Scottish Council of Jewish Communites
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities
 
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities

St Andrew’s Day meetings
with Government, Church, and University

 
30 November 2015

SCoJeC was pleased to arrange a packed morning of meetings to enable Jonathan Arkush, the newly elected President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to meet key people in the Scottish Government, the Church of Scotland, and Edinburgh University.

SCoJeC and Board of Deputites meeting with the Church of Scotland

Accompanied by SCoJeC Director Ephraim Borowski and Vice Chair Micheline Brannan, Mr Arkush’s first port of call was the Church of Scotland, where we met the Very Revd John Chalmers, Principal Clerk and last year’s Moderator. The discussion included issues that affect both faith communities, such as the challenge to faith schools from secularist campaigners, and the relationship between the Church of Scotland and the Jewish Community. Mr Chalmers assured us that the Church utterly rejects antisemitism, and said he was pleased by the recent improvement in relations: “It may not be possible to agree on everything, but it is important to learn how to express our differences better. Welcoming this, Mr Arkush said, “The Jewish Community is in good heart. It is for SCoJeC to lead in Scotland, and the Board of Deputies welcomes its strengthened dialogue with the Church of Scotland.”

SCoJeC and Board of Deputites meeting with University of Edinburgh

Next stop was Edinburgh University, where we met Prof Jane Norman, the Vice Principal with responsibility for equality and diversity, and Gavin Douglas, Deputy Secretary (Student Experience). Mr Arkush expressed regret that Edinburgh University had gained a reputation as a difficult environment for Jewish students – following incidents when Jewish Student Society meetings had been disrupted and other instances of discrimination against Jewish students, seven Jewish students are known to have discontinued their studies in recent years, and this has given rise to widespread concern among Jewish students and the community at large. Ephraim explained that the Community’s concerns about the proposed Higher Education Governance Bill are based on the evidence gathered by SCoJeC’s What’s Changed About Being Jewish in Scotland inquiry from students at Edinburgh and other universities; in particular, academic freedom does not mean unconstrained freedom for academics, and it should also be extended to students.

Prof Norman and Mr Douglas recognised these concerns, and explained that a range of initiatives had recently been introduced to protect vulnerable student groups, including a new policy to ensure safety while protecting freedom of speech at meetings involving potentially controversial speakers, a video on hate crime, a new dignity and respect policy, and reassurance to students that if their exams clash with religious obligations, special arrangements will be made. Prof Norman agreed that while “Freedom of speech is important, it comes with obligations to treat others with respect. It is the University’s job to support students while they explore these boundaries.” She assured us that Edinburgh University aspires to be “a good place for everybody to be”, adding that she would be happy to show her support for Jewish students by attending one of their meetings.

SCoJeC and Board of Deputites meeting with the Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment

Our final meeting was with Marco Biagi MSP, the Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, whom SCoJeC recently briefed on the significant increase in antisemitic incidents in Scotland. The Minister and Mr Arkush both said how impressed they are with SCoJeC’s outreach programme, which connects Jewish people across Scotland with others in their area as well as with the wider Jewish Community. Mr Arkush contrasted this situation with England where, he said, some communities seem reluctant to integrate, and Ephraim explained that Scotland had largely been able to avoid this because of cross-party support for the policy of "One Scotland, Many Cultures" by successive Scottish Governments. He commented that regarding minorities as ‘threads in the tartan’ recognises that they are stronger when woven together; if all of the threads were separate and parallel, there would not be a fabric at all. Referring to recent meetings with the First Minister and other Ministers, Ephraim welcomed the extent to which the Scottish Government is accessible to communities in Scotland. Mr Biagi responded that ‘permeability’ is part of the Government’s strategy, and “Often at meetings I am told what we are not doing as a Government, and it’s pleasant on this occasion to be told that we are doing something right!"

 

   
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