Where next after UCU ruling?

November 24, 2016 22:57

In 2011, the University College Union repudiated the "working definition" of antisemitism promulgated by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism. This definition, while permitting criticism of Israel as of any other state, nonetheless included among its examples of antisemitic conduct, "manifestations" that "target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity."

It declared that, among those modes of conduct worthy to be characterised as antisemitic, is the denial of the right of Jewish people to self-determination by (for example) claiming that the very existence of a Jewish state is a racist endeavour.

This portrayal was not at all to the liking of a cadre of UCU activists pledged to the boycott of Israel (and even to its destruction) and, having persuaded the UCU to ditch the working definition, they proceeded to use their new-found freedom to relaunch, via the union, a vicious propaganda war against Israel and those who identified with it.

There was a predictable exit of members (both Jewish and non-Jewish) from the union - further, that is, to previous exits occasioned by the UCU's ongoing obsession with the demonisation of the Jewish state.

Mathematics lecturer Ronnie Fraser began a legal action against the UCU, which he alleged was guilty of harassment in terms of a catalogue of incidents relating to Israel and debates about Israel that had apparently taken place under UCU auspices. Such cases - a complaint by a union member against his union - are heard before an employment tribunal. That tribunal has now issued a sweeping judgment, finding against Fraser on all counts.

More than that, it has declared that "a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel cannot amount to a protected characteristic. It is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness…" More than that, it has in its judgment publicly rebuked Fraser and his legal team for wasting the tribunal's time.

The tribunal has openly berated Fraser for using litigation to pursue what it has declared to be a private political agenda.

Two things have happened in the wake of this astonishing verdict. The first is that, inevitably, anti-Zionist campaigners around the world have made merry. The second is that Fraser has come in for a verbal battering from within the Jewish world. As the JC last week reported, Jonathan Goldberg QC, for instance, 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."

Well, I'm not a lawyer and I was not called to give evidence on Fraser's behalf (though I certainly would have had I been asked). As to the preparation and conduct of the case by Fraser's legal team, I cannot comment. Nonetheless I cannot agree with Goldberg, and those (and there are clearly many) who think like him on this issue. I do not believe that bringing this case was "an act of epic folly." I think it was the right thing to do, and that some good may yet come of it.

Let me put it this way. An employment tribunal is pretty low as lower courts go. The Fraser judgment is not (I am advised) a binding precedent. But it has cleared the air. The argument that "an attachment to Israel… is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness" is so manifestly absurd (I had only to consult my daily prayer book to reassure myself on this point) that I cannot believe any higher court would accept it. But if, indeed, at least for the moment, this ridiculous argument holds centre stage, it is blindingly obvious that it must be challenged - if not in a court of law then in some other public forum.

Here, surely, is work for the Board of Deputies to do. The Board did not feature much in the Fraser case: its silence was (to be rather frank) little short of deafening. Its moment has now come. The Board should publish its own definition of antisemitism - to include a repudiation of the employment tribunal's warped reasoning on this topic - and should then launch a very public campaign to have its definition enshrined in law.

Westminster governments are for ever reversing by statute the rulings of courts of law. Is it too much to ask that David Cameron's administration amend relevant legislation so as to confirm that anti-Zionism is intrinsically racist, the finer feelings of the UCU notwithstanding?

November 24, 2016 22:57

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