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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Scotland suffering from anti-Semitism

"Jewish people have lived in Scotland for more than 300 years and many have made an enormous contribution to society. But 2009 was the worst in terms of anti-Semitism since 1984, according the Community Security Trust."

IN A private room at a Glasgow hotel a group of Jewish men raise their glasses and toast the groom, Ralph Gurevitz. The whisky is knocked back and as the men burst into song they form a circle and dance with their arms around each others' shoulders.

There are three generations of men in this room and most are resplendent in black kilts and sport either a silver or gold satin kippah, or skullcap. This private male gathering is called a tisch and the joyful scene continues for a few moments until Rabbi Moshe Rubin, a tall bespectacled man with a long black beard and hat, brings a halt to the celebration and offers a prayer for Gurevitz in a distinctive New York brogue.

"Now he (Gurevitz) must sign the ketubah (marriage contract). This protects the wife's rights and outlines his responsibilities to provide her with food, shelter and clothing and also that he must attend to her emotional needs," he says.

Gurevitz is called forward to a table and puts his signature to the contract which is signed by two kosher witnesses. Ten minutes later he is in the hotel's main function suite, walking down the aisle accompanied by his parents on either side. There are around 200 guests sitting on white chairs decorated with gold ribbons and, in keeping with Jewish tradition, the men sit together on the left of the hall and the women on the right. Gurevitz takes his place under a canopy called a chupah – a tradition that symbolises the home the couple are to create – and waits for his bride, Catherine. As she appears at his side a young man sings a song in Hebrew then Rabbi Rubin begins the service.

The guests have travelled from as far afield as the US, Israel and New Zealand for this special day and as the wedding falls on the date of a major Jewish festival called Lag B'Omer, millions of Jews around the world will also be celebrating. But while many of Scotland's Jews will be marking this holiday, there is a growing unease among some of the population. According to a recent report, hate crimes against Jews tripled in one year and the long-standing Jewish community in Scotland, that numbered some 18,000 in the 1950s, has fallen dramatically to just under 10,000. The demographic crisis comes at a time when Holocaust survivors are dying off – the last human contact with the most tumultuous period of Jewish history – and so senior figures in Scottish Jewry have begun an urgent inquiry into an ethnic group at threat of terminal decline.

Lavi is used to being verbally abused in the street but physical attacks are distressing. The 14-year-old is explaining what it is like to be a Jewish youngster living in Glasgow. An erudite teenager, he is proud of his religion and wears a kippah to school despite the fact it has made him a target for bigots. "I don't think it's right that I should be afraid to wear my skullcap. I am who I am, and you are who you are and we should accept that and show tolerance," he says.

In the last two years the teenager has been physically assaulted twice simply because he is Jewish. The first incident took place when he was approached by older youths as he walked home from school in Crossmyloof, Glasgow. As the group taunted Lavi, one of the boys spat in his face. "My eye really stung so I ran all the way home and scrubbed my face for about half an hour," he says.

The second attack – which also occurred in the south side of the city – was even more serious and he ended up in the accident and emergency department of a hospital after being chased and assaulted by youths near Shawlands Academy. "As we approached them they shouted, 'F***in' Jew! F***in' Jew, let's get him,'" Lavi says. He ran but was caught and punched and kicked about the head and body.

"Lavi was very badly bruised so we had to take him to casualty," interjects Sarah, his mother. "Five boys were reported for racially aggravated assault and appeared in front of the children's panel and afterwards mobile CCTV patrols were stepped up and community police officers visited schools in the Shawlands area."

There have been numerous other incidents over the past few years, she continues. She cites "Hezbollah" being painted outside a west of Scotland synagogue and "Kristallnacht" sprayed on another in Edinburgh during the 2006 July conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Last year, after Israel invaded Gaza, Jewish graves were desecrated at Glenduffhill Cemetery in Glasgow when slogans were sprayed pledging support for Hamas and the Scottish National Party and calling for Jews to leave Scotland. One message across three headstones read: "Kill The Jews."

Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, was outraged and condemned those responsible, calling them "deranged". In another incident a prominent Jewish figure received a postcard that read, "Prepare for your demise now you megalomaniacal, overbearing Yid-like-f***! The chosen people? Look at the f***in mess you are you stinking c***. Yours Adolf. PS – I've still got your foreskin."

The worst aspect of this appalling message, says the recipient, was that it was delivered to his home.

