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Monday, 15 September 2014

Why Scottish Jews are nervous about independence referendum

By Jenni Frazer

<em>'Yes' campaign supporters gather for a rally outside the BBC in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sept. 14. Photo by Paul Hackett/Reuters</em>

'Yes' campaign supporters gather for a rally outside the BBC in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sept. 14. Photo by Paul Hackett/Reuters

Whenever I did something wrong in school my teachers would shake their heads and mutter to each other, with feeling, “Her mother’s English, you know,” in a sort of well-the-poor-girl-can’t-help-it tone of voice. The general ethos was that Scotland, and Scottish education, was utterly superior to England in every way, and that those who had anything to do with England were seriously disadvantaged.

At the same time, Scotland’s Jews were aware that theirs was a country that had never mounted anti-Semitic attacks and had, in fact, been warm hosts to its Jewish minority, most of whom, like the South African Jewish community, came from Lithuania.

Unlike other Diaspora Jewish communities, the Jews of Scotland tended to blend in and change their names. Thus, my best friend at school was the daughter of a doctor who had left behind his birth name of Olswang and become Osborne; and my father abandoned his original surname of Frieze for the more acceptable Frazer, the name under which he fought in World War II.

The Jews of Scotland were, and are, a tightknit community, proud of their sons and daughters who rose to national prominence. There were people like metals tycoon Sir Monty Finniston; leading judge Lady Hazel Cosgrove; and the artist Benno Schotz, who became the Queen’s Sculptor-in-Ordinary. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a sharp and clever lawyer who was one of the leading lights of the Edinburgh Jewish community, became Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary, belying the old joke about there being more pandas in the Edinburgh Zoo than Conservative members of parliament in Scotland.

And yet, things have become gradually darker for Scotland’s Jews in the last 30 years, and Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) — which has precipitated the current move toward independence — has not filled the community with confidence.

Today there are between 6,000 and 7,000 Jews in the whole of Scotland, most living in the Glasgow, which has just staged a confident Commonwealth Games, and the remainder scattered in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling. That the latter three cities are home to Jews at all is largely due to their academic populations, followed in tiny numbers by Israelis.

On Sept. 18, people living in Scotland will be asked to vote in a historic referendum. The Yes campaign will garner those who want to secede from the United Kingdom, the No voters will be those who want to retain Scotland’s place in the Union.

After two televised debates between SNP leader Alex Salmond and the former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, the campaigns have drawn tantalizingly close. On Monday, a TNS poll announced that the sides were about 50 percent each, though other polls are giving the Better Together side — Alistair Darling and the No to independence voters — the narrowest of leads.

Most commentators believe that the No side will just nick victory.

One of the issues that has infuriated expat Scots — like me — is that we have been denied a vote. Only those who are on the Scottish electoral register — which, of course, includes those who are English but live in Scotland — will be allowed to determine Scotland’s future. Alex Salmond, aware that there are more Scots living outside the country than in, was careful to craft the referendum question this way. Almost every Scots-born writer who lives south of the border has written in favor of the status quo — but we do not get to have our say.

This week’s apparent surge in favor of the independence campaigners has caused a financial flurry, primarily because of an ongoing row between the Scottish Nationalists and the Westminster government about a future Scottish currency. In the biggest drop in more than a year, the pound fell by more than 1 percent after Salmond insisted that an independent Scotland would keep the pound sterling and an equally furious George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, insisted that it could not.

Beyond Sept. 18, if the vote goes in the Scottish Nationalists’ favor, is the great unknown. Besides the currency issue, will there be a border? Will there be passports? Will those, like me, who were born in Scotland, require such a document if they want to go and visit their family?

Nobody knows. Scotland’s Jews are keeping the lowest of low profiles, nervous about putting their heads above the parapet. Some of the events of the last few years have left them twitchy and uncomfortable, no longer sure of their automatic welcome. The latest fighting in Gaza in the summer months only emphasized the difficulties: Glasgow City Council flew a Palestinian flag of solidarity above the City Chambers, and there were endless rows over Israeli cultural participation in the annual Edinburgh Festival arts jamboree.

It doesn’t exactly help that one of the most vociferous of anti-Israel MPs, George Galloway, although he sits for an English constituency, is a fiercely out and proud Scot. Nor does it help that much of the direction of the anti-Zionist “debate” is run by active Scottish trade unionists, nor that the boycott campaign is alive and flourishing throughout the country.

In 2011, two students were convicted of defacing a fellow student’s Israeli flag in his rooms at the hall of residence at St. Andrew’s University. But it remains one of the very few successful prosecutions made against the anti-Zionist activists, despite a vociferous campaign on the two students’ behalf by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; an attempt to prosecute a teacher at a prestigious Scottish ballet school, for alleged anti-Semitic remarks directed at one of the ballet students, who happened to be the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, failed after numerous court appearances. Four local councils in Scotland have publicly said they would boycott Israeli goods while one local authority caused outrage — but not overt condemnation — by threatening to weed its libraries of books relating to Israel.

In August, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities called on public bodies to recognize the growing number of incidents of anti-Semitism in Scotland. And Alex Salmond, who has made several avuncular visits to the country’s only Jewish school, Calderwood Lodge, and who is said privately to be on good terms with many of Scotland’s Jewish leaders, has kept relatively quiet. This is the man who is on track to become Scotland’s prime minister should the referendum go his way.

Scottish Jews are as proud of their dual heritage as any other minority in the country. But if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, it’s a safe bet that many more of the community will head south, where they know their rights will be taken seriously by a Westminster government of whatever political complexion. I am really sad that the same cannot still be said with any certainty of the future of Jews in Scotland.

Jenni Frazer is an award-winning Jewish journalist who was born in Glasgow, Scotland

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