We can’t assume the EHRC will share our views

'It can be difficult to explain why so much of the discrimination and harassment which plagues the Jewish community is racist — not political — in nature.'

June 20, 2019 12:32

It was an unforgettable moment.

In the winter of 2012, Ronnie Fraser, a mathematics lecturer, was called to give evidence in his case against the University and College Union (UCU).

Fraser claimed that the union created a hostile environment for him as a Jew by repeatedly crossing the line from anti-Zionism into antisemitism, and he had taken it to an employment tribunal.

Over several days Mishcon de Reya’s star, Anthony Julius, had called up the heavyweights of the Jewish community — its leading academics, representatives and activists — as witnesses. Even Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson submitted a written statement.

Listening to their testimony, I found their case compelling. UCU had repeatedly allowed activists to push for a boycott of Israel. In the process, Jewish academics felt harassed and unwelcome. And — the witnesses alleged — complaints about antisemitism were routinely denied.

Successive witnesses explained why this was not just about politics but institutional antisemitism.

Finally, Fraser took the stand — and was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t speak. Proceedings had to be halted while he collected himself.

It felt like the weight of the Jewish community’s expectations were on his shoulders. It was our chance to have our experience of discrimination and suffering acknowledged and legally vindicated. It felt momentous.

All of which made the harsh ruling even more shocking.

The tribunal panel members swatted away the Jewish community’s case, not only rejecting the charges but blasting Fraser and his lawyers for bringing the case in the first place.

It was “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”, they thundered. The efforts that the community had poured into it were “manifestly excessive and disproportionate”.

All the testimony from distressed Jews, all the learned analysis of when and how anti-Zionism crosses into antisemitism, all the evidence that UCU had an institutional problem — in the end, it had not been understood and had not convinced.

What seemed so painfully obvious to most people in the Jewish community was sharply dismissed.

There is a lesson here, now that the Jewish community seems to be pinning its hopes on another external process.

Last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched a formal investigation to determine whether the Labour Party has “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish”.

This time, the stakes are far higher.

While there are individual exceptions, the community as a whole feels battered and bruised by what we perceive as institutional antisemitism in the main opposition party. The wave of antisemitism that has been unleashed in the public and political spheres has caused widespread fear.

But according to some Labour activists, Jews are the problem, not the victims. The community has been accused of “weaponising” antisemitism, trying to stifle legitimate debate about Israel, and deliberately obstructing a government “for the many” because of our own parochial concerns.

That acknowledgement and legal vindication we were looking for in the UCU case? We need it now, more than ever.

And — much more importantly — the harassment of Jews in what is probably the next party of government must be stopped, if we are to have confidence in our future in this country.

So when the EHRC announced its investigation, the reaction in some corners of the community approached glee. The threshold of evidence necessary to even open such an investigation is high. So many are understandably optimistic that Labour will finally be held to account.

Hopefully — probably — they are right. But although it is a different process, I can’t help but remember the UCU tribunal.

The issues involved are complex. Even well-informed, intelligent people can have trouble understanding the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. And it can be difficult to explain why so much of the discrimination and harassment which plagues the Jewish community is racist — not political — in nature.

We must not underestimate this challenge, nor assume that the evidence speaks for itself simply because it is obvious to us.

Although I have no doubt that Labour is institutionally antisemitic, we cannot count on the EHRC fully coming to the same conclusion.

And because this would be a disaster for the community — allowing Labour members to continue harassing Jews with impunity — communal organisations must make contingency plans. We have several months to prepare for this worst-case scenario.

What if the EHRC, completely or partially, lets Labour off the hook?

June 20, 2019 12:32

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