Sarah herself has endured racist taunts, the most unsettling when she was subjected to a "mock shooting" close to the synagogue. "This car pulled up with two boys of about 18 or 19 years old inside. The window was rolled down and one of them had his hand pointed at me as if holding a gun. 'Bang! F***ing Jew!' he said, before they drove off."

When she reported the incident, the police were helpful but she says many people in the Jewish community will not report these episodes. "The problem is they are termed 'low-grade'. But it's the insidiousness of it all – the way it feels to live in a society where I know somebody will yell abuse at me in the street because I am Jewish," she says.

In April, a report for the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs said that in 2008, there were ten recorded anti-Semitic incidents in Scotland, out of 541 across Britain. In 2009, the figure jumped to 30. The study's authors, Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and former head of the philosophy department at Glasgow University, and Kenneth Collins, chairman of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre and visiting professor at the medical faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said historically there has been little anti-Semitism in Scotland but that events in the Middle East, often accompanied by popular conflation of Israelis and Jews, can lead to anti-Semitism.

In Scotland, safety concerns among Jewish people increased after the 2007 terrorist attack at Glasgow airport. The incident led Strathclyde Police to recommend security be reviewed at synagogues and other Jewish facilities. People were warned to be careful opening mail in case it contained razor blades.

Mark Gardner of the Community Security Trust, a Jewish security organisation, says the prevalence of radical Islamist groups in the UK such as Islam4UK and Hizb ut-Tahrir is a major issue. "Any extremist group which is anti-Israeli is of concern. We have to consider tensions between Israel and Iran, or the US and Iran. "What if there was a military attack on Iran, and Hezbollah called for attacks around the world in response?" he says citing the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community in Buenos Aires that killed 86 people. That atrocity was blamed on Iran and Hezbollah by Argentine prosecutors, although both parties denied involvement and no-one has ever been convicted.

Sarah and Lavi both say that conflating Israel with Jewishness is an issue. "Not all Jews agree with the actions of the state of Israel. The political spectrum is as wide within the Jewish community as it is in any other, swinging from far left to far right. Jewish people criticise the Israeli government as much as they do the Scottish or UK governments," Sarah says.

Lavi, who refuses to stop wearing his kippah to school, says he has quarrelled with classmates over Israel. "I had an argument in class once when everyone was blaming Jews for the actions of the Israeli military. I argued that the Israeli army does not equal the Jewish army any more than the British army equals the Christian army. Some people just do not understand," he says.

THERS say anti-Semitism is low level in Scotland compared to other nations and that different factors are responsible for the falling Jewish population. Harvey Kaplan, director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Glasgow, cites several causes as we tour the small facility he runs in the basement of the ornate Garnethill Synagogue. He says Jewish communities have always "waxed and waned".

"The first Jews arrived in Scotland during the late 1600s. They came mainly from England, Holland, Germany and Austria. Many were merchants or craftsmen who came to work in the tailoring, jewellery and watch-making industries. Others were students who were drawn to Scotland because in England people were forced to swear a Christian oath before being accepted for university."

Garnethill Synagogue, built in 1879, sits on a hill in the west end of the city and Kaplan jokes that less well-heeled Jews used to refer to it as the "posh synagogue" due to its Victorian splendour. As he shows me old sepia photographs and Yiddish memorabilia, he explains that the first Jewish congregation in Edinburgh was founded in 1816 and in Glasgow in 1823. In the late 1870s the migration spread to Dundee and then further north to Aberdeen in the 1890s.

By the end of the 19th century the Jewish community had grown dramatically because of waves of migration from the Russian empire and it was then that the focus of Jewish life in Scotland relocated from Edinburgh to Glasgow. "Many Jews moved to the Gorbals in Glasgow to live in densely packed tenements.

"By 1901 there were around 5,000 and by the outbreak of the Second World War, that figure had increased to roughly 10,000. It was a hub of activity. There were kosher butchers, synagogues, Talmud Torah schools and a newspaper called the Jewish Echo was established," Kaplan says.

He insists anti-Semitism has not been a significant problem in Scotland – in England, for example, Jews were expelled during the reign of Edward I – and adds that there are similarities between being Scottish and Jewish, arguing that Scots feel dominated by the English and Jews are also a minority, an empathy that bred tolerance.

"You would get name-calling at school and in the 1920s and 1930s, landlords would put up signs saying 'No Jews'. But in the west of Scotland the dynamic was always Catholic-Protestant and so Jews occupied the middle ground," he says.

