Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish UCU member who has been bullied, scorned, ridiculed and treated as though he was a supporter of racism and apartheid for ten years, is going to sue the UCU. His letter to Sally Hunt, written by Anthony Julius, says that UCU has breached ss. 26 and 57 (3) of the Equality Act 2010:
That is to say, the UCU has “harassed” him by “engaging in unwanted conduct” relating to his Jewish identity (a “relevant protected characteristic”), the “purpose and/or effect” of which has been, and continues to be, to “violate his dignity” and/or create “an intimidating, hostile, degrading humiliating” and/or “offensive environment” for him.
The letter alleges a course of action by the union which amounts to institutional antisemitism and it gives examples: annual boycott resolutions against only Israel; the conduct of these debates; the moderating of the activist list and the penalising of anti-boycott activists; the failure to engage with people who raised concerns; the failure to address resignations; the refusal to meet the OSCE’s special represenative on antisemitism; the hosting of Bongani Masuku; the repudiation of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism.
The Equality Act 2010 codifies our society’s rejection of racism even in its subtle and unconscious forms; it is one of the most important victories of the trade union movement and of antiracist struggle. The Equality Act is our Act, passed by a Labour government, a weapon designed to help antiracist trade unionists to defend workers who are subjected to racism.
How is it that a union is itself charged with its violation? The story begins with the campaign to boycott Israeli academia. It began to take root in the predecessor unions AUT and Natfhe after the collapse of the peace process between Israel and Palestine. By 2005, AUT Congress passed motions to boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan Universities on spurious grounds. There was a mass membership revolt in the union, an unprecedented recall conference was called, there was a whole day of debate, following debates on campuses up and down the country and the boycott movement was democratically defeated. But then Congress shrunk back to its usual size, the hard core activists reasserted their control and the mood to single out Israelis for punishment gained ground on the British left more generally.
There has been an unhappy and unstable stalemate in the union since. UCU Congress passes resolutions to support boycotts of Israel and only Israel; the boycotters and the Socialist Worker Party are allowed their demagogy, but they know that the leadership of UCU won’t ever implement a boycott because they all know that it would violate antiracist law in the UK. The rhetoric ratchets up, the Jews are bullied out and the union does nothing at all to help Israelis or Palestinians.
With the boycott campaign, which is antisemitic in its effect though not in its intent, comes an antisemitic poltical culture. Anyone who opposes the boycott is accused of being an apologist for Israeli human rights abuses; Jews who do not define themselves as antizionists are suspected of being Zionists; Zionists are denounced as supporters of racism, oppression, war, apartheid. Nazism and imperialism. People who are concerned about antisemitism are routinely accused of raising the issue in bad faith in order to try to de-legitimise what is always called “criticism of Israel”.
Now we have reached a tipping point. The government has found UCU’s weak spot, its institutional racism, and it has begun targetting it.
What will UCU do? There are two factions inside the decision making structures of the union. There are the hard core antizionists and then there are the grownups.
The antizionists will storm with anger that UCU is being sued. They will say that it is a matter of principle that UCU should defend its independence from the courts and that it should defend its own democratic structures and its right to make whatever policy it chooses. They will say that the Israel lobby is conspiring against the union, that it is hugely powerful, that it is in cahoots with those who want to privatise education, that it is playing the antisemitism card in bad faith and that it is putting trade union solidarity at risk. They will say that there is no question of antisemitism in the union and they will at all times try to construct the question as a debate about Israel and Palestine. The antizionists will be tempted to treat their right to demonize Israel as more important than building a united defence of education. They will say that the fight against the Zionists is the same fight as the fight against the education cuts.
The grownups in the union, including the trustees, and including the lawyers who will advise the leadership, will want to settle this court action and to make it go away. They will be worried about the immense cost to the union of defending its antisemtic record in front of a tribunal, both in terms of money and also in terms of humiliating publicity. They will be worried about the rules of disclosure. They will wonder what the emails between Tom Hickey and Matt Waddup and Sally Hunt and Mike Cushman might reveal if they were made available to Ronnie Fraser. They will remember that the union’s legal advice was withheld even from the National Executive Committee. They will remember that internal complaints by members of the UCU regarding institutional antisemtism were passed to a committee chaired by Tom Hickey, one of the central people responsible for the antisemitic culture in the union.
But what are Ronnie’s terms? The reinstatement of the EUMC definition; an apology from the union for its record of institutional antisemitism; a new code of conduct concerning Jewish members; an ongoing campaign of education within the union about the relationship between antisemitism and antizionism.
It would appear that Ronnie is ready to go to a tribunal. He must know that it will be difficult for the leadership of the union to agree to these terms. Evidently he wants his day in court and he wants to prove his case.
The antizionists will also believe they can win in court. And they will believe that they can blame the Zionists for the huge cost of defending their antisemitic record and for the disruption to UCU unity which will become even worse than it is now. They will think that it is enough to parade a couple of dozen Jewish antizionist academics before the tribunal who will say that the union has an unblemished record on the question of antisemitism.
The grownups will not believe that they can successfully defend UCU’s record on antisemitism before a tribunal and they will know that there is a good chance that UCU will be found by an antiracist tribunal to have breached our own hard-won equality legislation. They will imagine how the antizionist Jews will cope with unrelenting and forensic cross-examination as to the relationship between criticism of Israel, demonization and antisemitism. They will understand that the usual demagogy will fail to impress a tribunal.
The leadership of the union is now between a rock and a hard place.
Will UCU allow itself to be led into a train-wreck in court by the antizionists? Or will the grownups be allowed to open negotiations over how they will recognize, apologze for, and deal with UCU’s problem of institutional antisemitism? But this course of action would be greeted by antisemitic howls from the conspiracy theorists, who would say that Zionist power has forced the union to admit to that of which it is not guilty. Who in the union has either the power or the authority to lead UCU out of this predicament?