Special Report: The decline of Scotland's Jews

Rising antisemitism and a shrinking community prompts Scottish government to back inquiry

By Martin Bright, March 18, 2010
The way it is: graffiti at Glenduffhill Cemetery.

The way it is: graffiti at Glenduffhill Cemetery.

The Scottish government has committed itself to investigating the steep decline in numbers within the Jewish community amid growing concerns about antisemitism north of the border.

Although there were 18,000 Jews in Scotland in the 1950s, there are now only around 10,000.

The move follows a meeting this month between the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) and the Scottish government's head of community safety, Richard Foggo.

Although SNP ministers are yet to decide on the exact form of the investigation, senior figures in Scottish Jewry hope it will allow them to carry out a full inquiry into a community at threat of terminal decline.

The initiative coincides with the publication of the first pictures of the desecration of Jewish graves at Glenduffhill Cemetery in Glasgow, which took place during the Gaza conflict last January.

Slogans sprayed on walls around the cemetery and on the headstones themselves pledged support for Hamas and the Scottish Nationalist Party and called for Jews to leave Scotland. One chilling slogan spread across three headstones simply read "Kill The Jews".

The JC has seen the full set of photographs but has chosen not to publish the most shocking images because they are likely to cause deep distress.

At the end of last year, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, described the perpetrators of the desecration as "deranged". In a letter to SCoJeC director Ephraim Borowski, Mr Salmond expressed "abhorrence" and distanced the SNP from the graffiti, which he called "offensive."

There are still relatively small numbers of antisemitic incidents in Scotland. In 2008, just 10 out of 541 incidents reported to the Community Security Trust occurred in Scotland. However, during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza there were 16 incidents compared to 252 elsewhere.

A report this month for the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs, by Mr Borowki and former ScoJec chair Kenneth Collins, noted: "There has been historically little antisemitism in Scotland, and in particular good relations with the churches. Recently there has been a significant increase, much of it associated with events in the Middle East."

During regular meetings across Scotland, SCoJec found a growing desire to talk about antisemitism. The organisation was surprised to find the issue raised even at a gathering of the tiny Jewish population of the small town of Lochghilphead in Argyllshire, called originally to talk about the position of women in Jewish life.

One of the reasons that the pictures of the desecration have only now been released is that senior figures in the Scottish Jewish community did not want to spark copycat attacks. Some people even questioned whether the desecration should have been raised with the First Minister at all.

Some experts do not believe prejudice has played a significant role in the declining population. Harvey Kaplan, director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, cited multiple causes.

"People are generally less interested in religion, and Jews are having smaller families. Teenagers go away to study and don't come back, and older people move to where their children and grandchildren live."

Mark Gardner of the CST, himself from Glasgow, said the decline in numbers was undeniable but that it was not a place that was hostile to Jews who did choose to settle in Scotland. The litmus test, he said, was the atmosphere at Scotland's universities. "You just don't have the unpleasant stuff on campus that you get in Manchester, Leeds or London."

Anthony Silkoff, a 22-year-old psychology student from Ilford, Essex, agreed. As chair of the Glasgow branch of the One Voice movement, which campaigns for peace across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, he said his meetings were better attended than those of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

"I have never felt threatened by the Muslim students on campus. Last January, when you saw slogans like 'Victory to the Intifada', some students felt very threatened. But I have always believed in sitting down over a coffee and talking to people."

Mr Silkoff's belief in the power of coffee will have been sorely tested this week by the visit of Jeff Halper, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Mr Halper, a fierce critic of Israel, has been touring Glasgow and Edinburgh on a Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign platform alongside Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi, of the British Committee for Universities for Palestine (Bricup). The title of the talk: "Israeli Apartheid, the case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions."

There is nothing inevitable about the demise of Scotland's Jewish community. However, the problem is captured well in the conclusion of the Collins-Borowski essay for the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs: "The key issue for Jews in Scotland is the maintenance of Jewish identity in an open society where, until recently, antisemitism has hardly featured.

"With few younger Jewish activists around, the problems of providing a Jewish environment for the Scottish Jews who remain will become acute."

Last updated: 4:45pm, March 18 2010