A failed legal challenge to the anti-Israeli policies of Britain’s lecturers’ union has divided opinion as community activists try to grapple with the repercussions.
An employment tribunal last week dismissed a claim of harassment against the University College Union (UCU) by the director of the Academic Friends of Israel, Ronnie Fraser, who had accused the union of “institutional antisemitism”.
In his judgment, Judge Anthony Snelson, who presided over the three-person tribunal, attacked the claim as “a sorry saga”, which represented “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”.
One lawyer active in Jewish affairs, Jonathan Goldberg QC, commented: “This enormous but legally flawed lawsuit was an act of epic folly by all concerned which will negatively impact our community for a long time to come. You only bring such showcase litigation if you are certain to win.”
The chairman of UK Lawyers for Israel, Jonathan Turner, also questioned the wisdom of bringing the action. “I had deep misgivings and feared it would fail,” he said. But he called it “a reverse, not a disaster”, suggesting that lessons could be learned on “which cases to fight and how”.
Anthony Julius, of solicitors Mishcon de Reya, who had represented Mr Fraser, was unavailable for comment this week.
But communal organisations which had supported the lawsuit closed ranks. A spokesman for Fair Play, the anti-boycott campaign founded by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, said: “Years of campaigning inside UCU had convinced us and many union members that the union was incapable of fairly tackling complaints of antisemitism by itself. Supporting Ronnie was the right thing to do.”
A number of JLC members are understood to have contributed to Mr Fraser’s fighting fund.
Board vice-president Jonathan Arkush, who is a lawyer, said that “many aspects of this ruling surprised and disappointed me, not least the suggestion that the case was brought for a political end. A trade union member who feels that he is the victim of racial harassment or antisemitism is surely entitled to bring a claim without being labelled as politically motivated.”
The tribunal stated that a belief in Zionism or attachment to Israel was “not intrinsically a part of Jewishness” and was not an aspect that could be protected under equality law.
Eric Moonman, co-president of the Zionist Federation, said that this was a “wrong and worrying interpretation. It presents a very real issue for a different campaign to make sure there is an accepted definition of Jewishness which highlights the integral nature of Israel to Jews.”
Mr Fraser had argued that a succession of anti-Israel resolutions passed by the union’s annual congress, and the resulting incidents, had created an inhospitable climate for Jews.
But the tribunal said that while he may have found certain comments upsetting, they did not amount to harassment in the legal sense.
While the panel found him a “sincere” witness, it contrasted his “down-to-earth style” with the “magnificent prose” in which his lawyers had couched his case.
Although some of Mr Fraser’s witnesses were “impressive”, the tribunal was highly critical of others, saying they were “more disposed to score points or play to the gallery”.
Evidence that Jewish speakers were jeered and harassed at union congresses was found to be “false”, while JLC chief executive Jeremy Newmark’s cited reason for his exclusion from a UCU meeting was “untrue”.
The tribunal panel was also unimpressed with the “glib evidence” of MP John Mann and former MP Denis MacShane, key figures in the All-Party Parliamentary Campaign against Antisemitism.
The panel said it was troubled by a “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression” underlying the claim. It was also critical of its “gargantuan scale”, with 23 bundles and 29 oral witnesses for Mr Fraser plus four written testimonies — compared to five witnesses and two written testimonies for the defence.
Mr Fraser said that, while naturally “disappointed” at the outcome, he would continue to campaign as a member of the Board of Deputies “to accept a definition of Jewishness which includes a connection with Israel”.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said that Mr Fraser would “be treated with respect within the union as will his views on this question. Not that a decision has been made. I hope in turn that he, and others who share his views, will play an active part in the union and its debates rather than seek recourse to the law.”
In a statement released by the British Committee for Universities for Palestine, UCU executive member Tom Hickey welcomed “a landmark judgment. The accusation of antisemitism against UCU because it supports a boycott is absurd.”
Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner said that the argument that attachment to Israel was not an intrinsic part of Jewishness could be an issue to raise in appeal.
“Discrimination law is unpredictable,” he said, “as shown by the recent European Court of Rights judgments on religious discrimination.
“However, even if an appeal was successful on the legal points, it would still be difficult to overcome the very significant factual findings — the claimant needs to show that there was harassment in his case.
“Perhaps even more problematic would be persuading an appeal court to wade into the vexed and arguable political — that is, not legal — question of whether anti-Zionism can plausibly amount to racism.
Given the court’s comments about this ‘sorry saga’, this may be the last we hear of that argument for some time.”