A sheriff has ruled that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism after Palestinian protesters disrupted a recital of the Jerusalem String Quartet in Edinburgh.

Prosecutors had claimed that the actions of five members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign were racially aggravated when they interrupted the performance.

They had cried out “they are Israeli army musicians ... end genocide in Gaza ... boycott Israel”.

However, throwing out the charges yesterday, Sheriff James Scott said human rights legislation would be worthless if people on a public march “designed to protest against a state and its army” were afraid to name the state for fear of being charged with racially aggravated behaviour.

Human rights campaigners have welcomed the ruling, saying the prosecutions had threatened freedom of speech.

Mick Napier, 63; Sofia Macleod, 39; Vanessa Fuertes, 35; Kevin Connor, 40; and Neil Forbes, 55, all from Edinburgh, were originally charged with breach of the peace on August 28, 2008, in the Queen’s Hall. The Crown deserted the original case, but charged the five with racially aggravated conduct.

Mr Napier said: “The sheriff could have hidden behind generalities but today in court we discussed the state of Israel specifically and the sheriff ruled in open court that it is perfectly legitimate to criticise the crimes of the state of Israel and that does not in any way constitute racism of any kind.

“It is a constant, never-ending attempt by those who support the state of Israel to name those who support the Palestinians as anti-Semites. It never ends. Well it ended today and we will not be intimidated by this smear in the future.”

Representing the accused, Aamer Anwar said the judgment “impacts on civil liberties in Scotland”.

“In a democracy, prosecutions must be proportionate. Freedom of expression and the right to protest of course carry responsibilities but a dangerous precedent would be set.”

The judgment said that the procurator-fiscal had elected to remove the word Jews from any charge. The sheriff said: “It seemed to me, with respect, that the procurator-fiscal’s attempts to squeeze malice and ill will out of the agreed facts were rather strained.”

He added: “Presumably their placards would have to read ‘genocide in an unspecified part of the Middle East’ or ‘boycott an unspecified state in the Middle East’.”

Graham Fraser, fiscal-depute, sought leave to appeal the case, which was granted by the sheriff. A spokesman for the Procurator-Fiscal Service said later: “The Crown is carefully considering the court’s decision.”

Myer Green, of the Scottish Friends of Israel, said: “I would regard this as a technical judgment”

He said if he was part of the audience he would have been very upset at the outcome.

Sarah Glynn, of Scottish Jews for a Just Peace, said: “We are delighted. It is important that we don’t conflate criticism of the country with being racist. We’ve got to be able to criticise a government.”

John Scott, a lawyer who specialises in human rights cases, said the case raised questions over the interpretation of racial aggravation laws.

He said: “There have been times when they have been over- enthusiastic about using it and this is probably an example. This was clearly a political protest.”