Borderline Views: The UCU, Zionism and anti-Semitism

It would be advisable for this latest round of blood letting to cease and for both sides to re-examine the ways in which they do business.

UCU Logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
UCU Logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not long ago in this column I wrote about the case which had been brought against the University Trade Union in the UK by one of its members, accusing it of institutional anti-Semitism. The case was heard by an independent employment tribunal last December.
Earlier this week, the tribunal made its ruling. The Tribunal found in favour of UCU on all ten complaints of harassment. In giving their reasoning the Tribunal stated that 'the proceedings are dismissed in their totality' and that they " greatly regret that the case was ever brought.
At heart it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means." It would, of course, be too easy to simply turn around and argue that the members of the Tribunal were also anti-Semitic or that the British legal system is biased against Jews – which is clearly not the case. Employment and industrial tribunals in the UK have a long tradition of fairness and of detailed examination of the facts and the evidence that is placed before them.
But the Tribunal did not adequately deal with the feelings of alienation which many Jewish members of the UCU have felt in recent years, causing not a few of them to resign their membership. Jews play a prominent part in the British academic and scientific community and the fact that so many of the mainstream, not the radical ideologues of which there are very few, feel increasingly uncomfortable with the general atmosphere in the UCU in recent years, must not be dismissed as a result of this ruling.
There is one sentence in the ruling which raises serious questions concerning the intelligence or understanding of the tribunal members. They write: "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..." (para 150). The use of the term "Zionist project" is highly prejudiced from the outset. It is a term which is used by those who are highly critical of Zionism as an ideology of national liberation. It is a value loaded term which would indicate the political positions of those who use it. Equally, the idea that some form of Zionist attachment – be it of the far left pro-peace camp, or the right wing pro-settlement proponents, be it a secular Zionism or one deeply rooted in religion - is not an intrinsic part of Jewish identity and behavior for well over 95 percent of the global Jewish population, would indicate a prior prejudice, or simple ignorance, on their part.
Anyone who has dealt with issues of Israel deligitimization in recent years, whether it be amongst academics, church organizations or other sectors of the trade union communities, are aware that there is a very fine, and often undistinguishable, line separating the criticism of Israel from anti-semitism. There are cases where the two are strongly intertwined with each other or where, at the very least, a one-sided critique of Israel opens the back doors for anti-semites to get involved and ply their filth.
But equally, not every case of anti-Israel sentiment can be attributed to anti-semitism, and we have to be very careful not to throw the anti-semitism argument back in the face of every organization and every individual who are critical of Israeli government policy. When we do so, we cheapen anti-semitism and make it all the more difficult to garner support for the fight against real, hard core, anti-semitism when it occurs – and occur it does, all too often – even at universities.
The forthcoming 4th International Conference of the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, to be held in Jerusalem at the end of May and jointly organized by the Ministries for Public Diplomacy and for Diaspora Affairs, along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has a chance to seriously examine this topic. However, based on past conferences and looking at the all too familiar line up of professional anti-semitism fighters, this conference will not offer any significant new insights. The conference will be used, yet again, as an excuse for crying on each others' shoulder, and bashing the entire world for being anti-semitic. There will be no attempt to differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel (even amongst its friends) and anti-semitism, and it will provide little in the way of any serious introspection as to how the world should be dealing with the issue of anti-semitism, beyond the context of criticism of Israel.
EQUALLY, THE UCU leadership must surely be aware that its intense one issue concern with Israel, when it should be focusing on its own professional issues or, at the very least, discussing a diversity of foreign countries which have serious problems of human rights, political freedom and academic freedom, have made it an uncomfortable organization for anyone who is supportive of Israel – even from a critical perspective as so many liberal pro-Israel academics are - or is openly and blatantly Jewish in their appearance and utterances.
This needs to be addressed by the UCU leadership if they desire to continue to be an organization which represents the best interests of all of its members. In her response to the Tribunal decision earlier this week, the UCU Secretary General stated that the "UCU will look at our own processes to see if improvements can be made in line with the advice given to us within the decision. We remain opposed to discrimination of any kind including anti-Semitism and we will work with energy and determination with all who will work with us to oppose it in the workplace and society at large." It is also to be hoped that the Jewish community organizations, for whom the Tribunal decision must have come as a big shock, will equally re-examine the way in which the anti-semitism argument is used. Neither they, nor the Israeli government, would want to create a situation where this argument becomes so over-used as a means of diverting the debate away from Israel and its policies, that when real issues of hard core anti-semitism come to the fore, they are ignored.
This may be asking a lot for two sets of people who appear to be very set in their ways. There is still the possibility that the litigants could choose to appeal the Tribunal decision before the courts. Whether this will serve any useful purpose (regardless of the outcome) is questionable. It would be advisable for this latest round of blood letting to cease and for both sides to re-examine the ways in which they do business.
If the words of Hunt, by all accounts a highly capable Director of the UCU, are to be believed, the two groups should actively seek ways of collaborating in combating all forms of racism, including antisemitism, as a matter of joint concern. They should also provide a more balanced platform, as befits an academic community, for the very real difference of opinion over Israeli government policies and the status of the Palestinians, without attempting to silence the voices of those with whom they disagree.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben- Gurion University and has been active in combating pro-boycott activities in the UK, and promoting joint Israeli-UK scientific cooperation. The views expressed are his alone.