Lecturer sues union over antisemitism
"This is my way of saying never again"
A Jewish academic repeatedly broke down in tears as he told an employment tribunal that he had suffered a decade of harassment while opposing a boycott of Israel.
Maths lecturer Ronnie Fraser, whose parents escaped Nazi Germany, said he felt a special responsibility to challenge the University and College Union after it rejected a widely-accepted definition of antisemitism.
The grandfather-of-nine wept as he took the oath at London’s Central Employment Tribunal on Wednesday. He said he had felt threatened by the union’s anti-Israel policies and a catalogue of events that had left him “hurt, upset and insulted”.
“This case is not about Israel-Palestine. It’s not about me. It’s about fellow Jews. We have been forced out. We have been humiliated. It has been horrendous and relentless against us,” he said.
Later the tribunal was briefly halted when Mr Fraser again wept while explaining how he believed his grandparents had been killed at Auschwitz.
“They died as a result of antisemitism and this is my way of saying ‘never again’. I don’t want my four children and grandchildren having to suffer what they did,” he said.
Mr Fraser’s lawyers claim that the UCU vote last year, which rejected the EUMC definition of antisemitism, breached the 2010 Equality Act and constitutes harassment.
The tribunal heard that Mr Fraser set up the Academic Friends of Israel (AFI) group in 2002 as a support network for those concerned about proposed academic boycotts of Israel.
During cross-examination on Wednesday, Antony White QC, for UCU, suggested Mr Fraser was the leading organiser of an anti-boycott campaign and had used AFI to encourage others to challenge the union’s stance.
Mr White claimed that the 65-year-old had sought to influence a UCU general secretary election by providing information to union members about the candidates, based only on the candidates’ views on Israel.
He argued that Mr Fraser had not followed the actions of a number of other Jewish academics by resigning from the union, because he regarded himself as “fighting a political battle inside the union”.
Mr Fraser had “relished confrontation” with those pursuing a boycott of Israel, had seen himself as leading a PR battle on the country’s behalf, and wanted to continue as a UCU member to “deliberately give legitimacy” to his anti-boycott arguments, Mr White told the tribunal.
Those claims were denied by Mr Fraser, who said he was “upset and hurt” by what had happened to Jewish academics.
Defending the UCU stance, Mr White said the EUMC definition was “controversial — it tends to be supported by those who are supportive of Israel and its conduct, and criticised by those who are critical of Israel and its conduct”.
Some of the strongest opposition to the definition had come from Jewish members of UCU, he said, before arguing that there were well-established disagreements over whether comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa constituted antisemitic discourse.
Mr Fraser was asked about an anti-Israel protest he witnessed at a National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NAFTHE) conference in 2003. He said the experience had been “frightening”.
“This was the first time I had ever gone to conference. I went to support the Trade Union Friends of Israel stand. At lunchtime, about 30 demonstrators turned up in front of us, all holding placards and they chanted incessantly for three or four minutes.
“I had never heard anything like it before,” he said.
Mr Fraser was due to continue giving evidence on Thursday.
Monday’s opening session concentrated on the UCU’s invitation to Bongani Masuku, the international relations secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), to speak at a conference in 2009.
Wendy Kahn, South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBoD) national director, travelled to London to give evidence.
She told the tribunal that there had been “terrible hostility towards the Jewish community in South Africa, much of it held up by Cosatu.
“From 2009, Cosatu became overtly hostile towards South African Jewry,” she added.
Ms Kahn said Mr Masuku had made “unacceptable” comments about Jews controlling the United States and being arrogant.
She said: “When Jews are spoken about as having blood dripping from their hands, that’s when we have to go to a human-rights commission.
“These were horrific statements against fellow South Africans. Bongani Masuku had threatened and intimidated South African Jews.”
The SAJBoD subsequently complained to the South African Human Rights Commission about Mr Masuku. The commission upheld the complaint.
Ms Kahn said: “We were so horrified that Masuku had been invited to speak in Britain after saying these horrific statements.
“It was very upsetting for us as South African Jews,” she recalled.
“There was a call to distance the UCU from some of these statements — almost a recognition that he should not have been invited — and that was turned down. For me that’s very sobering.”
Mr White argued that the SAJBoD had “waged a campaign against Cosatu” and had objected to Cosatu’s comparisons of Israel with apartheid South Africa.
But Ms Kahn said the community did not object to democratic debates on Israel and the Palestinians. “Our case against Masuku was that he took it to a level of hate speech and antisemitism against our community”.
The tribunal also heard evidence from Oxford professor Michael Yudkin, who had tabled a motion at UCU Congress in June 2010, calling for a condemnation of the invitation to Mr Masuku the previous year.
Prof Yudkin, emeritus fellow at Kellogg College, said he had hoped the Congress would dissociate itself from Bongani Masuku’s views, but it had “refused by a huge majority” to do so.
The past five years had made Prof Yudkin “believe there is institutional antisemitism in the organisation,” he said.
The tribunal also heard that UCU general secretary Sally Hunt had written to members informing them that the union had sought legal advice but had been warned that implementing a boycott of Israeli academics would run a “serious risk” of infringing discrimination legislation.
Tribunal chairman Anthony Snelson said it was an “unusual case”. The tribunal continues and is expected to last for around another fortnight.