Ronnie Fraser is a brave man. The manager of the Academic Friends of Israel
website for many years, he has now, almost single- handedly, stood up to what he
sees as institutional anti-Semitism within the Universities and Colleges Union
in the UK.
Last week, he brought the case to an Employment Tribunal.
Represented by leading lawyer Anthony Julius, who had previously represented
Deborah Lipstatdt in her case against Holocaust denier David Irvine, and who is
himself an authority on the history of anti-Semitism in the UK, the case was
made that the UCU had developed an inbred anti-Semitism during the past decade,
especially among its leadership and activists.
The judgement will be
handed down in the coming weeks.
The Union of University teachers (UCU)
anti-Semitism argument is strongly linked with its position on an academic
boycott of Israel. As someone who has put in a lot of hours combating boycott
attempts and, equally importantly, in strengthening the academic and scientific
links and collaboration between Israeli and UK universities and scholars, I have
often played down the anti-Semitism link. I have constantly argued that while
there is always latent anti-Semitism around, it is all too easy to automatically
accuse anyone who is critical of Israel as being anti-Semitic. It is a position
which I still hold. We have to be very careful not to close down a totally
legitimate debate about Israel and its government policies by automatically
branding all critique of Israel anti- Semitic.
But equally, we cannot
afford to let criticism of Israel open the back door for the anti-Semites to
walk in and spread their hatred, least of all among communities who are
self-defined as “intellectual” and hide behind the veneer of polite discussion
and democratic conventions, as contrasted to the blatant and crude anti-Semitism
of the extreme right-wing and fascist groups who go around attacking Jews on the
streets or desecrating graveyards.
Increasingly, Jewish members of the
UCU have felt uncomfortable at UCU meetings and conventions.
a high point when the 2011 UCU convention refused to adopt the generally
accepted definition of institutional anti-Semitism, while Ronnie Fraser himself
was cold-shouldered as he attempted to present his case before the union
There wasn’t even a serious debate as to why so many Jewish
members of this union felt uncomfortable and were cancelling their
At best, it was silently ignored by the delegates, while at
worst it was presented as being part of a pro- Israel, pro-Zionist position,
implying an almost automatic rejection of the accusation by a union which has
leveled strong criticism against Israel, its government and its policies
vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
I spend a great deal of time in discussions
with academics in the UK.
All of them are interested in creating new
scientific links and collaborative research projects with Israeli
It goes without saying that the Israel-haters do not come
to these meetings, nor do they desire to work with Israeli academics, but there
are plenty of people out there, including the most prominent and eminent British
scientists, who value Israel’s contribution to science and want to be part of
exciting new collaborative research.
But when, around the lunch table,
the issue of the UCU is brought up, they tend to be dismissive, pushing the
matter aside as insignificant, not worth their efforts to become involved in the
debate and change the general atmosphere. It is, so it would appear, beneath
their dignity to dirty their hands in the muddy waters of academic
If the tribunal rules in Fraser’s favor, then the UCU would do
well to undertake some serious reflection and make any necessary changes – in
both policy and personnel – if it wishes to remain a union which works on behalf
of, and protects, all of its members, regardless of race, religion, gender or
any other form of ethnicity. Its grass-roots membership, the majority of whom I
am totally convinced are not anti-Semitic and who profess a wide range of views
on Israel (most of them probably don’t care one little bit about the Middle East
and don’t have any positions on it at all) must become more involved and make
their voices heard.
If they are guilty of anything, it is their total
silence during the past decade when both Israel and anti- Semitism have been
debated, leaving it to a small minority of radical political leaders to speak on
If, as the leaders of the UCU claim, they are not
anti-Semitic and defend the rights of all of their members, then they are guilty
of not relating seriously to the accusations and complaints which were raised by
people such as Fraser. It is no coincidence that one of the UK’s most respected
academics, Baroness Ruth Deech, a staunch friend and supporter of Israel, has
called for Jewish members of the UCU to resign their membership altogether.
People such as Deech do not make such calls lightly and it behooves the leaders
of the union to think seriously about where their policies have taken them in
It is a sad commentary that it required an employment
tribunal to force a serious debate on the issue. It is to be hoped that the many
other trade unions in the UK will take this to heart, and will do their utmost
to root out all manifestations of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism from
their midst, which is necessary if they are to be perceived as truly democratic
institutions representing the interests of all of their members.
when it is clear that such latent forms of racism have been rooted out will
criticism of this or that policy of an Israeli government be taken seriously.
Criticism among friends is totally legitimate, even if it is not accepted by
all. When it comes from those who would delegitimize and deny, it is
For as long as the unions fail to make that distinction and
for as long as they allow the anti-Semites to take a ride on their criticism of
Israeli government policies and turn this into a campaign of delegitimization,
they will lose all the respect or consideration that they once had. Nor will
they ever be taken seriously.
The writer is the dean of faculty of
Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the views
expressed are his own.