both realms (often against active opposition from Scots preferring an independent kingdom).
With a single monarch, the idea of uniting the parliaments of Scotland and England gained traction during the seventeenth century. Finally the two parliaments passed separate Acts of Union in 1707, leading to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
The UK’s system of parliamentary democracy is a peculiar affair. The Palace of Westminster, in the heart of London, houses the national parliament of Great Britain. It comprises the House of Commons, made up of 650 members of parliament representing constituencies across the nation. A second house, the House of Lords, was originally filled with hereditary peers who had a seat simply by virtue of their birth, but is now mostly composed of worthy appointees.
At present, 59 Scottish constituencies return one MP each to the House of Commons. There are similarly 40 MPs from Wales and 18 from Northern Ireland. These three constituent nations of the United Kingdom also have national parliaments of their own, and so hold their own parliamentary elections from time to time. (It is an as-yet unresolved anomaly that England does not have its own assembly, and so Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on matters affecting England, but English MPs do not have a reciprocal right).
On May 7, Scotland goes to the polls to elect the 129 members of the devolved Scottish Parliament. Until quite recently the Scottish National Party, its eyes set firmly on Scotland breaking away from the UK and becoming an independent state, stood very high in the affections of Scottish voters. The SNP won 47 of the 59 Scottish seats in the Commons in the last UK election, and in polls of national opinion leading to the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary vote have consistently emerged with 50 percent or more, far ahead of the other political parties.
A major political scandal involving leading SNP figures came to a head in the early months of 2021. What effect, if any, this may have on the popularity of the SNP with Scottish voters in general, and Scotland’s Jewish community in particular, remains uncertain. Whatever the future of SNP’s bid for a further referendum on Scottish independence, it seems certain that the Jewish community will remain an integral part of Scottish life and culture.■