Controversy over the extent of antisemitism in Scotland has come to the country’s small but resilient Jewish community. The issue has engaged the attention of the SNP first minister, Alex Salmond, civil servants in the Scottish government, the Scottish police service, the Scotsman newspaper, the Community Security Trust (CST – the UK Jewish community’s defence body) and the Jewish Chronicle. In microcosm, it reflects both the wider confusion about the current state of antisemitism and the perennial issue facing all minority communities: “Who speaks for us?”
Two weeks ago Salmond sympathetically addressed Jewish sensitivities at a meeting organised by the Glasgow Jewish Educational Forum (GJEF) and gave this uncompromising message: “We will root out antisemitic and racist behaviour through the courts wherever we find it and will do everything we can to monitor such behaviour.” But he said there is no wave of antisemitic behaviour and he did not believe that the Jewish community is under siege nor “that it feels itself to be under siege”.
Salmond was responding to an assertion made by Martin Bright in the Jewish Chronicle based on information given to him by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC), which claims to represent all the Scottish Jewish communities, that the steep decline in the Jewish population in Scotland is partly a result of growing antisemitism. But his address was also prompted by the erroneous claim in Bright’s article that the Scottish government had committed itself to launch an investigation into this alleged connection. Officials in the Scottish government have made it clear that while they are committed to doing all they can to ensure the safety of Scotland’s Jews – as they are for all Scotland’s minorities – no such investigation has been promised.
GJEF, a body committed to giving space to alternative Jewish views, disputes the claim of growing antisemitism and believes SCoJeC is exaggerating the threat and this will only harm the interests of Jews living in Scotland. The shrinking population is due to well-known trends: assimilation, children moving elsewhere, declining birthrate.
The CST’s communications director, Mark Gardner, appeared to give credence to SCoJeC’s claims in a speech on 25 May in Glasgow. Acknowledging disagreement in the community on the issue, he said: “Statistically things are worse.” Some people in small communities “feel far worse than they felt previously”. And he seemed to link it to “aggressive and extreme” pro-Palestinian activity.
SCoJeC has now upped the ante by calling for research into antisemitism in Scotland. “It might be antisemitism in the playground, it might be in the classroom, it might be some form of institutional antisemitism,” said SCoJeC’s director, Ephraim Borowski. SCoJeC claims that the police aren’t properly registering antisemitic incidents, and that some are occurring that the CST “did not know about”.
On the face of it, grounds for concern seem slight. CST reported 10 recorded incidents in 2008 (541 in the UK as a whole). It rose to 30 in 2009 (UK total: 924), most of them occurring at the time of the Gaza offensive. But up to May 2010, numbers had fallen back considerably. SCoJeC’s announcement of incidents unknown to the CST seems distinctly odd. The two bodies work very closely together. Why should SCoJeC seem to want to appear deliberately at odds with the CST, especially since the CST are not slow to use incident figures to raise the alarm?
There may well be fewer than 10,000 Jews in Scotland, a place traditionally seen as a tolerant and welcoming place for Jews. Any incidents are to be deplored, but drawing alarmist conclusions and hinting at the possibility of “institutional antisemitism” on the basis of such small numbers hardly seems justified. Bodies claiming to represent minority communities do tend to use perceived threats as a means of asserting their authority. If SCoJeC is doing this because it deems GJEF to be encroaching on its territory, this would be misguided. GJEF has no representative ambitions. Its aim is simply to encourage open, frank and informed debate so that the diversity of views in the community can be heard.
Quite appropriately, SCoJeC meets with the Scottish government, which, as Salmond confirmed, is more than willing to listen to the concerns of anyone in the Jewish community. (In fact, the government has a policy of speaking to diverse groups in minority communities in order to obtain a rounded picture of opinion.) He even made a point of saying: “I don’t think we should accept as a community that your position in Scottish society should be judged or affected by the policies of Israel. The Jewish community is not liable for those policies.”
