Letter to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt

Dear Ms Hunt,

We write to you about troubling developments in UCU.

As you know, since UCU was formed in 2007 it has consistently passed policies promoting boycotts of Israeli academics, even after stating that a boycott was unlawful because it would contravene UCU's own equality and anti-discrimination policy as well as anti-discrimination law.

The boycott debate has poisoned the atmosphere inside UCU and led to many Jewish members feeling harassed for their beliefs. When this discomfort was raised with Union officials, both informally and in formal complaints, the Union ignored these complaints, summarily rejected them or victimised the complainants. Over the last few years, dozens of Jewish academics have publicly resigned from the union citing the atmosphere of hostility against them; many more will have simply let their subscriptions lapse or not joined at all. UCU has consistently refused to look into the resignations. A motion at UCU Congress in 2009 calling for an investigation was voted down after a speech from the floor which argued that such an investigation might interfere with UCU's Israel campaigning.

Last year, UCU brought Bongani Masuku, a South African trade unionist, to the UK on a speaker tour. Masuku had called for "Zionists" in South Africa to be stripped of their citizenship for disloyalty, and had supported attacks on "Zionists", remarks that were recorded. He was found by the South African Human Rights Commission to have made racist statements. Nevertheless, UCU funded his visit and publicly supported him, saying that Mr Masuku denied that the remarks were racist – though he did not deny making them.

Your union's latest move is Congress Motion 70, from the National Executive Committee on the Union's definition of antisemitism. The motion claims that a particular understanding of antisemitic activity, proposed by the European Union Monitoring Commission, "is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus" and resolves to not use this understanding of antisemitism in its own internal complaints procedures and to campaign against its use by others.

Rather than honestly relating to legitimate complaints from members who feel that they are experiencing antisemitism, this motion prejudges any complaint that could be linked to UCU's discriminatory and aggressively-pursued Israel policy. It represents a total refusal to accept that the Union might have a problem with antisemitism that, if passed, will adversely affect the ability of Jewish members of UCU to address antisemitic incidents and activities.

If this motion is carried, then when a Jew claims to be a victim of racism inside UCU, there will be a presumption that the victim is only "using" their complaint in bad faith to "silence debate", making it even harder for Jewish victims of racism to complain about it without having to be subject to political tests. It would also affect students on campus, who may feel less able to report antisemitic incidents to members of a union that has officially decided (and educated its members) that antisemitism cannot occur in the context of Israel-related activity.

As the motion was proposed by the Executive, we realise that it is almost certain to pass. The atmosphere inside a UCU Congress is deeply hostile to anyone who speaks up against the Union's policies on antisemitism; Jewish speakers who have proposed motions on fighting antisemitism in the past have been heckled from the floor as "Zionists", "Israelis" and "Fascists". In 2009, a speaker at UCU Congress boasted that they had "driven out the Zionists from the Union" to rapturous applause.

The motion does not suggest an alternative definition or understanding of antisemitism; it is only about what isn't antisemitism and has nothing to say about what it actually is. It rejects the MacPherson definition of a racist incident, produced after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.

We see this motion as another example of entrenched institutional racism inside UCU. MacPherson defines institutional racism as "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin", and says it "can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people". UCU's actions, including this latest motion, show it as a textbook case of an organisation institutionally racist against Jews.

Ms Hunt, the time has come for you to show some leadership. This motion cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. You can show leadership and arrange for the motion to be opposed; you can write a statement against it or speak at Congress. It is one thing for your Union to commit its resources to a discriminatory and illegal campaign against Israeli academics; it is quite another for it to become one of the only organisations in public life to actively oppose and undermine measures intended to reduce racism in this country. Minority communities have years of experience of facing this kind of attack from the British National Party and other far right organisations. It soils the name of the Trades Union movement for British Jews to face a similar campaign from UCU.

Yours sincerely,

Mick Davis Chair of Trustees, Jewish Leadership Council

Gerald M. Ronson Trustee, Jewish Leadership Council, Chairman, Community Security Trust

Vivian Wineman President, Board of Deputies of British Jews, Chair of the Council of Membership, Jewish Leadership Council

Sir Trevor Chinn CVO Vice-President, Jewish Leadership Council

Last updated: 2:31pm, May 26 2011