Muriel has agreed to speak to me after negotiations through a mutual acquaintance. Although somewhat shy, this pleasant-faced woman in her mid-thirties greets me with a broad smile and the pronounced Scottish brogue of her birth country.
Raised in Nethelree, a small affluent suburb of greater Glasgow in East Renfrewshire, Muriel was taught to value both her Jewish and Scottish roots. “I remember at occasions such as bar
mitzvahs,” she recalls, “Guests would often wear tartan, and ceilidh bands played both Jewish music and Highland jigs. The celebrations were glorious!” Muriel, a divorcee with a 7-year-old son, attended services regularly at the Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue in nearby Giffnock, after she became a parent. As her son Gideon has grown older, it has become increasingly important to establish an even greater sense of his Jewish identity. Last year she made the long-contemplated move to Israel, so that her son could begin formal schooling in Israel. Gideon’s father is “out of the picture,” Muriel says, but she has a brother and cousin already in the Tel Aviv area who provide strong male role models for her young son.
Muriel’s parents owned several clothing stores in Glasgow, and she dreams of opening her own store in Tel Aviv, where she has settled near her brother.
The Jews in Scotland
Jews made their first documented appearance in Scotland in 1290, when they were expelled from England under that country’s Edict of Expulsion. Jewish immigration to Scotland increased in the era of post-industrialization and after the country’s merging with England into the United Kingdom in 1691. The latter made Scotland subject to a variety of anti-Jewish British laws, unfortunately, but overall the population was undisturbed. In the 19th century, the first Jewish congregations were established in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Scotland may be the only European country without a history of formal Jewish persecution. Today there are fewer anti-Semitic incidents reported in Scotland than throughout the rest of the UK. Incidents of verbal abuse have increased lately, however. Some Scottish Jews report greater feelings of unease at public gatherings, and they are less likely to appear in visibly Jewish garb or at communal activities. In one of the most publicized episodes of discrimination in recent years, Muslims in Glasgow staged a boycott of Jewish goods in 30 stores operated in Muslim sections, taking to the streets and applauding shopkeepers who no longer stocked Israeli products. Through the leadership of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other groups, many stores now display posters which declare: “No Israeli Produce Sold Here.”
Approximately 7,000 – 12,000 Jews currently reside in Scotland, the wide estimate range being due to the vagaries of census reporting by ethnic origin vs. religion. 97% of Scottish Jews describe themselves as white, and 70% were born in Scotland. At least 20% of Scottish Jews intermarry. From these figures we can determine that Scotland is no longer an immigrant country for Jews, and that assimilation is increasing. The practicing population falls as younger Jews become secular or intermarry.
The Jewish population in Scotland is a largely successful one. Over a quarter are self-employed, and more than double the number of Jews as other Scottish citizens occupy higher-level management positions or work in professional occupations. They are also among the most highly educated groups in the country.
Scottish Jews in Israel
Scottish Jews have emigrated largely to the United States and England because of economic necessities, and the last census reflected emigration of 2,782 Scottish Jews to England and Wales. Only a small number have moved to Israel, largely in order to make aliyah.
Historically strong ties exist between the Jews of Scotland and the state of Israel. Many Glasgow- and Edinburgh-area organizations raise money for Israeli universities and medical centers. Women’s groups associated with WIZO raise funds for facilities for disadvantaged children and women in Israel, as well as social and cultural activities. Child and Yoluth Aliya and the religious women’s group named Emunah also support social causes in Israel.
Muriel invites me to attend the annual Burns Supper hosted by Jews in Israel. The evening is complete with a toast to a kosher haggis, large amounts of Irn Bru, facetiously referred to as Scottish champagne. It is an evening to recognize one’s roots and celebrate one’s place in the new homeland. For Muriel, her son Gideon and her Scottish-born friends, living in Israel does feel like a kind of celebration.