Dani Garavelli: Growing antisemitism in Scotland

IN GIFFNOCK, the heart of Scotland’s long-established Jewish community, where matzos and potato latkes are sold in kosher sections of all the major supermarkets and no-one takes a second glance at traditionally dressed Hasidic Jews out shopping, life appears to be ticking along pretty much as normal. Services at the synagogue are well-attended and customers are flocking back to the kosher deli and café, which recently re-opened at its old site after a fire ripped through the premises.

The foundation stone of Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue. Picture: John Devlin
The foundation stone of Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue. Picture: John Devlin
The foundation stone of Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue. Picture: John Devlin

Yet explore a little more deeply, and you quickly detect an air of unease that wasn’t there before; simmering below the surface of still-welcoming community is a slight air of defensiveness, which is growing in the face of a perceived rise in antisemitism across Europe and attacks on Jewish targets in Paris, Belgium and Copenhagen.

Though there is no intelligence to suggest Glasgow’s Jews are at particular risk, security outside Jewish buildings has been stepped up; there are now police patrols during services at the synagogue – a squat, square building decorated with a large black menorah – to bolster the protection provided by the Community Security Trust. Police officers are also regularly in attendance at Scotland’s only Jewish primary school where children are no longer allowed to line up in the playground in the mornings.

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The number of antisemitic attacks in Scotland doubled last year (rising ten-fold in Glasgow). It is important not to get these figures out of perspective; there were just 31 reported incidents in total (21 in Glasgow). Still, given the size of the Jewish population – 10,000 spread across every local authority area in ­Scotland – it still means Jews are more likely than other religious groups to be targeted.

The nature of the attacks, too, is of concern. Some have been online. Anti­semitic comments were posted on a TV channel’s Facebook page after a news broadcast about the possible opening of a Holocaust study centre in Scotland. But there has been a rise in physical abuse too: a woman is alleged to have had a “burning” substance thrown in her face while working on a stall selling Israeli cosmetics, a senior rabbi was greeted with shouts of “Sieg Heil” and, in Edinburgh, a boy sprayed deodorant at a girl while shouting: “Gas the Jews.” Most recently a sheltered housing complex in East Renfrewshire was daubed with the words: “Jewish C****. Jews Out,” alongside a swastika.

Jewish leaders are used to spikes in antisemitic incidents, usually coinciding with a flashpoint in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and born, they say, of a conflation between Judaism and Middle Eastern politics, but this spate, which began in the summer, is deep-rooted and sustained. The distress caused by individual attacks – in which Jews are often accused of having Palestinian blood on their hands – is exacerbated by a sense that the wider world also views them as pariahs. Though Glasgow City Council’s decision to fly the Palestinian flag after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza strip was politically motivated, the hurt it caused the Jewish community was visceral. “It was partly the fear that it would cause another backlash, but it was also because Glasgow is the place that gave our families a home,” says Louise, a Giffnock resident.

Add to this the attacks on the Jewish Museum in Belgium, the kosher deli in Paris and the synagogue in Copenhagen – and Benjamin Netanyahu’s provocative call for European Jews to move to Israel – and it’s no wonder people here feel demoralised.

“Some people are saying it’s not that bad, you shouldn’t be so concerned, you shouldn’t be talking about the Holocaust, this is nothing like what happened in the 1930s,” says Louise, “and of course it’s not. Still, people think: ‘How did it all start back then?’ They have this nagging feeling at the back of their minds.”

Already the rise in antisemitic sentiment is having an impact on the way East Renfrewshire Jews behave. The community seems to have closed in on itself; people are increasingly reluctant to draw attention to their Jewishness or to engage in political debate. At the kosher deli and café, where specialities include hot salt beef sandwiches and Jewish Penicillin (a soup renowned for its medicinal properties), the owner says he wants to get on with serving his ­customers and does not want to talk ­politics.

But those who are prepared to speak – albeit anonymously – report a dramatic change in the way Jews throughout Scotland feel about themselves and their country, so dramatic, in fact, that Being Jewish, a project undertaken by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) in which a range of people were interviewed about their experiences, is being updated to take into account of shifting attitudes. One woman – Anna – who lives in a rural community, told the original interviewers Scotland was a “darn good place to be a Jew”. Today, she feels marginalised and says her grown-up son has expressed a desire to move to Israel.

At the SCoJeC offices attached to the synagogue, director Ephraim Borowski, a mild-mannered man with a greying beard and a good line in self-deprecating humour, says Jewish people are upset not only by specific attacks but by what they see as a wider anti-Jewish narrative. He has no shortage of stories of overt abuse – the student who came back to her student halls after a holiday to find a paper menorah refashioned into a swastika, or the many ordinary people attacked for “supporting the murder of Palestinian babies”, though their views on Israel have never been sought – but says people were also outraged by one newspaper’s decision to carry Netanyahu’s statement on the front page and a story about the killings in Copenhagen on page 7. “Some Scottish Jews feel so vulnerable, they are reluctant to speak Hebrew in the street, while Israelis living in Scotland often tell people they are Turkish,” he adds.

