Looking for the Lost Tribe of Israel in Scotland to See What a Jew Looks Like

The author as featured in the book What Does a Jew Look Like?

by Keith Kahn Harris and Rob Stothard.

Photo by Rob Stothard

Professor Joe Goldblatt

“You obviously look Jewish!” said the Met Police constable to a man wearing a Jewish skull cap while he was attending a Pro Palestinian rally this week in London. The Jewish man was trying to cross the street during the rally and according to the police tensions were rapidly rising.

The constable’s comment to the Jewish man reminded me of a telephone call I received from the Jewish sociologist and scholar Keith Kahn Harris who was working with the photographer Robert Stothard to document through photos and prose what Jewish people actually looked like. Their future book was appropriately entitled What Does a Jew Look Like ? and eventually would include posh and middle class Jews of various ethnicities as well as those who are serving time in prison.

When the photographer arrived at my home I was wearing my full kilt kit and when I opened the door he surveyed my ensemble from head to toe. Then he said, “Let’s go find a natural setting.” Fortunately, our home is next door to the largest park in Edinburgh and within a few minutes I was standing amidst wildflowers and Scottish thistle.

The photographer snapped dozens of photos and I asked him how my kilt kit, the woodsy setting, and my facial expression would let the readers of his future book know that I am Jewish. He then reminded me that the title of the book should give the reader a hint about the contents!

When the book was published and I saw the wide variety of Jewish faces and different settings I soon realised that the stereotypical image of a Jewish person perhaps derived from the film Fiddler on the Roof has been completely destructed and a new wider and more colourful kaleidoscope of Jewish people had suddenly emerged.

Perhaps that is why when the constable made the awkward and unnecessary comment this week at the Pro Palestinian march in London that I was, as were thousands of other British Jews, deeply offended. The constable’s main role is of course to keep the peace and perhaps his outburst of stereotypical language was caused by the intensity of the situation. I do not fully blame the constable nor the Met Police for this misstep that was the result of a constable trying to do his very difficult job. However, it does raise deeper concerns about the way each of us see one another and how we make instant and often incorrect assumptions.

As a Jewish man who lives in Scotland, to most people it is not obvious I am Jewish because I do not wear my skull cap in public, however, due to my many media appearances as the Chair of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association who happens to be Jewish, thousands of people know that I proudly identify as a member of the Jewish people.

It seems to me that the growing debate over gender and especially transgender rights is just another example of how we too often develop feelings instead of seeking facts about how individuals wish to identify. When we allow our feelings to supersede the factual evidence about an individual’s identity we risk causing harm to not only the individual but also to the entire group with which they may identify.

Anyone can make these mistakes and I was a culprit many years ago. A close friend of mine in America once offered to give me a lift to a meeting. He collected me in his shiny new Cadillac automobile. It was immaculate and the sweetness of the air freshener added to the brand spanking new smell of the leather seats.

As we drove to the meeting I asked him if it was part of African American culture to prefer larger automobiles such as Cadillacs. My black friend looked at me and frowned. Then he pulled over to the side of the road, stopped, turned off he car and said “Joe, I am going to tell you something that will help you avoid future embarrassment. Just because I prefer this type of automobile does not mean that all black people prefer this style. Perhaps you are making this assumption as a white person who wonders if black people are trying to impress others with a large automobile?”

I thought for a moment and then told my friend that when my mother inherited $100,000 from her Aunt she immediately purchased a mink coat and a new flashy Cadillac. I immediately apologised to my friend and thanked him for his compassionate counsel despite my awful stereotype ridden query. Then we both laughed out loud at the thought of my black friend and my Jewish mother both happily cruising along in their Cadillac.

I suppose that is why when I read Ibram X Kindi’s book How to Be an Antiracist I was surprised to find how easy it is to think racist, anti semitic, islamophobic, homophobic, and other totally unnecessary and offensive thoughts that sometime become evil deeds accompanied by awkward or even hate filled speech.

The recent incident in London also reminded me of a book entitled When Scotland Was Jewish that was written by two genealogists who used DNA samples from thousands of Scots to trace their ancestry. Surprisingly, they found that many of those who were tested had Jewish Sephardic ancestry. Sephardic Jews typically come from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The theory of the authors is that following the ice age, when the earth’s tectonic plates reconnected, many of these Sephardic Jews immigrated up to Scotland.

Regardless of whether you accept this theory, and many do not, I prefer to use this theory or myth as an instructional device to begin to see in others how much we are alike rather than how we are slightly different. When I lead my Jewish Heritage and History tours of Edinburgh I often dramatically extract this book from my satchel at the end of my tour and then invite my guests to look around and begin to wonder if everyone they see on the pavement could be a little bit Jewish? As they look out the window of the taxi they often see Chinese students from the University of Edinburgh, Scottish senior citizens pulling their grocery carts, Muslim women wearing hijabs, and people of South Asian ethnic backgrounds dressed in colourful Saris. I then ask my guests if all these people could be just a little bit Jewish?

Now instead of wondering what a Jew looks like, I now ask what does a Jew feel like when they and others are all too often stereotyped by others. I know from the recent experience in London that stereotyping does not feel good. So, instead of seeing how different we may be, I begin to look more closely to seek and find our similarities and who knows, we might all just be a little bit more human? Perhaps our shared humaniity is the actual lost tribe of Israel, right here, right now!

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. to learn about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot


What Does a Jew Look Like? (2022) Keith Kahn Harris and Robert Stothard

How to Be an Antiracist (2019) Ibam X Kendi

When Scotland Was Jewish (2013) Elizabeth C Hirschman and Donald N Yates

2 thoughts on “Looking for the Lost Tribe of Israel in Scotland to See What a Jew Looks Like

  • April 22, 2024 at 5:38 pm

    An excellent balanced and insightful article. The police officers’ judgement was to protect the citizen and the peace. Unfortunately offence was taken due to the perception that civil liberties were being denied. The police intervention did not remove any liberties only a cool headed reminder of the situation. Similar situations arise in Scotland around marching season where the police do an excellent job protecting individuals who are overtly not marching. There are all kinds of tribes who like to demonstrate their identity.

    • April 25, 2024 at 7:24 pm

      Many thanks David. The police do indeed have a difficult job and citizens should not purposely make it more difficult in my view.


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