SCoJeC’s Council was delighted and honoured to welcome the Rt Hon Ken Macintosh MSP, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, to our 20th anniversary meeting.
Mr Macintosh said he was delighted to be back in the familiar surroundings of the Giffnock Jewish Community Centre, having been a local MSP throughout the life of the Scottish Parliament, which is also celebrating its 20th birthday this year. He been well known to the Jewish Community throughout that time, as this is the constituency with the largest Jewish population in Scotland, amounting to almost half of the Scottish Community.
He pointed out how much the political landscape had changed since Devolution, and in particular, “SCoJeC has made a huge difference in the past 20 years. It is a very effective organisation, doing a very difficult job. He has acted as the point of contact, as the way in to the Community. From the perspective of Parliament it has always been effective, always present, making the views of the Community known, speaking with common sense, balance, and experience.” He said that SCoJeC is one of the organisations that most frequently engages with consultations and gives evidence to parliamentary committees – “it is up there with the Law Society” – and that has an effect. “It builds a reputation – it is Important to have an organisation that gives a balanced voice, and people trust SCoJeC for its authority and accuracy. Previously, the Jewish community wasn’t well known, but now it is – and not only as a familiar presence in the Garden Lobby!”
However, SCoJeC doesn’t only come into Parliament, but also takes parliamentarians out in the other direction, offering opportunities to meet the Community, visit synagogues, and address events. We have also facilitated visits to the Parliament by Chief Rabbis Sacks and Mirvis, who led Time for Reflection and met the First Minister and other party leaders.
Commenting on other ways SCoJeC and the Jewish Community interact with the Parliament, the Presiding Officer said that thanks to the Rifkind family menorah, the Scottish Parliament now celebrates Chanukah – a landmark because it is unusual for it to hold religious events. The publication of the Jewish Manifesto for the 2016 Scottish election was another first. SCoJeC is also formally a member of the Cross Party Groups on Race Equality, on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and on Tackling Islamophobia, as well as on Building Bridges with Israel, has facilitated Jewish contributors to Time for Reflection, and has organised and participated in many exhibitions and other events.
Turning to challenges, he said that the most obvious is the rise in antisemitism, which is growing internationally. He finds this “perplexing, disturbing, and extremely worrying. After 20 years, public opinion should be going in direction of greater tolerance – it’s really depressing that it doesn’t take much to bring it to the surface”, and he commended SCoJeC for speaking out clearly on antisemitism in the Labour Party, while at the same time reaching out to them. “Getting people to talk respectfully to one another rather than to shout is the first step.”
In conclusion, Mr Macintosh said “there are reasons to be cheerful. This is not the same country I was brought up in, but is so much more tolerant. Young people are aware of bullying, and the need for tolerance. SCoJeC’s interfaith activities are a sign of hope, and SCoJeC brings balance and generally gets a hugely positive response. This wouldn’t have happened without the presence of SCoJeC, and thanks to the reputation you’ve built, the future looks more rosy!”
Following his address Mr Macintosh participated in a wide-ranging discussion with members of SCoJeC Council and other members of the Community about issues that matter to Jewish people in Scotland. Several members expressed concern about the level of aggression in social media, where, as he said, “the dominant emotion seems to be rage”, although he was hopeful that “the democrats are winning”.
On the topic of antisemitism in the Labour Party he
said that even from his position as Presiding Officer he could see
the anger and upset this was causing and he commended SCoJeC and other communal organisations for working hard to reach out and keep doors open for dialogue. He expressed concern about how tribalism had entered politics, but pointed out that “legislation against hate crime has cross-party support – even if expressed in partisan terms!”, adding that “Language is debasing politics. Politicians used to fight for the centre ground, and tried to appeal to people to come over to their side; now they are often appealing to the extremes, but there are still voices calling for reasonableness”, and again commended SCoJeC for its work to promote knowledge about Judaism, tackle negative stereotypes and distortion in the media, and break down barriers.
Thanking Ken Macintosh for doing us the honour of joining our meeting, and for initiating such a stimulating discussion, Vice-Chair Fiona Brodie echoed these remarks: Breaking down barriers is what SCoJeC does! Education and engagement go hand in hand, so she encouraged people to go out and engage, “don’t allow yourselves to be stereotyped, and surprise people that you’re Jewish!”
SCoJeC Director Ephraim Borowski said, "It was a great pleasure and privilege to welcome the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to our meeting. Ken has been a great friend of SCoJeC and the Jewish Community throughout the 20 year life of both institutions, so he is well placed to tell us "how ithers see us"! His glowing tribute to SCoJeC was therefore extremely encouraging, and we look forward to many more decades of engagement with the Parliament and civic society to represent, connect, and support Jewish people in Scotland."