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Why Scotland has never hated Jews ... it was too busy hating Catholics


THERE is apparently some wisdom in the old sectarian joke: “A Scot is asked if he is Catholic or Protestant, and when he replies ‘Jewish’, the question is simply repeated … ‘a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?’”

At a symposium on Jewish Settlement, Development and Identities in Scotland today, researchers will argue there has been relatively little antiSemitism in Scotland – people were too busy expending their bigotry in battles between indigenous Protestants and Irish Catholics.

Dr William Kenefick, a history researcher from the University of Dundee who will give a presentation comparing Jewish and Irish immigration, said he believes there was relatively less prejudice against Jews as a byproduct of this antipathy towards Catholics.

“It has been said that Scotland is the only country in Europe where there were no organised attacks on Jews, and although there was some stereotyping in the 1930s, it could be described more as anti-German,” he said.

“I am travelling along that route, finding that the Catholics were coming under much more scrutiny [than the Jews]. In the 1920s, the Kirk really came out against Irish Catholics, wanting repatriation for the unemployed.

“The propaganda was considerable: statistics were used spuriously and quite wrongly to suggest that the Irish Catholics were more likely to be wife beaters, more prone to be in prison, and had more infanticide in their community.”

Kenefick has compared Irish and Jewish immigration into the Gorbals of Glasgow before 1914, and his studies will be published in a book. He has also analysed oral transcripts from 20th-century Jewish immigrants in the archives at Garnethill Synagogue – Scotland’s oldest synagogue, where the conference is being held.

He has found that the embourgeoisement of the Jewish community happened far more quickly. Despite arriving a decade after most Irish Catholic immigrants, most of the community moved out of the Gorbals into more upmarket areas a decade earlier.

They were also readily absorbed into middle-class professions, particularly dentistry and medical jobs. Another escape from poverty was by performing at popular music halls in the 1930s.

“Even in the poor south side, there was a sense that they got on,” he added. “They had their own social security network, borrowing and repaying money within the community.”

His research is supported by theories put forward by Professor Aubrey Newman, a historian at the University of Leicester. Newman, who will compare Jewish settlement and development in England and Scotland, said that, although there were fewer Jews who settled north of the Border, they did appear to benefit from the political situation.

“There was apparently more tolerance of Jews in Scotland and Glasgow because the Catholics and Protestants hated each other so much that they had no hatred left: there was not the same ferocity as there was between Irish Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians,” he said.

“Jews played a large role in public life in the city of Glasgow, for example, Michael Simons was one of the first baillies of the city council. Almost by osmosis, I realised that there were so many other antagonisms around that people didn’t have much time to be anti-Semitic: it is blindingly obvious.”

A rush of Jewish immigration to the UK happened in the 1880s, when Russian pogroms killed tens of thousands of Jews and many aimed to emigrate to America through the cheaper route of Britain, but stayed. In 1860, the UK Jewish population stood at 60,000, and by 1914 it was 380,000.

The first Jewish congregation in Edinburgh had been founded in 1816, and in Glasgow in 1823, but this “great migration” at the end of the 19th century made the most significant difference to the growth of the community.

Some people travelled on to America from the Clyde, but small communities grew in other cities and many found work in thriving Glasgow industries, such as tailoring and the emerging cigarette industry.

The older communities, Newman said, gave as much assistance as possible to newcomers: “There was an urge to see them anglicised, to see them absorbed within the wider Jewish and non-Jewish communities, to make sure that they fitted in. But one of the significant features of the way in which Jewish integration into local life in Glasgow in political and socio-economic terms was facilitated came about by the existing religious and racial tensions within the city between its two leading factions.”

Harvey Kaplan, director of the Scottish Jewish Archive Centre, said the theory deserved more investigation. “There is a lot in that,” he said. “You get the same feeling if you talk to the small Jewish community in Northern Ireland at the time of the Troubles, where they feel they were left alone.”

Dr Joe Bradley, lecturer in sport sociology and an expert in ethnic and religious identity at the University of Stirling, said: “I see this argument as viable. Undoubtedly, though, the most traditional and damaging form of racism has long been anti-Irish and anti-Catholic in nature.

“This has been present for the past 150 years in a variety of forms and still prevails in many parts of the country. None of Scotland’s other migrant groups has come near this, though racism against non-whites and latterly against Scotland’s refugee groups is clearly a problem for society.”

17 October 2004