Questions Scots can't ignore

By Martin Bright, December 2, 2011

The JC is sometimes accused of scaremongering about antisemitism in the UK. I hope we get the tone right in reporting the facts on the ground, but I recognise it is important not create panic by overstating the problem.

I found myself at the centre of a row about the reasons for the decline in the Jewish population in Scotland when I wrote about the issue last March after a visit to Glasgow.

I was informed that the Scottish government had agreed to an investigation into the steep decline in the Jewish population - from 18,000 in the 1950s to 10,000 today.

This followed a meeting between the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) and the Scottish government's head of community safety. Some suggested antisemitism had played a role in this decline, others felt the causes were more complicated. A dispassionate investigation seemed to be precisely the right way to find out the truth.

It turned out to be wishful thinking on the part of Scotland's Jews: the government had no intention of taking up the issue. The SNP, civil servants in the Scottish government, the Scottish police service, the Scotsman newspaper, and the CST were all sucked into the row.

We may have been guilty of understating the problem

SNP leader Alex Salmond gave a commitment to rooting out antisemitism but said he did not believe that Scottish Jews were under siege (not that anyone had ever suggested they were). I emphasised at the time that the numbers of antisemitic incidents in Scotland were relatively small, and reported different opinions about the reasons for the decline in numbers. In 2008, there were 10 incidents reported to the CST and even during Operation Cast Lead this rose to just 16 attacks (each appalling in its own right, of course).

However, new figures on religious hate crime prosecutions suggest we may have been guilty of understating the problem, not sensationalising it. Statistics issued by the Scottish government show there were 16 prosecutions for hate crimes against Jews in 2010-11. To be clear; these are cases that came to court, not just reported incidents. While the majority of religious hate crime prosecutions in Scotland were anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant, antisemitic attacks made up 2.6 per cent of the total, a higher proportion than the Jewish population, which is less than one per cent. The proportion was also higher than anti-Muslim attacks. Scottish Jews may not be under siege, but they could be forgiven for feeling a little uncomfortable.

These prosecutions included the incident involving Jewish St Andrews student Chanan Reitblat and Palestinian activist Paul Donnachie, who claimed that putting his hand down his trousers and rubbing it on an Israeli flag was a political act. Has an increase in campus activism over the Israel-Palestinian issue fuelled the increase in attacks? It is difficult to know without further investigation.

New legislation to tackle Catholic-Protestant sectarianism in Scotland will indirectly help. Measures in the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill to tackle offensive communications to communal organisations have been welcomed by SCoJeC, as has a crackdown on racist football chants, which are sometimes antisemitic. But no one can pretend these were designed to address Jewish concerns.

SCoJec director Ephraim Borowski is right to say that the community has been "unduly complacent" about the problem. But this is nothing compared to the complacency of the Scottish government and the SNP, which tried to sweep the problem under the carpet when we raised it in 2010. Last September, SCoJeC proudly announced the receipt of a £21,000 government grant to fund its Being Jewish in Scotland project. Some important work will be done as a result, but the sum is frankly insulting. Scottish Minister for Community Safety, Roseanna Cunningham has talked about the "shameful reality of religious hate crime in Scotland". But the prevalence of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants has too often blinded Scottish policy-makers to attacks on Jews.

It is always difficult to get behind the raw crime figures but clearly something worrying is happening in Scotland. If the investigation into the Scottish Jewish community was wishful thinking at the beginning of 2010, at the end of 2011 it is absolutely imperative.

Martin Bright is political editor of the Jewish Chronicle

Last updated: 11:44am, December 2 2011