But the response of SCoJeC’s public affairs officer, Leah Granat, to Salmond’s address and its suggestion that the authorities in Scotland are not properly categorising incidents seems to imply a degree of criticism of the SNP government and the police, which is unjustified. Scottish civil servants and the police are extraordinarily receptive to Jewish concerns, keen to learn as much as they can about the dynamics of antisemitism and determined to create a positive environment in Scotland in which all minorities can celebrate their contributions to Scottish society and maintain and develop their cultural traditions.
As we know all too well, tensions and disagreements in Jewish communities, however small, are not uncommon. But they can be creatively exploited and managed in such a way as to generate vibrant and relevant discussion about issues of the moment.
Small communities can more easily sustain themselves than in the past. So while research on antisemitism should always be encouraged, how will it help Jews in Scotland if it throws up the existence of a Holocaust denier on the Mull of Kintyre? If sustaining Jewish life in Scotland is the priority, money would be better spent on research into positive methods of achieving cultural renewal, drawing on the success achieved in communities elsewhere in the UK, in Europe more widely and in the United States. Politicising antisemitism and demonising pro-Palestinian activism will not be helpful.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010.
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Antony Lerman’s rejoinder to Mark Gardner:
It’s good that Mark Gardner entered this discussion. Athough he and CST only get a few brief mentions in my piece, and I quote accurately from CST statistics and from the only report available of his remarks in Glasgow, which was published in the Jewish Telegraph, his thoughts on what I raise are significant since he is Communications Director for the UK Jewish Community’s defence body and therefore represents what one might call an official community view.
Unfortunately, however – and I’ve had occasion to point this out to him before – he has the regrettable habit of purporting to comment authoritatively on a text without having the good grace to read and absorb exactly what it says. In this instance, he seems to have tripped himself up and misrepresented my views in a headlong rush to launch an attack on me.
Just to clear up a couple of matters first. Yes, I’m guilty of deliberately hiding my relations with GJEF. How stupid of me then to have provided a link to the GJEF website where there is ample evidence of talks I’ve given to GJEF, articles I’ve written which GJEF re-posts, a report on the talk on antisemitism I gave to the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, which GJEF facilitated, etc. Note to self: must try covering things up better next time.
Second, Mark Gardner implies that I ignored the Borowski-Collins report Scotland’s Jews: Community and Political Challenges and failed to provide a link to it. Wrong. I read it and link to it in the 3rd paragraph (the third link). Proof positive of Mark Gardner’s failure to do me the minimum courtesy of actually reading my piece.
He takes every opportunity to ratchet up my reasonable comments, critique and questioning approach and turn them into extreme statements. I employ a little humour to illustrate the potential drawbacks of the kind of research on antisemitism in Scotland which might be undertaken – and this draws the insult that I “mock people’s fears about racism”. I calmly and reasonably question the wisdom of such a research exercise – and this becomes “disdain for SCoJeC’s research plans”. I make it perfectly clear that it’s right for SCoJeC to discuss these matters with the Scottish government, that the government properly takes into account Jewish concerns – but my perfectly reasonable question as to how such research might help becomes “his rubbishing of SCoJeC’s attempts to work with Scottish govt”, and my “bizarre opposition”. I make a general statement about “demonising pro-Palestinian activism” – and this becomes my “trashing” of everything SCoJeC does. This kind of epithet inflation is unworthy of someone in Mark Gardner’s position.
Perhaps research isn’t Mark Gardner’s strong point. If it was, he’d know that not every proposed piece of research is either affordable or desirable. And no, there’s no guarantee that the kind of research which seems to be suggested (and we don’t really know exactly what this is) will end politicisation of the issue or prove whether the concern about antisemitism is demonising pro-Palestinian activism. On the contrary, it could quite easily make matters worse. For argument’s sake, if research showed very low levels of antisemitism, or a kind of antisemitism which has no appreciable impact on Jewish life, would that allay the fears Mark Gardner refers to? I doubt it.
