LONDON − It was only one private citizen suing Britain’s largest academic union, but it seemed as if all the country’s Jewish establishment was standing behind him in court. It was only a low-level proceeding at an employment tribunal, not a high court adjudicating on matters of state, but the judgment seemed to be trying to say something profound about what it means to be Jewish − that love for the State of Israel is not an intrinsic trait among all Jews in Britain, or anywhere else for that matter.
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Delivered two weeks ago on the eve of Passover, the ruling in the case of one Ronnie Fraser against the University and College Union soured the holiday mood for a number of influential British Jews, and it has been slowly causing shock waves in the community’s upper echelons.
The case was to have been the culmination of 11 years of pro-Israel activism by Fraser, a mathematics lecturer who had been fighting against what he saw as a virulently anti-Israel tide, with a distinct tinge of anti-Semitism, rising in the union to which he belongs.
Alongside him was Anthony Julius, one of the most prominent Jewish lawyers in Britain and a tireless opponent of anti-Semitism. Supporting the two were a cast of witnesses including Jewish and sympathetic non-Jewish activists, academics and politicians.
The lawsuit was backed both financially and in terms of considerable research resources by organizations linked to the central British Jewry leadership forums, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council.
The case against UCU was complex, including 10 separate complaints, but the gist was that the officers of the union representing more than 120,000 staff members at Britain’s universities and colleges had allegedly exhibited “institutional anti-Semitism” and caused its Jewish members to feel harassed in a way considered illegal according to Britain’s anti-racism legislation.
They had done so, the complainants claimed, through their relentless campaign over the years calling for a boycott of Israel in general and of Israeli academic institutions and trade unions in particular.
UCU has long been identified as one of the main bastions of anti-Israeli activism in the British mainstream. Both as a trade union and as an organization representing academics, it is a hub for supporters of boycotts targeting Israeli universities as well as Israel’s business and social sectors.
The case assembled by Fraser and Julius was impressive. It challenged, among other things, the way supporters of Israel were treated at union conferences, the way anti-Israel and anti-Semitic remarks on the UCU members’ private Internet forum were moderated, the union’s rejection of the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia’s working definition of anti-Semitism (which includes disproportionate criticism of Israel), and an invitation extended to a known anti-Jewish trade unionist from South Africa to speak at a union conference.
UCU denied any anti-Semitism within its ranks, and responded that its officers had not conducted themselves in any way that could be construed as harassment of Jewish members.
But beyond the factual disputes in the case, the fundamental basis of the Fraser’s accusations was that Jews possess a strong feeling of affinity toward Israel that is an intrinsic part of their Jewish identity. Therefore, he claimed, when an organization to which they belong constantly attacks Israel in a manner they deem unfair, it constitutes a direct attack on their identity.
Among the long list of witnesses Fraser called were two non-Jewish members of parliament who testified about the manner in which UCU had rejected the EU definition of anti-Semitism, which they had championed.
The defendants also had their own Jewish supporters. Fifty Jewish UCU members signed an open letter praising their union and denying that there was any sort of institutional anti-Semitism within its ranks. Julius responded that it was simply a standard anti-Semitic ploy of dividing Jews into good-Jew/bad-Jew categories.
But the well-built and detailed case was shattered by the tribunal’s ruling. The panel, headed by Judge A.M. Snelson, accepted UCU’s version of all the events in question, and found that most of the claims were no longer valid in any case, due to a change in the laws.
Beyond that, it fundamentally disagreed with the central claim underpinning the complaints. The tribunal wrote in its judgment that “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel or any similar sentiment cannot amount to a protected characteristic. It is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness.”
And while many Jews would agree with that ruling, the tribunal did not stop there. At the end of its 45-page ruling, it launched into an extraordinarily hostile invective against the very nature of the case brought before it. Though the panel was generally sympathetic to Fraser himself, it stated that as an activist “he must accept his fair share of minor injuries. ... A political activist accepts the risk of being offended or hurt on occasions.”
With regard to his lawyer, Julius, the ruling scathingly referred to the case’s “magnificent prose” and its “gargantuan scale.” And it blasted the two members of parliament, whom it described as “glib,” as well as the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jeremy Newmark, who took the stand as a witness.
In fact, Newmark’s testimony about his attempt to enter a UCU conference was “rejected as untrue.” His claim that he was being stereotyped as a “pushy Jew” was called “preposterous.” And his characterization of the UCU as “no longer a fit arena for free speech” was found by the tribunal to be “not only extraordinarily arrogant but also disturbing.”
UCU, meanwhile, received only very mild admonishments from the tribunal for inviting a known anti-Semite to a conference, and for referring a case in which a pro-Israel union member complained about online censorship to a pro-Palestinian activist. The tribunal otherwise found the union had acted in an honorable manner.
The claimants, on the other hand, were criticized for having filed the suit at all, which the tribunal described as an “impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means.” Underlying the case, it said, was “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.”
A more damning indictment of Fraser and his supporters’ motives could not have been written, and UCU was quick to celebrate its total exoneration.
General secretary Sally Hunt said in a statement that she was “delighted that the tribunal has made such a clear and overwhelming judgment in UCU’s favor” and that it “upholds our and others’ right to freedom of expression.”
She made sure to add that the union will “remain opposed to discrimination of any kind, including anti-Semitism.”
Within the Jewish community meanwhile, as Passover ended and the implications of the ruling sunk in, the finger-pointing began.
In Friday’s Jewish Chronicle, prominent Jewish lawyers lined up to say it should have been clear from the start that the case wasn’t legally strong enough to have been brought, and that the ruling should have been foreseen.
“To be honest, we weren’t extremely confident,” said one executive in a central Jewish organization, “and we would have preferred to go to court with a different case. But when Fraser and Julius decided they were going to do it, we had no choice but to give them all the support. It would have been a scandal had the Jewish community not supported them.”
Julius declined to comment.
A spokesman for Fair Play, a body set up by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council to fight anti-Israel boycotts, said that “When Ronnie and his legal team decided to bring their case against UCU, we felt that it deserved whatever support we were able to provide. Years of campaigning inside UCU had convinced us and many union members that the union was incapable of fairly tackling complaints of anti-Semitism by itself.”
Regarding the judge’s accusations against Newmark, the Jewish Leadership Council said that his “evidence was backed up by a leading non-Jewish trade unionist who witnessed the incident.”
And so it was left to Fraser, who had championed the case for so long, to respond to his critics. He called them “armchair critics [who have] no idea what it’s like to be out there,” and added, “They were silent when I was fighting and I don’t have to justify myself to them.”
Fraser said he will probably not appeal the judgment to a higher court, so as not to risk making it a legal precedent. But he called upon the leadership of British Jewry to establish “a definition of anti-Semitism that includes belief in Zionism and an attachment to Israel which should amount to a protected right of Jews. It’s what we have been praying for for 2,000 years.”