The reason that we do not hear much about antisemitism anymore in the University and College Union (UCU) is not that the culture has changed. It is that there are no Jews left in the decision making structures of the union willing or able to oppose it.
For more than a decade now UCU has had a tacit deal with its core of Israel-hating activists. The activists pass whatever motions they like about boycotting Israelis and about the threat of Israel and what it calls ‘Zionism’ on our campuses; and then the union bureaucracy rules that they will not be acted upon because to do so would be illegal. The activists are happy because they can make their radical speeches; the bureaucracy is happy because it does not have to do anything.
Back in 2005 and 2007 this was fun for the boycotters because they were able to have a fight with the Jews; those Jews anyway who did not support excluding Israelis, and only Israelis, from our campuses. The boycotters enjoyed going up the lectern, preening themselves and speechifying about how courageous they were to stand up against Zionist power.
Nowadays it is not so much fun because there are no Jews left at UCU Congress who are willing or able to stand up against them. There are a few Jews there, but they are Jews who support and kosherize the boycott campaign; there is also a handful of Jews who keep their heads down for their own reasons.
The Jews, and others, who used to oppose BDS have been bullied, driven out and silenced. I myself am currently serving the eighth year of a ban from the internal union email discussion after having been punished for whistle-blowing over the antisemitic and bullying discourse which was normal there.
This year’s motion (full text below), entitled ‘Palestine’, was debated this week at Congress. With the boycott campaign comes paranoid rhetoric. Taken together and in context this paranoid rhetoric mirrors the themes and purposes of antisemitic conspiracy theory. The ‘notes’ clauses of the motion list the ways in which Israel is accused of conspiring to silence ‘criticism’: it procures UK Government guidance against boycotts; counter-radicalization is portrayed as an attempt to prohibit criticism of Israel; the conflation of ‘anti-Zionism’ with ‘anti-Semitism’ is held to be ‘orchestrated’; Israel is held responsible for a ‘drive’ to ‘access’ UK campuses for ‘state propaganda’; British laws against discrimination on the grounds of nationality and against antisemitism are portrayed as part of this conspiracy against ‘critics of Israel’.
The failure of western governments ‘to hold Israel accountable for war crimes’ is added to the picture. No mention is made of other governments; whether their failure in this respect is considered insignificant or whether they are considered to be succeeding in the fight against Israel is not made clear.
And then comes: ‘scholars have a duty to ensure voices of the oppressed are not silenced on campuses.’ Notice the wording. This is not about silencing Jews by boycotting them or by accusing them of speaking in bad faith; they are not considered ‘oppressed’ and there is no objection to silencing them. This clause is to be understood as a prohibition on anybody making a fuss about antisemitism on campus. In the world of UCU, making a fuss about antisemitism is recognized as a conspiracy to silence the voice of the oppressed; perhaps directly, if an antisemite who is considered to be oppressed is speaking; perhaps indirectly if a white male antisemite is speaking for the oppressed.
Malia Bouattia, the newly elected President of the National Union of Students, is a guest speaker at this UCU Congress. She referred to TV and newspapers as ‘mainstream Zionist-led media outlets’ and she referred to a campus with a strong vibrant Jewish society as ‘something of a Zionist outpost’. Bouattia is critical of those who support the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians; she advocates the politics of ‘armed resistance’ instead, including against Israeli civilians.
Congress ‘reaffirms its support for BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions), and for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions’. In the old days UCU tried to set up a McCarthyite political test so that it could exempt Israeli academics of whom it approved. Now it proposes an institutional test instead. If an Israeli is willing or able to disavow their institution and speak or submit to a journal or a conference without mentioning their institution then they may be exempted. The ‘institutional boycott’ is a myth; a political test by another name. It is an exclusion of Israelis who work at Israeli institutions. Why else would the PACBI ‘call’ (the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) say that the ‘vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics,’ have been ‘complicit’ in the Israeli human rights abuses which are offered as reason for boycott. There would be no sense in making this claim if no sanctions against individuals were envisaged. For more on the myth of the institutional boycott follow this link.
In any case, all this detailed thinking through is of no account to UCU Congress; it knows there is no chance of this boycott happening; not openly anyway. How these people relate secretly to their Israeli colleagues, and how Israeli scholars choose to relate to British academia, are questions only answerable by anecdote. An Israeli scholar once told me that he had asked a colleague at my institution to meet for coffee to discuss work of mutual interest; the reply was that he would be happy to meet if the Israeli would first formally articulate his opposition to Israeli apartheid. The meeting did not happen. The ‘grey boycott’ of Israeli individuals is flourishing under the surface; self-boycotting of Israelis who have no faith in the fairness of British academia is flourishing too.
One observer at this year’s Congress, the magnificent and courageous Sarah Brown, recently elected onto UCU Executive, spoke against the motion. Her speech was greeted with stony silence. The motion was passed overwhelmingly, with about fifteen quiet votes against.
The Jew-baiting atmosphere of ten years ago in UCU has subsided somewhat because it has been too successful. There is nobody left to bait; the enemy now, described in huge, scary and shadowy allusion, is lurking somewhere, everywhere, outside the room.
The lawyer Anthony Julius represented Ronnie Fraser, a UCU member, in an action against the union in 2012. They alleged that the cultural and institutional antisemitism in UCU constituted a violation of the Equality Act. The tribunal heard 34 witnesses give evidence about antisemitism in UCU, how it felt, how it worked and how it was facilitated by the union officials. The witnesses were union activists, scientists, sociologists, historians, lawyers, philosophers, Members of Parliament, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, academic experts on antisemitism and Jewish communal leaders. In the end the tribunal judged tritely that the attempt to allege antisemitism in the union was a bad faith political move to silence criticism of Israel. The repeated allegation of bad faith which was made against those who raised the issue of antisemitism inside the union was mirrored in the tribunal judgment. The UCU made a determined attempt to force Ronnie, a sixth form maths teacher, to pay them hundreds of thousands of pounds in punitive costs. Ronnie was bailed out by the generosity of his supporters and UCU was bought off in a behind-the-scenes deal. For more detail on the Fraser case, follow this link.
The alarm that was raised about institutional and cultural antisemitism in the UCU was not confined to that Union. We know now with hindsight that what happened in the UCU was not some strange aberration; it was a prototype of what was to come in the wider trade union movement and then in the Labour Party itself; where it has now been widely recognized.
I am still a member of UCU. I grudgingly pay it £23.31 a month. I do this because I won’t be driven out. I also do this because, when we go on strike, I refuse to be the Jewish strike-breaker. But I do not go to branch meetings any more on my own campus because I cannot bear it. And I do not get delegated to speak at Congress. As far as I know, most of the others who fought long and hard against antisemitism in the union have resigned in protest and in disgust. Some of them keep their membership, probably for reasons similar to my own.
9 Palestine, University of Brighton, Grand Parade
- Government guidance deterring Local Authority boycotts of unethical companies;
- ‘counter-radicalisation’ to prevent campus criticism of Israel, and boycott of complicit institutions;
- orchestrated conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism;
- the drive by Israel to access UK campuses for state propaganda via faux debates with selected critics;
- escalating legal threats and diplomatic pressure to intimidate Israel’s critics: including UCU Congress votes for BDS (2010), non-conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (2011), and against contact with Histadrut (2010).
- BDS responds to Western governments’ failure to hold Israel accountable for war crimes and international law violations;
- scholars have a duty to ensure voices of the oppressed are not silenced on campuses.
- reaffirms its support for BDS, and for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions;
- requires union officers to uphold Congress decisions when acting in their UCU capacity, and to resile from such external positions as create conflicts of interest.