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Antisemitic attacks have risen right across the UK in the last year; but while in England a significant proportion are being committed by Islamic extremists, in Scotland – where ties between Jewish and Muslim leaders are strong – they are more likely to be connected to left-wing ideology.

Scotland has a long history of pro-­Palestinian support; in the 1980s, ­Dundee twinned with Nablus and, in 2007, Glasgow twinned with Bethlehem (hence the flag flying). As opposition to the Israeli government’s bombardment of Gaza has grown, so too have the calls for boycotts of Israeli goods and the ­frequency and volume of the protests outside events involving Israeli speakers or theatrical productions, as with the picketing of Incubator Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, which led to the show being cancelled on security grounds.

Of course, political opposition to the actions of the Israeli government is legitimate; but Jews in Scotland say some campaigners cross the line from activism to antisemitism, by making assumptions about their views or by holding them accountable for the actions of a government over which they have no power. Others believe political opposition is sometimes used as a cover for antisemitism.

Trying to separate the two is complicated by the fact that more than 90 per cent of Scottish Jews have connections to Israel and more than 80 per cent describe themselves as Zionists. Borowski insists the term Zionist encompasses a wide spectrum of political opinion and that most Scottish Jews (around 75 per cent), including him, believe in a two-state solution. And yet some left-wing campaigners have called for Scotland to be Zionist-free.

“When you hear that, and realise it means forcing more than 80 per cent of Jews out of Scotland, you think: ‘Hang on. This person might not think of themselves as an antisemite in the sense of hating Jews for being Jews, but the fact is they are advocating a policy which is discriminatory in terms of the Equality Act.”

Many Jews in Scotland say that as soon as they admit to being Jewish, they face aggressive questioning and accusations over their position on Israel. “I work with very left-wing people and it’s really uncomfortable,” says Louise. “During the summer, I found it hard to go to work; for a long time I couldn’t even go into the canteen because people would make comments.”

It’s hard enough when you live in a large Jewish community, but if, like Anna, you live in a remote location and have few Jewish friends, it can be even more isolating. “There seems to be so much hatred on the streets,” she says. “If people are having conversations with you, the automatic assumption is you are responsible for what is going on in the Middle East.”

Anna says she doesn’t feel uncomfortable on a day-to-day basis unless she spends time on social media where antisemitism is rife. “But I am being more particular about the people I mix with. I’m keeping myself out of situations where I might have to mix with people who are going to be negative,” she says.

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Because of the link with left-wing politics, the worst tension is focused on university campuses. In 2011, a pro-Palestinian campaigner was convicted of a racially motivated attack on a St Andrews student after he put his hands down his trousers before wiping them on an Israeli flag hanging in his room. And late last year Yiftah Curiel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London, suggested Glasgow University had failed to uphold freedom of speech after a talk he was giving was halted by rowdy demonstrators.

Nicola Livingston, chair of the Jewish Student Chaplaincy, says that where once the bulk of the calls she took from foreign students were about the number of synagogues and outlets selling kosher food, almost everyone who phones up now asks whether or not it’s safe to study here. She says political demonstrations against Israeli speakers breed a climate of “permissiveness” where antisemitic comments are seen as more acceptable.

Nick Henderson, who was brought up a “culturally assimilated western secular Jew” in Glasgow, was so affected by his negative experiences at Dundee University and elsewhere, he left Scotland for Israel. In a piece he wrote for the Times of Israel last week, he told how his involvement with left-wing politics ended when he overheard campaigners “joking” that “if only all the Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust, there would be no Israel and they wouldn’t have to keep going to anti-Israel rallies all the time”.

After he left university, Henderson started a job in a charity shop but says he was forced out when his boss said she couldn’t employ anyone who didn’t understand the oppression of Palestinians. Henderson had few links to Israel growing up but has now taken a Hebrew name and says he feels Israeli.

“Today, I don’t need to apologise for being Jewish. I don’t need to apologise for loving my country. I can sing songs on Shabbat as loud as I like, I can decorate my window with the blue and white flag. I can wear a Star of David necklace or a kippah if I want and not fear for my life,” he writes.

Back in Giffnock, Borowski says he believes other Scottish Jews may have ­already contemplated making the same journey. “They may not have booked 
the one-way ticket, but the idea will be there hovering in the back of their minds.”

Yet the fact is – despite Netanyahu’s call – most Jews in western Europe will stay put, so something had to be done to guarantee their safety. In Scotland, much work has been done to strengthen links with Muslim and Christian leaders. There has also been investment in education, with schoolchildren being taught about the Jewish faith. There has even been a thawing of relations with Glasgow City Council; as awareness of the rise in antisemitism has grown it seems the leadership has started to pay more heed to Jewish sensibilities.

Still, it seems perverse that Jewish people who have lived peacefully and productively in Scotland should require protection when they go to school or the synagogue. “Whatever view one takes of the Middle East conflict, that cannot be allowed to disturb the democratic and civil and religious freedoms and cultural freedoms within Scotland,” says Paul Morron, president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. Despite the current climate, it seems, there’s resilience and a cross-community determination that the country will remain “a darn good place to be a Jew”. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1

Some names have been changed