Helen Martin: It is not antisemitic to be critical of Israel

A grave marked with a swastika in the Jewish cemetery of Strasbourg-Cronenbourg, in Strasbourg. Picture: Getty
A grave marked with a swastika in the Jewish cemetery of Strasbourg-Cronenbourg, in Strasbourg. Picture: Getty
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WHILE so-called Islamic State dominates the world headlines following the latest atrocities in Belgium, and all of Europe is on alert expecting further murderous attacks, Scotland has another issue about race, politics and religion boiling up within our own borders.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week highlighted the concerns of Jewish groups that antisemitism was on the rise in Scotland to the extent that some Jewish people were preparing to pack up and leave the country and some young people won’t even “admit” to being Jewish for fear of hassle or abuse.

The Labour Party down south is also embroiled in a row over an alleged antisemitic mood among some of its own members and there are also varying degrees of antisemitism around Europe.

The majority of Jewish people in Scotland live in the west, specifically in Giffnock and Newton Mearns where I grew up. We had Kosher butchers, a separate dining area in school because orthodox Jews at the time were not permitted to eat with Gentiles, and mainstream supermarkets that in our area sold Kosher products and food certified for Passover simply because of the local demand.

If I had a cold, our next door neighbour would come to the door to give my mother a pot of miraculous Jewish chicken soup which seemed to cure everything. And like many local women, my Catholic mother learned a few Jewish recipes of her own.

That was half a century ago and the very idea of attacks or random verbal assaults on Jewish people in the area was unthinkable. Now the synagogue in Giffnock has had to hire private security for the Saturday Sabbath.

The irony is that in those days, we believed that as the world developed and became “smaller” we really would see world peace, rather than the West making a mess of the Middle East, jihadi attacks on the US and Europe, and a resurgence of antisemitism.

But on the latter, the elephant in the room is Israel, created in 1948. In the US, Israel, despite its location, is seen as a quasi-Western state and an ally. In Europe, which tends to take a wider view of things, there is more sympathy for the Palestinians.

No matter where they live, many Jewish people regard Israel as their rightful and spiritual home, hence the current complaint of one Jewish gentleman in Newton Mearns who is focusing not on verbal assaults or attacks in Scotland, but on Israel. “One thing that has really touched a nerve is calls for a boycott of Israeli produce for political reasons. They really mean a boycott of Jewish businesses. That’s how the Nazis started their persecution in Germany.”

That presents a complex attitudinal problem. There certainly is disapproval of the state of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, be it by a pamphlet-wielding activist in Morningside Road, me, or Jeremy Corbyn. But that is no more visited on Jewish people living in Scotland than terrorist attacks by IS are blamed on law-abiding Muslims in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

We must stamp out antisemitism in Scotland. And we cannot allow it to flourish again in Europe or anywhere else.

But nor can we allow reasonable protest against the behaviour of the Israeli state to be confused with antisemitism. One amounts to legitimate political and humanitarian concern. The other is sheer bigotry.