A Letter from London – Keep eating the (kosher) haggis
By Antony Lerman | 20/05/2010
The beautiful and rugged Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, is not best known for its Jewish community, but rather as the place to which Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, fled after his defeat in the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 at the hands of the English. With a population of 9,232 in 2001, it is said to have one Jewish resident. But, rumour has it, that was until the Scottish Jewish community (c10,000) took a Jewish cultural road-show to the island and among those who came along were 25 more Jews.
I can't vouch for the absolute veracity of this story but I tell it, first, because the phenomenon of Jews ‘coming out of the woodwork' is a real one, not confined to people brought up under communism. Second, it's to introduce you to the fact that there is a Jewish community in Scotland. And third, to highlight the ‘Jewish politics of size', since despite the hidden Jewish population of Skye, the Jewish community in Scotland, concentrated mostly in Glasgow and Edinburgh, has shrunk considerably over the last 30 years, and the reasons suggested for this have become a bone of contention between different sectors of the community.
One thing we now know is that small Jewish communities do not automatically mean a diminished Jewish life. Jewish pluralism, diverse ways of being Jewish, new methods of delivering Jewish education, culture and news through the internet, the creation of on-line communities—these and other developments have transformed the opportunities for small communities to sustain themselves. Nevertheless, shrinkage occurs for a variety of reasons and while Jewish activity can still be rich and rewarding, actually reversing shrinkage, without an influx of new blood, is most often beyond our capacity to achieve.
But when Martin Bright, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, UK Jewry's leading Jewish newspaper, wrote a 2-page article in March claiming that the devolved Scottish government had ‘committed itself to investigating the steep decline in numbers within the Jewish community amid growing concern about rising antisemitism north of the border', eyebrows were raised.
First, while no one disputes the decline in numbers, the clear implication that it might have something to do with antisemitism seemed, according to the Glasgow Jewish Educational Forum and others, rather far-fetched. In 2008 there were 10 reported antisemitic incidents. It increased to 30 in 2009, the year of Operation Cast Lead. Scottish government officials affirm that all such incidents are deplorable, but point out that, in comparison to overall levels of crime and racist incidents, even the higher 2009 figure is hardly a reason for undue alarm.
Second, those officials have recently denied that the Scottish Nationalist Party minority government has committed itself to any investigation along the lines suggested by the JC. They are clearly committed to ensuring the safety of Jews and all other minorities in Scotland, but rather wish that to be seen as a search for positive ways in which the Jewish community can be helped to maintain its traditions and culture.
It seems that the issue of community shrinkage and antisemitism was raised with the governing authorities by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJec) and may be linked to concerns about a Muslim SNP parliamentary candidate who, Martin Bright implies in his article, may have links with a radical Islam. But if this suggests that Muslim-Jewish relations in Scotland are strained because of polarised attitudes over the Middle East, positive relations between Jewish and Muslim students on campuses appears to belie this notion.