It’s well known that people’s fears of crime are not justified by the statistics and the surveys, yet awareness of those statistics doesn’t stop people having the most real fears that crime is rife. So people’s fears about antisemitism are very real to them, whether there is much of a threat or not, and need to be addressed directly. I respectfully suggest that research into the extent of antisemitism – which, if people have got the money and analytical expertise they are perfectly free to undertake – is not necessary in order to mount efforts which would help people feel more safe.
And while the Borowski-Collins paper is generally a good piece of work, I’m afraid that even the very small reference to antisemitism in the first bullet point Mark Gardner quotes is troubling. No serious evidence is given for the assertion of a “significant increase” in antisemitism, but this is immediately followed by reference to the Scottish trade union movement’s policy of boycotting Israel – the clear implication being, it seems to me, that this policy is antisemitic, thereby serving to justify the assertion of “significant increase”. This is where the demonising of pro-Palestinian activism comes in: oppose the boycott, argue that the boycott is unjustified, that it won’t work etc., but to imply that it is, a priori, antisemitic is without foundation. Any piece of research that began with such an a priori premise would indeed be a flawed exercise.
As for Mark Gardner’s implication that I mount an unjustified attack on SCoJeC for its politicisation of the issue, this, too, is grossly overstating what I write. He knows as well as I do that bodies claiming to represent minority communities are not above taking hot button issues and manipulating them to exert influence and control. I merely raise the question as to whether SCoJeC is doing this. I would be more than happy to acknowledge that they are not operating in this way. Perhaps an open discussion with GJEF and others on how best to help Jews feel safe, before any further discussions are held between SCoJeC and the Scottish government, would help in this regard. I’m sure SCoJeC have the interests of Scottish Jewry at heart, as I feel I do – especially having lived and worked in Glasgow for a year in the late 60s as a Jewish youth leader and retaining great affection for the place to this day.
Finally, one more word of advice for Mark Gardner. I realise that, to all intents and purposes, you’re a Jewish communal civil servant, and that it’s fashionable in your organization and others to parrot this kind of thing about my views: “far stupider than even Tony Lerman’s part-hidden underlying suggestion that those who express concern [about antisemitism] are merely some kind of Zionist frauds”. But I always thought you might be above this kind of contemptible and nauseating innuendo. It’s the sort of comment I’d expect from someone who knows nothing of, or seeks to rubbish, the service I’ve given to the Jewish community over decades, and betrays woeful ignorance of my views on Israel-Palestine. Show some independence Mark. Don’t stoop so low in future.
I think you’re in a hole Mark and the best thing to do is stop digging. I pointed out how you misrepresented my views in your earlier posts. You offer no defence. Instead you perpetrate further misrepresentations, presuming to know so much about my life that you can confidently say what my “primary role is”. Again, you resort to insult: “as often as not” I’m supposed to be saying that antisemitism “mentioned by UK Jewish groups” is “really just pro-Israelis trying to pull the wool over other people’s eyes.” This is a figment of your imagination. How you read such a view into my Cif piece is incomprehensible. It can only arise from the fact that you have fixed, preconceived notions about what I write. You certainly admit to making presumptions (about my link to the SCoJeC paper). Your presumptions about my views are just as false as your presumption about what was in my link. If you’re predisposed to think that all I ever say or mean is that “pro-Israelis are pulling the wool over people’s eyes”, which you obviously are, why should anyone now trust what you say?
I think the Jewish community should really be worried that the public face of antisemitism defence in the UK indulges in stereotyping and demonising someone who simply calls for a reasoned debate about what antisemitism consists of today and how serious the problem of antisemitism is. Your attitude to my writings on this indicate that this is not a debate you are prepared to have. That you say “very many others whom I know” agree with you is even more troubling. It’s not proof that you’re right, rather proof that a herd mentality, a group think divorced from reality, has gripped you and your colleagues.
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