Kaplan argues that people these days generally have smaller families and there has been a trend over the last 30 years for Jewish youngsters to move to cities such as London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester to study, as they have larger Jewish populations. Many people are also relocating to Israel as legislation called the Law of Return gives those with Jewish ancestry and their spouses the right to settle in Israel and gain citizenship.

"Many put down roots and don't come back and often their parents will leave Scotland and move to be closer to their children and grandchildren. In fact, very few Jews live in the same place as their grandparents. The trend seems to be that the small Jewish communities are getting smaller while the larger ones remain stable," he says.

On the walls of the archive are the names and pictures of Jews who have made a significant contribution to Scottish society. They include Marianne Grant, a Holocaust survivor who came to Glasgow in the 1950s and whose art hangs in the Kelvingrove Gallery, and Rabbi Ernest Levy OBE, who arrived in Glasgow in 1961. Rabbi Levy was a remarkable man. Few prisoners survived a Nazi concentration camp but he survived not just one but seven.

He told his story in books called Just One More Dance and The Single Light and became one of Scotland's most respected religious leaders. I'd interviewed Rabbi Levy shortly before his death at the age of 84 last August and it was clear his memories of Belsen and Auschwitz were still all too vivid in his mind's eye. When he recalled "walking over a carpet of bodies" he was wide-eyed and had a terribly haunted look.

There are few Holocaust survivors left – Rabbi Levy was Scotland's last living link to Auschwitz – and Jewish people everywhere are contemplating what significance this might have for future generations who will never have this first-hand contact to the past. I asked Rabbi Rubin about this before he married Ralph and Catherine. A New Yorker from Brooklyn, he's been in Glasgow for more than 20 years and leads a congregation of around 850 people at Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue.

"It is definitely a problem the further we go from the Holocaust. I grew up in New York and was surrounded by survivors. It was there right in front of me. There was never any formal education about it at school. I look at my own children and they perhaps don't have the same feeling that I did. The story of the Holocaust has to be told and retold to the Scottish people, the Jewish people and the rest of the world," he says.

Only ten years ago Rabbi Rubin's congregation was around 1,300 so the fast shrinking population is an urgent issue that has to be addressed. "There is a dynamic community active here in Glasgow but that could change. The story of the Jew has always been moving from one place to another but the timescale could mean that in only ten years' time there may not be enough young people to make things successful and to support each other financially. Unless action is taken the likelihood is that more and more young people will move away.

"The challenge for me as a rabbi has changed and I have to show people that shul (synagogue) should be part of everyday life. But empty nests are leading to empty shuls as retired people move to be closer to their children."

Lavi is a member of Rabbi Rubin's shul and is unsure if he will remain in Scotland. His three sisters have already moved away to Birmingham, Jerusalem and Madrid, and his mother, Sarah, fully expects him to do likewise.

He spoke as he prepared to mark the Jewish festival Shavuot, which also follows Passover. Jewish people believe they were freed from their enslavement on Passover and that the Torah was given to them by God on Mount Sinai on Shavuot. In keeping with custom this week, Lavi will stay up all night studying the Torah before attending a dawn service at a synagogue with his mother.

Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust and the end of the Second World War, the teenager now finds himself a target for racists in a modern society that should have learned lessons from the past.

"There is a rap song called Never Again by Wu Tang Clan that speaks about how important it is that the atrocity of the Holocaust should never happen again.

"Is the Holocaust going to be totally forgotten, or will some passionate person or people succeed in taking education forward so that it is remembered? If you were to ask someone a few years younger than me about the Second World War, you will find that even things like Dunkirk and D-Day are being forgotten.

"It is no good focusing Holocaust education only on the Jewish community. Unless a lot more resources and emphasis are put into Holocaust education, it will become a low priority and everyone other than the victimised groups will forget – the majority of people who perished in the Holocaust were Jewish. However many other people such as gypsies, homosexuals and disabled people were also slaughtered," Lavi says.

Jewish people have lived in Scotland for more than 300 years and many have made an enormous contribution to society. But 2009 was the worst in terms of anti-Semitism since 1984, according the Community Security Trust. Victims of abuse and assaults included Jewish academics, students, schoolchildren and teachers, which prompted the Prime Minister Gordon Brown to say the increase was deeply troubling and the Conservative Party to add that Britain's Jews faced a "real and growing danger".

Although the report by Collins and Borowski said there was nothing inevitable about the demise of Scotland's Jewish community, the urgent issue facing it is to maintain an identity in a society where, until recently, this type of racism has hardly featured.

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

•This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 16 May 2010