Why I am still in the dire UCU

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 8, 2011

In common with other academics who have not yet resigned their membership of the University and College Union, I have come under a certain amount of pressure to resign mine. This I have no intention of doing.

I am going to exploit the privilege of this column to explain why. But before I do so I think it incumbent upon me - who can boast a membership of the UCU and its predecessor Association of University Teachers of more than 42 years - to state for the record that I think the motion passed by the UCU at its recent annual conference, rejecting the so-called "working definition" of antisemitism promulgated by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), to be one of the most stupid ever adopted by an organisation claiming to represent and defend the interests of the scholarly community.

Indeed, by far the greatest harm done by the UCU's rejection of the working definition is to the reputation of the British academy as a collective of intelligent, thinking people.

No one would describe the EUMC working definition as a state-of-the-art exposition of the characteristics of anti-Jewish prejudice in all its forms. The document itself claims to be nothing more than a work in progress. But it does put down some markers. Antisemitism, it proclaims, is "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews."

It adds that "such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity". It explains that denying "the Jewish people" the right to self-determination - for example, by proclaiming that Israel is "a racist endeavour"- could be regarded as antisemitism, as could holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.

But it also says that "criticism of Israel similar to that levelled at any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic". And we might also note that, within the working definition's more general list of actions and activities that could be regarded as antisemitic are: calling for the killing of Jews in the name of an "extremist" religion; making "mendacious" claims about Jews - such as the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy; and accusing Jews "as a people" of "inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust".

Such, in outline, are the broad characteristics of the working definition. At its recent conference, the UCU resolved that it would henceforth make "no use" of the definition - which must and can only mean no use whatever. And that, "in any public discussion on the matter", it would "dissociate itself" from the definition - which can only and must mean that it would and will publicly repudiate the content of that definition: the content, the whole content and nothing but the content.

For the wording of the UCU's resolution contains no reservation. The brothers and sisters of the UCU - or rather, to be fair, of the UCU conference delegations - rejected the definition in its entirety.

So the official position of the UCU is now that it will not countenance as anti-Jewish a claim that there is a world Jewish conspiracy; it will not regard as antisemitic a call from a religious leader (dare I say, an Islamic religious leader?) for Jews to be put to the sword; it will not regard as in any sense untoward a claim that the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews is a fabrication from beginning to end.

This is indeed a shocking state of affairs (which, incidentally, might lay the UCU open to criminal prosecution).

It is all the more shocking because here we have an academic collective rejecting out of hand a set of ideas (the EUMC definition), whereas the true scholar will feel her- or himself duty bound to consider all ideas that bear upon a particular subject-matter.

Now I'm going to explain why, in spite of this shocking state of affairs, I am not going to resign from the UCU.

First, I want to be able to ask the UCU this: if it is not going to use the EUMC's working definition of antisemitism, what definition is it going to use?

I believe that I shall be better placed to ask this question from within the union than from without.

Secondly, if it should become necessary to take legal action against the union, I am much better placed to do so as a current, fully-paid-up member in good standing.

And, finally, I have not the slightest intention of being forced out of my union by a bunch of anti-Jewish racists.

Last updated: 9:52am, July 8 2011