Taking the lead, the legal experts who are showing the way to defend against antisemitism


You may not have heard of UK Lawyers for Israel, but you have probably come across some of its handiwork.

The group has been instrumental in a number of significant victories for pro-Israel campaigns and against antisemitism in the UK.

Its contribution to Jewish life in this country has now been recognised by the Board of Deputies, which admitted UKLFI as a membership organisation last month.

But, despite this accolade, UKLFI cannot be said to be a household name among British Jews.

"As an organisation, we don't seek out publicity," says Caroline Kendal, director of operations for UKLFI.

We want to be effective and operate under the radar to stand with Israel Caroline Kendall

"We only want to be effective, and often it's operating below the radar, and actually not publicly.

"If we are covered, then great, but what we're about is actually standing for Israel, and doing that as effectively as we possibly can."

The organisation came into being as "a voluntary association of lawyers formed in 2011", says Jonathan Turner, chairman.

"We felt not enough use was being made of legal skills and the law by the pro-Israel community to defend Israel, and to resist both the abuse and effective use of law and legal arguments being made by enemies of Israel."

The group started with a couple of dozen supporters, but now has around 1,400 registered members and associates. Around half of these are lawyers, who, as Mr Turner says, range "from the top levels of the profession, down to people just starting out on their careers".

It is an effective organisation that often works behind the scenes. In October, there was severe disruption of an Israel Society event at University College London. What is less well known, is that, if not for UKLFI, the event would not have been able to take place at all.

"The student union had tried to stop it, by refusing permission," explains Mr Turner. "We got it reinstated by contacting the university."

A separate case last month involved a student at Sheffield Hallam University who had been harassed after making a complaint about the actions of the university's Palestinian Society.

Further complaints, to both the student union and then to the university itself, were not satisfactorily resolved.

"The university didn't address the complaint properly", says Mr Turner. "So the student appealed again with the assistance of a UKLFI lawyer, to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which recommended the university pay a settlement of £3,000.

"The adjudicator can't impose a fine, it recommends a settlement. But universities normally follow it, because it can be used subsequently in court. From that point of view, it was a very successful result."

Earlier this year, the organisation worked with the Union of Jewish Students to produce a basic legal guide for those beginning their campus experience.

Ms Kendal explains: "Our only intention is that students understand there's a resource out there that can help them, that they understand actually being attacked on campus is not acceptable and not legal."

UKLFI also understands some students want to go to university to work and not get drawn into international political issues.

"If you hear about something, you don't actually have to front it," says Ms Kendal.

"You can come to us and we can just write to the university and say 'you have these obligations'. The student can remain anonymous. So you don't have to be an activist on campus in order to fight Israel's case or not feel victimised on campus."

Although some of its most recent victories have come through its work with students, UKLFI's actions have not been confined to campus.

The group played a key role in the prevention of a second "Gaza flotilla" setting sail from Greece in 2011, by invoking international maritime law.

It successfully challenged a resolution by the Royal Institute of British Architects that was intended to seek the suspension of the Israeli Architects Association from the International Union of Architects.

And a complaint submitted to the Bar Standards Board bore fruit in October, when a barrister who had made numerous racist and antisemitic remarks on social media was disbarred.

During its work, UKLFI has noticed - and is keen to address - what Ms Kendal describes as "the assumption in some parts of the Jewish community that law is a bad idea because you just end up with a big complicated lawsuit.

"Actually, if you know what you're doing, you can use law very effectively, by just invoking the law, writing to the police or the local government authority and saying this is what your legal responsibility is, and we expect you to comply with it."

UKLFI is also quite an unusual operation, in that, as Mr Turner says, it tries to work with everyone.

"We do work with all sorts of pro-Israel groups," he says. "Ranging from what we might call the establishment - formal organisations such the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and so on - down to the activists. And I think we're quite unusual in having good relations across the spectrum.

"That doesn't mean to say we agree with everything that all these groups or activists do; we don't agree with every word they say, and perhaps they don't agree with every word that we say, but we still work with people, because it's much better to be working together than everyone being in some kind of silo, cross-firing and not getting things done and shooting each other in the foot."

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