Cupar, Scotland–This county town of Fife, is not exactly a news hot spot. Probably the last big story here was the landing of Italian balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi nearby in 1785 at the end of a 43-mile flight from Edinburgh.
However the small town’s sleepy Sheriff court is about to host a key legal case involving a US student from New York and two anti Israeli protestors who have been charged with racism.
For the information of US readers, in Scotland the Sheriff isn’t some John Wayne figure with the star on his chest, but is rather the bewigged judge presiding over the local court.
This case centers on an incident at nearby St. Andrews University, where two students are facing racially aggravated conduct charges after allegedly making comments and gestures critical of the State of Israel
and its flag.
Press reports are already in danger of prejudging the case, with headlines such as the one reading “St. Andrews University students in court to face anti-Semitism charges” that ran in the local daily, The Courier.
According to one of the charged students, Paul Donnachie, “Whilst in the room at the student residences of an individual who I considered a friend, Chanan Reitblat, I placed my hands down the front of my
jeans and onto an Israeli flag which belonged to him, accompanied by comments to the effect that Israel is a terrorist state, and is guilty of many civilian deaths.”
He continued, “The action was not malicious. However, it sparked a great deal of political debate amongst our group of friends within our Hall of Residence, whereby the nature of the State of Israel was
The following day, after hearing that Mr Reitblat had been upset by his actions, Paul says he “wrote a letter stating that, whilst I would not apologize for my opposition to the actions of the Israeli state, I
would apologize for the manner in which I chose to mediate my political opinions on this occasion.”
Despite this conciliatory action, the following day police officers arrested both Paul and his friend Simon Colchester and held them in custody for 36 hours before they were made to appear in court charged with “threatening and abusive behaviour,” which was subsequently amended to the more sinister charge of “racially aggravated conduct,” a violation of the Criminal Law.
Basically the case turns on whether to criticize Israel or its flag is the same as anti-Semitism. The case is the more surprising, given that last year a very similar charge in Edinburgh was tossed out by the courts.
In that instance, five protestors who had disrupted a performance of the Jerusalem String Quartet in Edinburgh in 2008 were charged on a similar basis, with the state alleging that they were guilty of racism for protesting against the fact that performers in the group were also members of the Israeli military.
Dismissing the case last year, Sheriff John Scott made it clear that is entirely legitimate to criticize the Israeli state, its army or other institutions, without being guilty of anti-Semitism.
However when the two St. Andrews students were in court last month the Procurator Fiscal (prosecutor) claimed to be unaware of the earlier Edinburgh case.
Equally alarming is the fact that when protestors demonstrated outside the court, a police sergeant spoke to them warning them that he and his colleagues would not tolerate them giving “racial abuse”.
Outraged campaigners firmly told the officer that they took grave exception to the idea that they were potential racists and a protest has been made to the police chief about this.
The St. Andrews case will now be heard in late August, and since Reitblat, the American student, has now returned to the US, he will either have to be brought to Scotland, presumably at public expense, or questioned by video link.
The case comes at a time of growing support for the Palestinian case in Scotland with, for example, the country’s trade union federation, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, supporting calls for a boycott of Israeli products.
It is also potentially embarrassing for St. Andrews University, which hosts a major department which studies terrorism and which is widely funded by outside donations, including many from the US.
KEN FERGUSON has worked in Fleet Street, written for numerous weekly journals and currently edits the fortnightly Glasgow-based Scottish Socialist Voice. He has offered to write occasional reports for ThisCantBeHappening from his home in Scotland.