Why the Ronnie Fraser case against the UCU was a legal and public relations disaster

By Jonathan Goldberg, April 22, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

Rebecca from Finchley writes: I was furious to read your comment last week that bringing the Ronnie Fraser harassment case against the University College Union was “an act of epic folly”. Surely it was high time the Anglo-Jewish community stood up for its rights, win or lose?

V Rebecca, I am unrepentant in my view that bringing the Ronnie Fraser litigation was a legal and public relations disaster. All those concerned should first have reminded themselves of the rabbinical saying that “All Israel is accountable one for the other.”

It was misconceived in law, wasted a fortune in legal costs (rumoured in legal circles to be over £500,000) but worst of all showed no Jewish seichel or streetsmarts whatsoever.

You only litigate such hotly contentious matters if you are being dragged to court as the defendant and thus have no choice, or if, as claimant, you are sure to win. This case sent out the worst possible message to our many hate-filled enemies, namely that rich Jews threw huge resources at a failed attempt to stifle free speech. The result was entirely predictable and had been anticipated by several wise legal heads.

Those who now react to this defeat with sour grapes should more carefully study the judgment, which even an old warhorse like me had to read three times for all the nuances. See http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/media/judgments/2013/fraser-uni-college-unio....

From a lawyer’s point of view, it is impeccably written and all too compelling. I cannot see any viable appeal arising from it and I would predict further damage and ignominious failure if such were attempted.

I do not accept that the court was antisemitic, as Dr David Hirsh and others have insinuated. Should Jews now be whiners who cannot admit we fought the wrong battle and miscalculated badly?

Do those who so rashly suggest on such shaky foundations that an English court was antisemitic have any conception of the damage they are doing to our community thereby?

Of the 10 factual complaints brought by Mr Fraser against the union, all but one were found to be unmeritorious after an exhaustive 20-day evidential investigation, with detailed reasons being given as to why the court rejected them. And even that one was brought out of time.

A main premise underpinning the claim — that the union was responsible in law for anti-Israel views promulgated by individual members in its annual congresses and in-house internet chatroom — was held wrong in law. Nor was that by any means the only error of law.

The underlying notion that a commitment to Zionism should be a “protected characteristic” in English employment law was in my view almost as fanciful as suggesting that supporting Tottenham Hotspur should be a protected characteristic, because so many Jews do so.

Who is qualified to say, unless they sat through the 20 days of evidence, that the particular criticisms made of the evidence of Jeremy Newmark and two MPs were not reasonable. And just as important, why did Mr Newmark and the others ever voluntarily place themselves in a position to be so criticised in support of a claim brought on such dubious legal foundations?

And why should the court be criticised, as so many have done in this newspaper, for saying “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, even if it was, it could not be substituted for the pleaded characteristics, which are race and religion or belief.”

The critics have chosen to take five words out of context from this much longer passage in order to condemn the court for allegedly not recognising the attachment between the Jewish religion and Israel.

In context, the court was saying no more than that an attachment to the modern State of Israel (“modern” is important here) is not intrinsic to Jewishness. And that is surely correct.

I yield to nobody in my love for Israel and my support for Zionism. But who can ignore the stark fact that many fellow Jews, including, for example, certain Israeli academics and at least one sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews, are among Israel’s most rabid detractors, whereas many gentiles are fervent Zionists (Lord bless them).

Why was not a fraction of these legal resources used instead to bring a private prosecution against those activists who disrupted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Batsheva Dance Company?

Such cases would almost certainly have succeeded. Having recently attended the stellar AIPAC conference in Washington, Rebecca, I have to say this debacle would never have happened in America.

Unlike in the UK, communal organisations there are not constantly jockeying with one another for power and prestige — and the left hand actually does know what the right is doing.

Last updated: 10:03am, April 22 2013