Each August, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe puts on edgy cultural fare that draws capacity audiences from across the world. A play called The City, staged by the Incubator Theatre of Jerusalem, was hardly the most challenging production in the festival repertoire, a murder mystery sung in rhyme and inspired by hip-hop, hardboiled fiction, and 1940s detective films. Yet it became controversial in the wake of Israel’s forceful action in Gaza to neutralize rockets being fired into the country and destroy a labyrinth of tunnels used for terrorist attacks. The City had just one performance, and then was axed when the Fringe management became unnerved by the scale of protests provoked by the Israeli nationality of the company. The police were less surprised, and their impassive (some would say supine) response sealed the production’s fate.
I spoke to several members of the cast, liberal-minded folk who were surprised that Gaza should be such a potent issue in Scottish politics. In Scotland the Israel-Palestine dispute is currency used by two left-wing parties that are vying for supremacy: the ruling Scottish National party (SNP) and the Labour Party. They try to outdo each other in their radicalism on the issue in order to appeal to middle-class liberals and a growing number of Muslim voters, most hailing from Pakistan.
But according to Scotland’s Jewish leadership, “the disproportionate obsession with Israel in Scottish public life . . . has itself made many Jewish people very uncomfortable, whatever their views on the current conflict.” The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) issued a statement on August 10 claiming that it was adversely affecting everyday community relations. Scotland historically has frowned upon anti-Semitism, but the new situation reflects the mounting insecurity felt by European Jews from Manchester to Berlin.
In the first week of August, SCoJeC received around 25 reports relating to at least 12 separate anti-Semitic incidents, almost as many as in the whole of 2013. Those reported to the police ranged from threatening phone calls, emails, and graffiti on synagogues to two cases of incitement to break criminal law. Friction has also been reported in workplaces, outside school gates and on university campuses. Jews are now concealing their identity in Scotland and in many parts of Europe. Some of Scotland’s Jewish community (some 5,000 today but which was 80,000 in 1950) are planning to move to Israel.
SCoJeC contends that “Anti-Semitism does not consist only in personal abuse of individual Jews; it includes the application of different rules to Jewish people, institutions—and to the only Jewish country.” London’s Guardian newspaper, long a critic of Israel, expressed alarm about where events were going. It referred to the worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism seen in Europe since the 1930s and pointed out that most Jews
feel bound up with Israel, even if that relationship is one of doubt and anxiety. To demand that Jews surrender that connection is to tell Jews how they might—and how they might not—live as Jews. Such demands have an ugly history. They are not the proper business of any public institution, least of all a state-subsidised theatre.
The theatre concerned was the Tricycle in London. It had just cancelled all 26 showings and six gala performances of films that comprised the annual Jewish Film Festival. Its liberal board demanded that the festival organizers return a small sum, about £1,400, that they had received from the Israeli embassy. The grant did not come with any political conditions any more than the £725,000 Arts Council grant from the British state to Tricycle comes with insistence that artists promote (or distance themselves) from the policies of the British government. Perhaps due to the Tricycle’s own grant being in jeopardy, the ban was abruptly lifted on 17 August.
In Edinburgh and other urban centers, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) has a long record of disrupting musical and theatrical performances featuring Israeli artists, with the intention of dissuading audiences from attending or having them cancelled. When The City opened in Edinburgh on July 30, a large group of SPSC protesters was allowed by the police to dominate the two access points to the venue. They were left in control of nearly all the pavement on the Chambers street entrance, obliging ticket-holders to file past them along a narrow corridor. As a ticket-holder who had not succeeded in gaining entry, I thought that those in operational charge of “Police Scotland” were, at best, amateurish and forgetful about citizens’ elementary rights. At worst, they may have been accessories in the curtailment of free speech.
The SPSC has connections that extend to the top reaches of Scottish politics. These flourish despite increasingly provocative actions. Leading cultural figures are close allies. Among the fifty intellectuals who issued a statement saying that the play must not go ahead were Scotland’s national poet, Liz Lochhead, and the well-known novelist Alasdair Gray.
The values of the Scottish Enlightenment, which so impressed 18th-century continental thinkers, currently rest on a flimsy foundation in Edinburgh. In the 1930s the city was scarred by ethnic unrest; violence against the Irish Catholic minority was spearheaded by an ex-serviceman, John Cormack, whose Protestant Action movement won over a quarter of the Edinburgh vote in municipal elections in 1935 and 1936. So bad did tensions become that when a Catholic religious congress was assailed by a large mob the city councillor had whipped up, mobilizing army troops stationed on the outskirts of the city was seriously considered as an option.
