Just as I began to pick myself up off the floor, the next thing I knew my identity as a Scottish Jew was forced into the spotlight…
As the summer of 2014 drew to a close and I was no longer feeling the need to constantly justify my position on Israel as a British Jew, my identity as a Scottish Jew was forced into the spotlight of my conscience as the momentum behind the Independence referendum began to build.
I was born and bred in Scotland, my parents were Scottish and all four of my grandparents lived in Glasgow. Scotland was good to the Jews. It had given us refuge at the turn of the century, even if many of us had ended up in Scotland by accident. The story goes that keen to flee the pogroms of Russia, our ancestors had bought what they thought were boat tickets for America but were cruelly short changed and ended up on the streets of Dundee and Glasgow, not realising for a good few days that this was not, in fact, the land of the free.
Still we prospered… my grandfather may have delivered milk with his bare feet on the streets of Glasgow’s Gorbals, but he still managed to give his daughters a great Scottish education, enabling my mother to become the first woman high court judge of Scotland. She may have broken the ceiling as far as women were concerned but she certainly wasn’t the first Jew to reach such heights.
Growing up in Scotland in the 1980’s we even had a Jewish Secretary of State for Scotland, namely, Malcolm Rifkind who belonged to the same synagogue as me in Edinburgh. It was England which expelled it’s Jews (in 1290) and the blood libels on these shores had occurred in places like Lincoln and York. Sure Scotland had sectarian problems. I can recall Catholic friends of my parents retelling shocking stories of prejudice at the Scottish bar, but not of anti-Semitism.
So why then did I fear that Scottish independence would be bad for the Jews?
In recent years Scotland has become an uglier place to be a Jew. Four local councils in Scotland have committed to publicly boycotting Israeli goods. One of these, West Dunbartonshire, even discussed removing all books in its libraries which related to Israel. Both the City councils of Glasgow and Edinburgh flew the Palestinian flag over their City Chambers this summer. Alex Salmond has called for an arms boycott of Israel and the only party that has displayed any sympathy for Israel’s plight, the Conservative Party, while being the largest in Westminster, has fewer members of Parliament in Scotland than there are pandas in Edinburgh zoo!
Meanwhile in its short life the Scottish Parliament has debated more anti-Israel motions than against all other countries combined. That’s just the politics; then there’s the ugly cultural boycotts, from the hysterical demonstrations against the Batsheva Dance Company at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012 to the cancellation of the Incubator theatre company’s production at this year’s Fringe.
Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that of the four regions which voted Yes in the referendum, three have been particularly uncomfortable places for supporters of Israel. Flag-waving Glasgow, book banning West Dunbartonshire, and Dundee – twinned with Nablus, where George Galloway learnt his political trade. It was a strange experience this summer to find myself on the same side of Galloway in the referendum campaign as he used his skilful oratory for the Better Together side, but the No campaign felt more comfortable for me as a Scottish Jew.
Of course we don’t know for sure what an independent Scotland would have turned out like but if the experience of Ireland is anything to go by then it’s not one that’s been terribly good for Jews. A survey of global anti-Semitism earlier this year found that 20% of Irish adults held antisemitic views. I left Scotland at the first opportunity, going to University south of the border and then heading to London where I have stayed for all my working life.
I remain a proud Scot revelling in certain aspects of Scottish culture; whisky, Irn Bru, the poetry of Robbie Burns, the beauty of Edinburgh. Having thrown my lot in with the English, I wanted the Union to be preserved and as the race got closer I grew anxious. While I never really doubted that Scotland would vote to leave the United Kingdom, on the evening of the 18th September this year, I found myself with butterflies in my stomach. Scotland has decided to stay in the UK and I’m relieved, glad and proud as a Scot, a Brit and a Jew.
Nick Cosgrove is a Partner at Brunswick, the international communications consultancy. He spent 12 years at the BBC as a journalist where he had a regular slot presenting the business news on the flagship Radio 4 Today programme.