by Justin Cohen
I’d barely got through the door of Angus Robertson’s office in the section of the Palace of Westminster reserved for the third biggest party when he pointed to a shelf housing his very own tartan kippah; a gift from a Jewish member of the Scottish National Party.
The following day, back in December, he proudly whipped it out again as he addressed the Board of Deputies’ annual Chanukah reception. So when I returned to the office of the leader of the SNP’s largest ever contingent of MPs – this time for an on-the-record chat spanning boycotts, shechita, faith schools and independence – there was no better place to start.
“There’s a great song called Scotland’s story by The Proclaimers which refers to all of our communities and makes specific reference to Scotland’s Jews. We take great pride in our diversity and the Jewish community, although small, is a particularly vibrant community,” he says. “I’m keen to take every opportunity to recognise and celebrate it as I do other communities in Scotland which is why I have my tartan kippah. The Muslim community also has a very attractive tartan. If ever there was a physical representation of a diverse Scotland it’s this.”
He and other colleagues including Nicola Sturgeon and MP Kirsten Oswald, whose East Renfrewshire constituency is home to Scotland’s largest Jewish community, have spared no effort to press communal flesh in recent months. That the latter is sitting in on the interview with her boss underscores this. “I’ve probably met more times since the election with representatives of the Scottish and UK Jewish communities than with any other faith community,” Robertson says.
High on the agenda has been the anxiety of many Jews in Scotland in the wake of the Gaza conflict which left a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in its wake. Half of the respondents to a report by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (ScoJec) said events of summer 2014 had to some extent affected the way they were treated as Jews in Scotland.
“All of us in public life have a responsibility to stress our unyielding opposition to any form of religious intolerance,” he said in his first interview with the Jewish media since running the campaign that steered his party to 56 of 59 Scottish seats in Westminster. “There are many reasons to be unhappy with the governments of many countries but there’s a huge difference between that and blaming the people of a country for its policies. I have significant concerns about many areas of Israeli government policy but that is not the responsibility of individual Israelis, nor does it condone a development of anti-Semitism from anti-Israeli sentiment.”
The one-time journalist also roundly rejected attempts sometimes made by Israel’s fiercest detractors to draw parallels between the Jewish state and the Nazis, insisting they “should never be conflated. There is no comparison between a genocidal state under Adolf Hitler and Israel”. But the MP, who previously served as the party’s spokesman on defence and international relations, isn’t short of criticism of the current Israeli leadership, warning that “sympathy” for the country’s cause is ebbing away.
He said: “The status quo is not sustainable. There is tremendous frustration, a lack of understanding about the hardline attitudes of the Israeli government and what appears from the outside to be total procrastination to putting relations with the Palestinians on a positive footing. I feel the Israeli government has been losing the sympathy of a great number of people at home and abroad because it’s not been prepared to deal properly with the issue of Palestinian self-determination and a two-state solution.”
He said he wasn’t interested in a “blame game” about which side has principle responsibility for the stalemate and acknowledged that rocket attacks and violence on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv make it “very difficult for any government to have relations with Palestinian representatives. That’s not going to bring a Palestinian state any closer”.
Asked about Jeremy Corbyn’s reference to Hamas as “friends”, he said he “certainly” wouldn’t use the term. While Gazans had elected an administration that includes “people who are certainly not moderate”, he added: “I think we need to understand that both Hamas and Hezbollah are organisations that have been intimately involved in terrorist attacks and the killing of civilians.”
But he insisted recognition of Palestine would be a step towards showing there could be “another future” and accused the British government of “dragging its feet” in the wake of a House of Commons motion advocating recognition. “Of course” ministers should act, he said, “Why not? Israel has a right to exist and so does Palestine. Full stop. We need to give Palestinians a perspective which gives a route to believe they can live in a normal state like any other. There can be no better solution to the conflict than to have an Israeli state and a Palestinian state living side by side. It is going to be the only way to guarantee peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. I sadly feel that many of the arguments put against the recognition of a Palestinian state is code for procrastination.”
The politician – who said he is on “on the side” of Israelis and Palestinians seeking peace – added: “The most significant development has been the ebbing away of any hope of progress. I was elected after the Rabin-Arafat Oslo process where everyone felt there’s an opportunity for progress and hope. And if not a solution, big steps towards that. These developments, effectively backward steps, have been profoundly depressing here in Westminster, in Israel, for Palestinians. Where’s the vision? Where’s the hope? People need to believe in a future because unfortunately if they don’t that’s where extremists thrive.”
ScoJec has said the wildly disproportionate focus on Israel in the Scottish Parliament – 64 non-binding motions tabled by individual politicians out of 380 motions compared to 15 each on Syria and Iraq since 2011 – is one reason for communal anxiety.
Robertson – who has been widely praised for his measured contribution to PMQs, very often on foreign affairs – has not used a single question of his allotted two each week to raise Israel. But he says: “It’s important to stress individual members of parliament or of the Scottish Parliament are entitled to put down early day motions. There are a number of my colleagues who are extremely focused on wanting to ensure the Palestinian perspective is heard and the right of self-determination is recognised.”
On general boycotts of Israel, he is opposed. But Robertson is equally clear in his support for EU plans to label settlement goods. “One has to have transparency about these issues and not pretend the occupied territories are part of Israel. They are not – they are occupied. It’s entirely right that is made clear.”
We were 36 minutes into the interview before we got on to the issue of the other ‘I’ – independence. When I preface the question with ‘if’ Scotland goes it alone, Robertson comes back with a uncompromising “When!”, adding: “Independence is about having a democratic state that is able to have direct relations with Israel, Palestine and the UN. I hope Scotland can play a role in peace and reconciliation around the world.”
He added: “We are great fans of the social union that brings us together on these islands. There are a variety of exciting was we can see our relations, our common islands, work together. I look forward to that being enhanced after Scotland becomes independent.”
During the wide-ranging interview, Robertson also expressed his support for faith schools and for the right of communities to “live in accordance with their religious practise” when it comes to shechita. He also spoke about the “particular resonance” of Holocaust education and remembrance to him “as someone who is half German. The work the Holocaust Educational Trust and others are able to do by bringing a new generation to see what some people still deny is very important.”