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Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)


First Minister's Hybrid Question Time

Jewish Scotland Connected

Click here to watch a video of the event

27 March 2022

First Minister's Hybrid Question Time

The first big test for SCoJeC’s Jewish Scotland Connected project came with the first Jewish Community public meeting for several years for the First Minister, the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon, and, except for a few minutes when our broadband let us down, we passed with flying colours! This was also the Community’s first in-person meeting since Covid restrictions began to ease, and there was a live audience of around 80 in Giffnock, a link to another live audience of around 40 in Edinburgh, and more than 130 devices signed in on Zoom, and the First Minister commented "I think this is the first time I've been in a meeting in Glasgow where people from Edinburgh were actually invited to ask questions directly".

This meeting was proposed by the First Minister to enable her to hear the community’s concerns first hand, when SCoJeC met her together with the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council to discuss the very large increase of antisemitic incidents throughout the UK, including in Scotland, during last year’s conflict in Gaza, and we also arranged a separate opportunity for Jewish students to meet the First Minister virtually to tell her about their experiences on campus.

First Minister's Hybrid Question Time

SCoJeC Chair, Nicola Livingston, opened the meeting by inviting Rabbi Rubin, senior rabbi in Scotland, to read a prayer for peace in the current conflict in Ukraine, which is where the families of many in the Community, including her own, originated. Before doing so, he thanked the First Minister for her leadership during the pandemic and for working to promote good relations between Scotland’s faith communities. Howard Singerman, Vice-President of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, then welcomed the First Minister, and thanked her for taking time to meet the community.

In her opening remarks, the First Minister acknowledged the resonance of the Ukraine situation for the Jewish Community, many of whose families were refugees in the last century, and noted the role of Jewish charities, and specifically Magen David Adom in bringing Ukrainian orphans to safety in Scotland. She said she aspires to an open and inclusive Scotland where anyone who wants to live here is welcomed and is a valued member of Scottish society regardless of culture, faith, or background, adding that “Scotland wouldn’t be the country we are today without the contribution of and the importance of our Jewish community”.

Ms Sturgeon thanked the Jewish students she had met for speaking frankly at their recent meeting about their experiences, and expressed concern about the feelings of fear and inhibition they had communicated, adding that she is aware that these issues resonated across the wider Jewish Community and antisemitism is sometimes not treated as seriously as other forms of racism. She concluded “I want to make this point very forcibly: so long as anyone feels discriminated against, we as a government have more work to do”.

First Minister's Hybrid Question Time

The First Minister then responded to questions that had been sent in advance, followed by nearly an hour of further questions from the live audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh and on zoom, covering a wide range of issues including the rights of faith communities, welcoming Ukrainian refugees, Iranian state antisemitism, a second independence referendum, and her taste in reading. She also said that she was very willing to give a general commitment that the Scottish Government will always protect the right of faith communities to continue to observe their own practises as long as no others are affected.

However, the recurring themes of the questions were antisemitism and the Middle East. Asked about antisemitism in politics, she said society should have zero tolerance of antisemitism and other forms of racism, and acknowledged that her own party, like others, had had problems; however “your views are more important than mine on this”, so the SNP have looked to SCoJeC for advice on how to deal with these cases, and followed through with tough action when required. She pointed out that both her party and her government have adopted the internationally recognised IHRA definition of antisemitism, and later added, in response to a comment that two of her Ministers belong to a party that “out-Corbyned Corbyn”, that “I am not able to speak for another political party, but I do speak for and am accountable for every minister in my government. My government is a signatory to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and all ministers have to be clear that they sign up to that and accept that, and that includes the two Green ministers. There is no tolerance in my government for antisemitism or discrimination, prejudice, racism of any kind, and I want to assure you of that very, very clearly.

First Minister's Hybrid Question Time

In response to one question, Ms Sturgeon said she does not agree that some protected characteristics are more important than others: “none of us is just one thing” and we are all deserving of respect for what we are. She reiterated that her party promotes a “civic nationalism” that welcomes everyone in Scotland. She acknowledged that the word ‘nationalism’ “conjures up ideas I don’t like”, and said that she would have preferred not to have used it, but it’s probably too late to change the name of her party!

