In a widely reported case, a St Andrews student, Paul Donnachie, has been convicted in Cupar Sheriff Court of “acting in a racially aggravated manner which caused distress or alarm” to a Jewish fellow-student. One significant aspect of Sheriff Charlie McNair’s judgement was his finding that the student’s identification with Israel is part of his Jewish identity, so that to attack him on those grounds constitutes a racially aggravated offence.
Chanan Reitblat was studying at St Andrews University on a one-term exchange programme from Yeshiva University in New York. When he moved into his room, like most students, he decorated his walls; amongst his posters was an Israeli flag that had been given to him by his brother. He checked with his room-mate, who had no objection.
In the early hours of 12th March this year, his room-mate was brought back to the room drunk and unconscious. Later, two other students, Paul Donnachie and Samuel Colchester, came to check on him. Although they had been in the room several times, and had never previously commented on the flag, as the court heard in evidence, Donnachie then launched into a tirade of expletives about Israel, and calling Chanan a ‘terrorist’, wiped his hand on his genitals and then onto what he called a ‘terrorist flag’, and then went out into the hallway in the halls of residence shouting about Israel being ‘terrorists, an illegitimate state, and Nazis’, disturbing other students. The court also heard that Colchester jumped on Chanan in his bed, and urinated around the room, including on his toothbrush. The following day, Donnachie posted messages on Facebook, and delivered a note to Chanan, saying that he did not regret his actions.
Donnachie did not dispute any of these events, but tried to contend that showing ‘disrespect toward the flag is a time-honoured way of making a political protest’. In his defence, his lawyer attempted to call three people as ‘expert witnesses’ to try to give evidence about the difference between Judaism and Zionism. However, the Sheriff held that that was irrelevant to the case, and refused to hear them.
In finding him guilty, the Sheriff stated that the case against Donnachie was not about antisemitism or about the rights and wrongs of the Israel/Palestine conflict. It was only about whether his actions had caused 'distress or alarm' to Chanan and had been motivated by his 'membership, perceived membership, or association with, members of a racial group'. ‘Racial group’ is defined by section 50a of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 as “a group of persons defined by reference to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins”. The Sheriff ruled that there was clear corroborated evidence that Donnachie’s actions had caused alarm and distress, and that he had acted in this way because of Chanan’s identification with Israel. His crime was therefore quite clearly racially aggravated under the definition in Scots law.
The Sheriff found the case against the other accused, Samuel Colchester, not proven. The University had also previously conducted a separate independent investigation, but did not make its conclusions public until the end of the trial, when they announced that Colchester would be suspended for one year, and Donnachie expelled.
After the verdict, the media reported that Donnachie said he was 'devastated' by the decision, because “I have fought racism all my life”. His supporters, who had demonstrated outside the court, booed the Sheriff, and shouted at the Jewish Student Chaplain and his colleagues that their actions were “scandalous”, and that “as Jews you should be ashamed”.
Commenting on the verdict, the Scottish University Jewish Chaplaincy released a statement applauding the ruling and affirming the rights of Jewish students to define their Jewish identity in whatever way they wish. They added, “Chaplaincy calls on all University authorities in Scotland to ensure that Jewish students – as with all other students – are able to live, study, and participate in campus life, in a safe and welcoming environment, free from harassment, attack, and intimidation.” They went on to criticise the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign for attempting to politicise this case, and distorting the real issues.
The victim of the attack, Chanan Reitblat, also released a statement welcoming the conviction, and thanking the Jewish community and Scottish University Jewish Chaplaincy for their support. He added: “I hope my experience in St Andrews will help other Jewish students who come to Scotland in the future to avoid the sort of incident I have lived through. Despite this incident, I look back to my time in St Andrews and Scotland with many happy memories and hope to return in the future.”
SCoJeC Director, Ephraim Borowski, commented: “This ruling has drawn an important line between legitimate political debate and protest, and unacceptable criminal behaviour. It has also made clear that Jewish people must be protected by the law from hate crime, whether it is motivated by medieval prejudice or its modern mutations. It is sad that there are those who delude themselves into believing that the Palestinian cause is advanced by Donnachie’s thuggish behaviour, and who defend it as “legitimate protest”; we ask them to reflect on how their strident support for bullying, intimidation, and racist stereotyping advances their cause, and whether defence of a racist action is not itself racist. They see no irony in supporting the aggressor rather than the victim under; clearly Jewish students like ‘one’ Chanan Reitblat simply do not count. They claim a better understanding of Judaism than the students’ Rabbi, hide their racist stereotyping and violence behind facile lip-service to anti-racism, and shout down an Arab Israeli diplomat trying to address a public meeting. Far from promoting freedom of speech, their actions demonstrate their refusal to listen to anything other than their own prejudices, and their inerrant certainty that their political ends justify any means, however abhorrent.”