The UCU, anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel

Borderline Views: Only 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.

pro Israel demonstrators in London 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
pro Israel demonstrators in London 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
This reached 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 delegates.
There wasn’t even a serious debate as to why so many Jewish members of this union felt uncomfortable and were cancelling their membership.
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 universities.
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 politics.
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 their behalf.
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 recent years.
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.
Only 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 meaningless.
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.