As for supporting the Jewish Community, the First Minister noted SCoJeC’s appreciation of funding from the Connected Communities Division, and said that her government also supports the Holocaust Education Trust. She said that the core of the Curriculum for Excellence is to educate young people about the world they live in, and accepted that there is scope for Holocaust education to encompass the link with the creation of the State of Israel. She added that “as generations pass, it is vital that future generations understand what happened. However, understanding the Holocaust is not the same as understanding what it’s like for Jewish communities in countries across the world today”.

First Minister's Hybrid Question Time

When it was put to her that her statements during last year’s conflict in Gaza had failed to take account of the concerns of Israeli people living in Scotland and the local Jewish community, the First Minister replied that SCoJeC’s response at the time is what had led to this meeting; she had listened and learned, and accepted that her comments should have been more nuanced and that she had not got the balance right. Ms Sturgeon said candidly that she supports the rights of Palestinians and regards some of the actions of the Israeli government as illegal, but she is a strong proponent of a two-state solution, and had a long conversation with the new Israeli Prime Minister in Glasgow last year. She said it is important to distinguish the Israeli government of the time, Israel as a country, and Jewish people world-wide, adding “the situation is not binary – it’s not 100 per cent right or wrong on one side or the other, and we need to remember that”. The First Minister concluded, “you collectively have helped me deepen my understanding over the years. … There will be disagreement in this room, but I would rather concentrate on the unity that there needs to be.”

Delivering a vote of thanks from Edinburgh, Hilary Rifkind, Chair of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation, thanked the First Minister for answering questions from the community with sincerity, frankness, and honesty, and for “your very genuine desire to make Scotland a safe place to live, work, and study”. She concluded by thanking all those involved in the complex arrangements for the event and commented on how important such events are for connecting and supporting Jewish people throughout Scotland. Then finally back in Glasgow, Perele Rubin presented the First Minister with a bouquet of flowers and a book about her constituency which had once been home to a large part of Glasgow’s Jewish community.

Commenting on the hybrid meeting, SCoJeC’s Jewish Scotland Connected Programme Manager, Mike Beral, said:

"This event demonstrated conclusively that hybrid technology can bring together the widest group of people from all parts of the Jewish community across Scotland. The external broadband interruption was disappointing, but our technical wizards quickly found a work-round, so that the First Minister was able to respond to questions from participants in Glasgow and Edinburgh and at home, and everyone was able to see and hear each other clearly. We will now learn from this excellent start to the project to ensure that our future hybrid events are even better."

SCoJeC Chair, Nicola Livingston, commented:

"It was really important for the First Minister to hear the concerns of members of our community face to face, and for them to hear her responses in person, so we are very grateful to her for giving us so much of her time and being so frank in her responses, as well as to everyone from the Jewish Scotland Connected project who made it happen. We are reassured by the strength of the First Minister's commitment to tackle antisemitism and all forms of prejudice, so there can be no ambiguity about her aspiration to make Scotland a safe and welcoming place for the Jewish Community , where everyone can feel secure and at home."

Following the meeting, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

I’m extremely grateful to everyone who gave up their time to take part in the event and I particularly want to thank the Jewish Community for hosting us. It was a very welcome opportunity for me to hear directly from the community about the issues that matter to them the most.  
Scotland should always aspire to be a country where we are inclusive, open and where we respect each other regardless of culture, faith and background. That kind of Scotland that we all aspire to is one that, just like countries everywhere, we don’t always live up to in practice. And I think it’s really important that we all recognise that, in order to recommit ourselves and rededicate ourselves every day to turning that vision and aspiration into reality for everybody who considers Scotland their home.

Click here to watch a video of the event

With thanks to Giffnock Newton Mearns Synagogue and Edinburgh Hebrew Congregations for the use of their halls, and the Jewish Scotland Connected funders for staff and equipment.


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