Heated exchanges as Scottish Parliament debates groundbreaking pro-Israel motion

By Josh Jackman, February 25, 2016
Jackson Carlaw MSP

Jackson Carlaw MSP

The first debate on a pro-Israel motion to take place in the Scottish Parliament has seen heated exchanges in which Israel was accused of apartheid and boycott campaigners described as using the language of antisemitism.

The debate on Thursday was attended by the Britain’s deputy Israeli ambassador Eitan Na’eh and attracted dozens of pro-Israel grassroots activists to stand outside the Parliament building in Edinburgh waving Israel flags.

The motion, tabled by Scottish Conservatives deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, was entitled “Israel Needs Cultural Bridges, not Boycotts.”

Speaking in the debate, Mr Carlaw praised Israel as “a great nation” and “a country of invention” which has since 2004 seen its scientists win five Nobel Prizes.

He said that anti-Israel activists slipped “sometimes deliberately into the language of antisemitism” when making their arguments.

He added that “some overtly personally blame ‘the Jews’, a term used in that context pejoratively over the actions of a foreign country.”

He said this had led to a “feeling of alienation, isolation and vulnerability” among Scottish Jews, “to the point where significant numbers for the first time are saying they are considering leaving Scotland.”

To widespread applause in the chamber, he warned that the Scottish Parliament’s “deservedly proud” record of annually acknowledging Holocaust Memorial Day “must never become simply a box-ticking annual exercise, leaving any one of us free to talk pejoratively the rest of the year about Israel or to … become a cover for antisemitism.

Pro-Israel activists outside the Parliament

Pro-Israel activists outside the Parliament

“Let us reach out and through cultural exchange demonstrate what we can achieve and what boycotts and antisemitism cannot.”

Other ministers, including the Scottish National Party’s Stewart Maxwell and Labour representative Ken Macintosh, urged against a cultural boycott, with Mr Macintosh noting “depressingly illiberal attempts to interrupt or shut down discussion” which he had witnessed.

He asked: “Is that really what we have become? A harsh, unwelcoming, intolerant country more interested in preventing concerts or banning books than in spreading understanding? That is not my vision for the modern Scotland.”

But Green MSP Alison Johnstone accused Israel of “apartheid” and denied that supporting a cultural boycott was antisemitic, calling it “moderate” and a “legitimate form of protest.”

She added that “a deep and unwavering commitment that none of us should ever downplay or forget the atrocities of the Holocaust and the oppression of the Jewish people is entirely consistent with opposing any oppressive actions of the Israeli government or indeed any government.

“To argue otherwise obscures the genuine attempts of people who want to see a fair and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Scottish National Party MSP Fiona Hyslop, who is Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs in the Scottish government, said that the government called for both Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the conflict peacefully and expressed its opposition to obstacles to the peace, such as the firing of rockets into Israel.

The government also condemned antisemitism and affirmed that cultural ties were a way to encourage understanding and dialogue.

There was no vote on the motion.

Mr Na’eh said he was honoured to be the first representative of the Israeli government to be officially invited by the Scottish Parliament.

He said: “The visit continues to build on the good and historic friendships that exist between Scotland and Israel.”

Last updated: 5:10pm, February 25 2016