At the time of writing, the Scottish Independence referendum is on a knife-edge. Undoubtedly, the outcome will have huge implications for Britain but, without wishing to sound parochial, it is the impact on the Jewish community that is my concern.
First, I want to make plain that – whatever the outcome – while I am President, Scottish communities and organisations will remain full members of the Board of Deputies for as long as they wish.
As Jews, the national borders that divide us have always been far less important than the issues which unite us as a people. So I very much hope that we will continue to work as closely together in the future as we do today, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. In particular, the Board will continue to work with ScoJec to represent the interests of the Jewish community in Scotland to the Government in Holyrood.
An independent Scotland would take on additional responsibility for determining a range of issues which directly impact on our daily lives as Jews: from religious freedom to the fight against racism, from tackling antisemitism, to attitudes to Israel. Nevertheless, while some of these areas already fall within the ambit of the current Scottish Parliament, if voters choose independence next week, the powers of the Scottish Government will ostensibly be massively enhanced.
I say “obstensibly” because so many of these issues are actually regulated not by Westminster but by Brussels, whose influence would remain intact, assuming that a newly independent Scotland seeks to remain part of the European Union.
If it does then the right to religious freedom as expressed for example in time off for religious observance will remain broadly unchanged as the key legislation in this respect is European Human Rights law.
This underlines the importance of the Jewish communities north and south of the border continuing to work together whatever the outcome of the referendum, as there are many battles still be won in Brussels over issues such as Shechitah, Brit Milah and food labelling. The point is best made by example: the greatest threat to Brit Milah in the past year has come from the decision of a German court to convict a doctor for performing a circumcision. It took the intervention of the Federal government – lobbied for by the British Board of Deputies and others – to make clear that child protection legislation was not to be used in this way.
The experience is telling. In the current environment, the greatest threats to Jewish life in Scotland come, not from Westminster but decisions in jurisdictions across Europe. The Continent is increasingly interconnected and Scottish Jews will want to think carefully about which influences they most wish to import.
During Operation Protective Edge we have seen an increase in antisemitic incidents in Scotland from 14 in the whole of 2013 to 35 in the past six weeks, with many protests and demonstrations associated with the Edinburgh fringe. Nevertheless, Britain remains a broadly tolerant society and is without doubt a more comfortable place for Jews to live at present than, say, France, Hungary or most countries in Europe.
But, as the past two months have shown, that British liberalism is far from guaranteed.
Readers will share my discomfort at seeing Palestinian flags flying over a number of City Halls. In the letters that the Board has had to write condemning the importation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the UK, it was noticeable that there were a disproportionate number to Scottish councils: Fife, Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Edinburgh.
While the act in itself may not be antisemitic it is extremely divisive, damaging to community relations and incredibly insensitive. It is about taking sides in a conflict that has no place in our local authorities.
But it is easier to object when we stand together. As a proud but nonetheless shrinking community it must be tempting for Scottish Jews to keep their heads down when such incidents happen and not to draw attention to themselves. It is hugely to the credit of Scojec and the Glasgow Representative Council that it has not done so and has directly challenged the First Minister, the Lord Advocate, and the Chief Constable, to address the rise in antisemitism and its conflagration with anti-Israel protests.
But there is strength in numbers and so I give this pledge. Whatever the outcome next week, the Board stands ready to champion the cause of Scottish Jewry and to work with them to continue to retain the full support of the full communal infrastructure, from education to defence, from security to Israel advocacy.
To borrow a phrase coined elsewhere – and without taking sides in the larger debate – the Jewish community at least is better together.