As late as the summer of 1940, Cormack was asserting at open-air meetings in central Edinburgh that Scottish Catholics were more suitable targets than Nazi troops. An intelligence report claimed that he had urged: “That when Protestants went ‘over the top’ with Roman Catholics, the Protestants should shoot them.” The chief law officer in Scotland wanted official action to be taken against the demagogue but faced resistance from the police. In 1940, police chiefs insisted that there was no “feasible case” against Cormack.
Today’s agitators are not restless proletarians or déclassé misfits, but the same middle-class folk who host the festival and populate the wider city. If younger than fifty, they may well be Edinburghers who have put aside the church-going and moderation of their parents or grand-parents by embracing atheism or a Green outlook as well as an emphatic commitment to the cause of Palestinian independence in lands that comprise mainly the state of Israel. A few may be of Jewish origin but many more likely have a background in the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian faith which is Scotland’s national church. (This is ironic, since the Church of Scotland used to be a stronghold of pro-Zionist feeling until at least the 1970s.)
Back in the 1930s, the Scottish media, at least, defied the agitators with scathing editorials. But this time none have appeared, news coverage has been patchy, and only several arts correspondents, such as Joyce McMillan, Tiffany Jenkins, and Brian Ferguson, have denounced the surrender to intimidation. Meanwhile, the Dutch auction continues between the Nationalist government and Labour to derive advantage from Middle Eastern woes. Since 2011, there have been fifty Members’ Motions in the Scottish Parliament relating to Israel, out of a total of 260 that relate to world issues. There have been eight Scottish Government statements about Gaza since July 9. By comparison, there have been just four Scottish Government statements about Syria in the past twenty months.
Paul Morron, president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, criticized the Scottish government’s call for an arms embargo on Israel made: “This gesture is a complete hypocrisy. The Scottish government has repeatedly acknowledged the right of Israel to self-defence, but now want to deny them the means to do so.” There was alarm when one of the most uninhibited radical figures against Israel, Yvonne Ridley, announced a campaign to make Scotland a “Zionist free” zone. Her colleague in the far-left Respect Party, the member of the British Parliament George Galloway, caused shock when a YouTube video surfaced in which he declared that the city of Bradford should boycott Israeli goods, academics and even tourists. In a speech to party activists he said, “We have declared Bradford an Israel free zone.”
It was telling that Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and leading Nationalist, agreed to speak alongside Ridley at a rally in solidarity with the women of Gaza. Douglas Murray, a columnist for the London Spectator,wrote that if the Scottish minister really cared for the women of Gaza, then “she ought to join a rally against Hamas rather than an anti-Israel one.” Equally dispiriting was the Labour party’s decision to table a debate on Gaza in the Edinburgh parliament scheduled for August 12. In boilerplate speeches, virtually no mention was made of the Yezidi, Kurdish, Christian, and Shi‘a minorities who had been enduring terrifying levels of violence at the hands of the Islamist militants of ISIS following its seizure of much of Iraq.
Aspects of Israel’s military record and its position on controversial settlements in the West Bank are certainly open to criticism. But in Scotland, Israel’s prominent critics make it clear that they do not think it should defend itself against attack and refuse to believe that, much of the time, its means of doing so have been proportionate. Much of the political elite is jettisoning the kind of common sense that enabled Scotland to avoid becoming a battleground in the conflict that convulsed nearby Ulster for a generation. Politicians then kept their distance from Orange and Green obsessions. But now many are involved in an exhibitionist race to embrace one side and give a platform to some incendiary voices. Scotland’s political class is also displaying naivety that could have unfortunate consequences in its own backyard. In 2007, terrorist bombers almost succeeded in blowing up Glasgow airport. Meanwhile, at the Edinburgh Festival, cultural bureaucrats think they can maintain their liberal reputation despite having cancelled a play after its actors were hounded by a mob with the police standing idly by.
Edinburgh is proud to be called “Athens of the North.” But this middle-class city, with academic, media, ecclesiastical, and cultural elites who prided themselves on their urbanity, left the Israeli players to a pitiful fate during its latest festival season. Does it deserve to hold a world-ranking festival any more than Qatar merits being host of the 2022 World Cup? Based on its performance this summer, many will doubt it.