Just before the 1997 election a row broke out when the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, as "the Jew Rifkind…" In my diary of the time, I recorded a dinner exchange in Islington, north London between two old university friends:
"We have a big discussion on anti-Semitism after the Rifkind row. The main protagonists are Jonathan, who says it’s everywhere, and Flavia who says it doesn’t exist. Thus the two worlds of England today. A caring, liberal, wholly English upper-middle class woman who has simply never encountered anti-Semitism and an earnest, engaged, energetic Jew like Jonathan who has never stopped encountering it. I side with Jonathan of course, and it remains a big problem that the rising intolerance, whether it is about Jews or Muslims, is simply not understood by many decent people in this country."
I came across this entry as I sought to make sense of the recent ruling on Ronnie Fraser, the college lecturer who sought to persuade an English legal tribunal that the ban decreed by his union against contact with fellow Jews in Israeli colleges and universities was anti-Semitic in its politics.
Trying to persuade the complacent, comfortable, critical-of-Israel middle classes in England that anti-Semitism is a live problem and one that constantly manifests itself in new forms is an uphill task. Giles Fraser (no relation to Ronnie), is England’s most prominent Anglican priest, and wrote recently that "Even assimilated Jews are not always protected by their integration with surrounding society."
Sadly, an English judicial tribunal has just confirmed the Rev. Fraser's thesis. To read in full the banal, contemptuous dismissal of Ronnie Fraser's efforts to show that a one-sided ban on contacts with Jewish academics in Israel, decreed by the U.K.’s University and College Union (of lecturers), was an assault on his existence as a Jew, was a miserable experience.
Of course, trying to use an employment tribunal as a means to take on institutional anti-Semitism was always a risk. Three decades ago, I was president of the National Union of Journalists, and I saw then how the annual conferences of these small professional unions functions as a playground for political activists, cutting their teeth on all sorts of extremist politics, before moving on.
To Ronnie Fraser's brave legal team I expressed my concern that employment law judges were not people who were intellectually equipped to deal with the UCU's action against Jews in the U.K. and in Israel. But they believed that the law exists to protect the individual against a powerful, wealthy organization like a trade union.
They were wrong. The ugliness of the tribunal findings beggars belief. The European Union's definition of anti-Semitism is dismissed. The work of the House of Commons Committee of Inquiry into anti-Semitism that I chaired – which forced a change in government policy to acknowledge anti-Semitic attacks - is rubbished. The efforts of Fraser to use the law are openly insulted. The view of an important public Commission of Inquiry into the 1993 racist murder of a black youth, Stephen Lawrence, which stated that the police are obliged to investigate crimes that the victim of discrimination or attacks believes to be motivated by racial or religious hatred, is thrown away.
For anti-Semites everywhere this is a big win. After an English court destroyed David Irving for his neo-Nazism, another English court has now 15 years later upheld the right of a union to target Jews. It is a defeat but one that should encourage us all to redouble our efforts precisely at a time that anti-Semitism is growing in strength in Europe, and hate of Israel increases in England.
Of course there will be some Jewish legal experts in London who insist the case should not have been fought. Anyone who has contact with the law knows the arbitrary, highly personalized nature of judges. In Britain, they come from a narrow, professional, conservative elite. Judges dealing with employment law are experts on workplace grievances, compensation, and unfair dismissal. Asking them to adjudicate on Israel-Palestine, the meaning of Zionism and whether institutional anti-Semitism really exists was a big task.
I was a witness at the tribunal, and it was clear that I was facing three middle-class English people who - like my friend that I noted in my diary - just refused to accept that anti-Semitism is a contemporary problem. I looked at their implacable, indifferent, bored faces and knew the case was lost. But sometimes it is better to fight and lose than wait for a perfect moment when your case and cause will emerge triumphant.
Those engaged in combating anti-Semitism in Britain are down-hearted. But although I am not Jewish, I am proud to have been linked with the cause Ronnie Fraser stood for. The struggle goes on despite the faint-hearts and the self-righteous, those who express their wisdom after the event, who wish it had never been engaged.
What is needed now is a major review of the last decade of combating anti-Semitism and hate of Israel. The EU’s indifference to the open commemoration of Waffen SS Jew-killers in Lithuania and Latvia, as well as the entry into mainstream Hungarian politics of Jew-baiting is worrying.
In Britain, the anti-European populist party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has just had to suspend a leading candidate after allegations that she tweeted about Zionists organizing the Holocaust, and activists from the anti-Jewish British National Party, now in electoral decline, are migrating to a UKIP rising in the polls. Expect to see an increase in the number of racist identity politicians, including anti-Semites, elected to the European Parliament in 2014. Leftist and Islamist BDS campaigns grow apace in universities.
The struggle against anti-Semitism is more relevant than ever; but working out the best strategy and tactics for the next decade of work is now overdue.
Denis MacShane (@DenisMacShane ) is Britain’s former Minister for Europe and author of ‘Globalising Hatred: the New Antisemitism’ (Weidenfeld, 2008).
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