The Scottish Government contacted SCoJeC in the immediate aftermath of last week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris to request a meeting to discuss what they can do to support the Jewish Community, and we met the Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson MSP in the Scottish Parliament.
Mr Matheson opened the meeting by saying that the First Minister had wanted to meet us again, even though it was only two weeks since her visit to Garnethill Synagogue, in order to reiterate the Scottish Government’s support for the Jewish Community, and reassure us of Ministers’ concern for our security. He said that the events of the past few days had changed the environment and tone. He had not come with set proposals, but wanted to know what we saw as our needs and how the Government could provide further engagement and support.
SCoJeC Director Ephraim Borowski thanked the Minister for meeting us and for the Scottish Government’s continuing support. In particular he referred to their funding for our inquiries into Being Jewish in Scotland and What’s Changed about Being Jewish In Scotland, which had enabled us to hold social and cultural events throughout Scotland in order to gather empirical evidence of the concerns of Jewish people. Although the main purpose of these events was gather people together in order to hear their views and concerns, they also played an essential part in making Jewish people feel connected, and reassuring them that they have somewhere to turn in the event of experiencing anti-Semitism or life crises. Experience had proved that reaching out to isolated Jewish people in these ways made them feel safer and less vulnerable, but we lack the resources to do more.
We referred the Minister to media reports that two of the venues targeted by the Paris terrorists were Jewish owned, and explained that, as with the attacks on Jewish targets in Paris and Copenhagen earlier in the year, Jewish people in Scotland are therefore affected. People throughout Scotland had told us that they feel scared to gather and attend events that are publicly advertised as Jewish. Mr Matheson said that they should be alert but not alarmed, and we were able to assure him that Police Scotland were engaging effectively with the Community, and had been very supportive. Mr Matheson reiterated the message that there is Zero Tolerance of hate crime in Scotland, and said that the Community should feel free to raise any concerns.
Mr Matheson asked if there were other ways in which Ministers could be seen to support and engage with the Jewish Community. He said that he would like to attend a synagogue and we undertook to arrange this as soon as possible He also agreed to explore whether Ministers might recognise and participate in other communal events, such as the bicentenary of the Edinburgh Jewish Community in 2016.
We also discussed the different ways in which people "feel Jewish" and how this is obscured by the census, the changing demography of the Community, the need for better education about minority faiths and cultures in main-stream schools, the need for culturally-sensitive and faith-specific provision particularly in health and welfare, the fact that "localism" as a strategy can actually make services for minorities worse, and some of the difficulties faced by Jewish students on campus.
Finally, we touched briefly on concerns in the Community about the disproportionate number of Members Motions condemning Israel, most of which were proposed and supported by members of the SNP. Although this is not directly related to his ministerial role, we invited Mr Matheson to recognise that this can make the Parliament appear to be a hostile environment for Jewish people living in Scotland, and he said he took this concern on board.
Commenting on what he had heard, the Cabinet Secretary said:
“I welcome our discussions this afternoon, from which I see three themes emerging: