Jewish issues again at UCU Congress 2017

Motions about Jewish issues are standard at UCU Congress. This year saw another attempt to undermine protection for Jews from the kind of antisemitism which disguises itself as anti-Zionism. The motion – 57 of the Business of the Equality Committee – was about free speech and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. It began “Congress notes UCU’s exemplary anti-racist work”, which was strange in the light of what followed.

Before I report how the motion went down in Congress I’ll indulge in a bit of free speech myself.

The first thing to say is that there was no motion that UCU adopt the working definition, and yet UCU was pre-emptively trying to ban it. I was aware of this motion because our branch officers tried to push it through in early March. Amazingly they found it appropriate to bump it from the middle to the end of the meeting [see update below]. I believe the presence of three of us in particular, sitting at the front (and refusing to be in the officers’ Stand Up to Racism photo) caused this awkwardness, since the chair observed in a non-welcoming way that the antisemitism motion was the only reason we had decided to attend. In my case that is absolutely correct – and here is why he is responsible.

Jewish-related motions are instigated by officers controlling some branches. The pretext of this one is free speech, but the same campaigners have been undermining free speech for years in the form of the boycott campaign against Israeli (and only Israeli) academia. Of course I find fault with that on grounds of relevance and sinister priorities, but there’s more to it. Their hostile interest in Jewish issues is so bizarre (compare it with all the motions warmly supporting other equalities groups) that any trust I may have once had in them on the bigger issues and motions is a distant memory. They didn’t even circulate the IHRA definition of antisemitism they expected us to condemn in 90 seconds.

Higher education workers who don’t feel involved in this matter or who don’t care about the labour movement just laugh at this weakness of UCU’s. I find it appalling though, because it means that in a rushed meeting cluttered with another Jewish-related motion, the text received a day in advance signalling that the role of members is not to think very hard, our union is actually giving us extra work to do. Because when you can’t trust your leaders fact-checking and scrutiny is what you have to do. And if there’s no time to do that extra work, then voting becomes problematic – so why bother attending when it’s so clear that the officers view members as fodder. Considering the attendance was short of quorate at that meeting, I doubt I’m the only person to feel this way.

In case I’m misunderstood, I’m coming at this as a non-nationalist and volunteer UCU department rep. I’m in favour of a working definition of antisemitism and I have little patience with objections to this IHRA one since it’s full of ‘may’ and ‘might’ and ‘taking into account the overall context’. In other words, it provides some valuable pointers to the forms contemporary antisemitism can take, and leaves the rest up for consideration and debate. So if it has been wielded by Jewish-interest groups (badly scared by the malignancy of the loudest Palestine solidarity campaigning in this country) to try to shut down events where Israel is criticised, then that is regrettable and to be opposed in its own right. But I can’t see that it is the fault of this highly qualified definition. It’s the venue authorities who are responsible for distinguishing between free speech and racism. And Palestine solidarity campaigners need to be better.

At Congress Sarah Annes Brown, professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin (who I think holds a less favourable view of the working definition than mine) spoke against the motion. Her statement:

“I acknowledge that there is some evidence of the IHRA definition being invoked in the context of preventing some university based events going ahead. In the interests of free speech it would be reasonable to conduct research about this.

However I would like Congress to consider whether it is necessary or desirable to disassociate itself from the definition completely in order to do this, to make it anathema in the way the QUB amendment suggests.

This whole issue has been a very polarising debate for years. I’d like to urge more nuance and a focus on what is really important here – protecting free speech. I quite understand why people have misgivings about the definition and some of the ways it seems to have been used. But it concerns me when people accuse those who think differently of acting in bad faith, as seems to be the case in a letter in the Guardian signed by many academics.

‘It is with disbelief that we witness explicit political interference in university affairs in the interests of Israel under the thin disguise of concern about antisemitism.’

The definition has been backed by Jeremy Corbyn and has been adopted by the NUS and the Union of Jewish Students. The government’s adoption has been welcomed by mainstream Jewish groups such as the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies. That’s not a reason for embracing it or ignoring any possible bad impacts, but it might perhaps give pause before an absolute repudiation.”

Update: A spiteful amendment (57A2) to the motion referred to Ronnie Fraser’s earlier legal case against UCU as “spurious accusations of antisemitism”. This prompted another delegate to speak up in objection to that, since she found it a disingenuous and offensive representation of the case and recognised the likelihood that UCU would treat any concerns about antisemitism as spurious. Her intervention changed a number of minds.

Unnaturally but predictably, the motion and the amendment were overwhelmingly carried by UCU delegates.  The other anti-racist, solidarity and inclusion motions, of which there were several, were carried or in a few cases, remitted. Isn’t it great that UCU is only soft on antisemitism.

~~~

Update 

From one of the members opposing the motion in my branch:

“My only quibble is that the attempt to ram the motion through the branch meeting is even worse than you have indicated.

The chair didn’t just want to push it through in 90 seconds while there were three of us opposing it. After you had both left because you had 2pm meetings, with the meeting already overrunning (it was gone 2pm) and people waiting outside for their lecture (a huge breach of both institution and branch protocol) he still wanted to push it through, and only my vociferous objection prevented it from happening.

He then tried the tactic of ‘you’d better vote for this because otherwise there will be something worse at conference’.

Most encouragingly, the feeling of the meeting seemed to be supportive of my argument that a hugely controversial and divisive motion like this needed the time to be debated properly.”

For the record – Israel matters at UCU Congress 2015

There’s always a hostile special interest taken in Israel at UCU Congress and this year was no different. I wasn’t there but followed the #ucu15 Twitter hashtag – eyewitnesses, feel free to flesh out the details.

There was a motion from the University of Brighton to confirm the boycott of Israel and circulate the PACBI guidance.

43  UCU and BDS campaign

University of Brighton Grand Parade

Congress notes:

1.     the achievements of the global BDS campaign, particularly in North America;

2.     the overwhelming adoption by Congress (2009 and 2010), after four years’ careful reflection, of a general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions;

3.     Congress decision (2009) that all colleagues be urged, in the light of UCU policy, to consider whether cooperation with Israeli institutions is morally or politically defensible;

4.     that unions have no mechanisms to impose a boycott, and implementation is only encouragement of individuals to reflect, hence legal anti-implementation cautions are irrelevant;

5.     advice to some members from UCU, and some public information about UCU’s position, have been misleading or inconsistent with policy.

Congress reaffirms its pro-BDS policy.

Congress resolves:

a. all members will be contacted individually, in a dedicated e-mail, reminding them of policy on Israel, and with a link to the PACBI guidelines;

b. any misrepresentations of UCU’s policy will be corrected publicly.

One of the more self-referential things about this motion is the muddling of ‘achievements’ in getting institutions to boycott Israel with the actual or probably ‘achievements’ for Palestinians which amount to none that I know of – but boycotters don’t bother themselves about that because the boycott mostly exists for their own aggrandisement. For an organisation which finds it increasingly hard to stand up to its own bosses it often seems that nothing better restores its sense of potency than standing up to Israel and the UK Jewish establishment. That the motion contains no mention of Palestinian needs or wishes adds to the impression of gross narcissism.

The PACBI guidelines for boycotters used to be along the lines of rant followed by directives, but lacked support for its adherents who, it turned out, were potentially legally exposed. As a campaign against Israel, one party in a conflict which is not one-sided, it would be partisan and hostile for UCU to circulate the PACBI guidance without including other viewpoints. Note that since July 2014 the guidance now emphasises that boycotting Israel doesn’t mean ostracising individual Israelis. Because of the antisemitic and Israeli-hating prejudices the boycott attracts, many Israelis have been personally targets of obviously racist boycott activism, hence this new aspect to the guidance is badly needed and long overdue. I’d be surprised if UCU boycotters discussed these developments, or are even aware of them. As far as I know the issue wasn’t raised and nobody proposed an amendment protecting the rights of Israeli academics. This is in keeping with UCU’s double standards on rights for Israeli academics compared to other academics. Note that motion 10 on overseas campuses called on UCU’s National Executive Committee to connect with democratic trade unions in other countries – however, this conflicts with policy from 2010 when UCU decided to sever all relations with Israel’s equivalent of the TUC (motion 31).

Thanks to Sarah Annes Brown‘s willingness to oppose the motion (update: for details see her comment below), a moderate number of people felt able to vote against it. The motion passed but was immediately voided because of longstanding legal advice sought by UCU trustees which casts doubt on the legality of boycott campaigning. Like UKIP and the Conservative right, UCU boycotters find their style is cramped by anti-discrimination legislation.

Another Israel-related motion concerned the cancelled Southampton Conference.

HE31 Composite: Conference cancellation and academic freedom

Leeds Beckett University, University of Winchester, London South Bank University.

Conference notes:

1.     the University of Southampton’s cancellation of the International Law and the State of Israel conference following political pressure;

2.     the official ‘health and safety’ reason was belied by the assurances of peaceful protest from pro-Zionist groups, and police assurances on security;

3.     this academic conference had a normal CfP, invitations to Israelis, and scholars with divergent views;

4.     6,000 signatories in 24 hours signed a petition condemning the University decision.

Conference believes the management decision was related to nature of the conference, not health or safety concerns; constitutes a surrender to political pressure; and is an unprecedented assault on academic freedom.

Conference instructs the HEC, in the absence of an appropriate apology, and in response to any such request from the University of Southampton UCU, to commence ‘greylisting’ of the University of Southampton unless satisfactory assurances on academic freedom are forthcoming from University of Southampton management, including in appointments, course design and staff research.

The Southampton Conference was organised by Israel boycott campaigners. It included a very small number of presenters who could be said to have dissenting views, sufficient only for a foil. I should say here that those people do not consider themselves foils, and would have put their arguments trenchantly. I’m not sure that the conference’s open call for participation was in place from the start – in any case, the obvious thrust of the meeting would have deterred everyone but the toughest dissenter from the majority anti-Israel line. For all but a tiny number of Israelis holding exceptional views, this conference would have been ‘about us without us’. The absurdity of discussing one country’s legitimacy without including the full range of views is what marks this conference out as a campaign meeting.  One of the organisers holds hateful racialised opinions of Jews which should have sounded alarm bells for an anti-racist trade union. None of this relates to Southampton’s security reasons for cancelling the conference, but it is important to the debate.

Moreover the cancellation was upheld in the High Court and deserves to be taken seriously even if, like several Engage contributors (though not me), you protest Southampton’s decision to move the conference off-campus. Instead we have a rush to allege that sinister overwhelming power has been brought to bear (subtext: by Jews). What is particularly galling is that these fulsome campaigners for academic freedom are totally quiet about an important precedent. Less than a year ago and for what seem to be the same reasons inept Palestine campaigning led Southampton University to prevent an individual Israeli academic, Mark Auslender, from presenting there. And unlike the anti-Israel conference, Auslender didn’t get offered support to present elsewhere. So perhaps if the Southampton conference campaigners had taken risk assessment as seriously as those of the QUB conference on Charlie Hebdo, they might have managed to pull off their conference.

But facts seem to slide off UCU Congress when it comes to Israel and so they voted to greylist Southampton. The only UCU greylisting policy I can find (correct me if necessary) is from 2007 – it relates to international activity but I can’t imagine the principles would differ much. It says that greylisting is supposed to be carefully thought through with a view to understanding the purpose and outcomes, and be capable of having an effect or creating an acceptable result. Greylisting also isn’t supposed to happen unless Southampton members trigger it, but Southampton wasn’t involved in this motion and when the motion came up for debate, I understand it was remitted from the Higher Education meeting because Southamption members didn’t support the greylisting. However, it came up again in a different session and was carried.

There was another Israel-related motion in support of Steven Salaita, an academic whose contract was terminated for the nature of his response to Israel’s last major military action in Gaza. The following motion was carried and Salaita’s reward for tweeting aggressively about Jews, Zionists and Israel and making some students feel unsafe on campus was to escape any criticism and be given a symbolic donation of £100 to help with his legal campaign.

46  Support for Steven Salaita (academic freedom) – London Metropolitan University North

Congress notes the University of Illinois’ revocation (in 2014) of the decision to appoint the Muslim-American scholar Steven Salaita just three weeks before his scheduled classes were due to begin.

Prof. Salaita, whose parents are Palestinians, had been a vociferous critic of Israel’s assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. University officials justified his firing on the basis that his many tweets on the subject were considered ‘uncivil’. A freedom of information request revealed that the university had come under pressure from many, predominantly pro-Israel, alumni and donors.

Congress:

condemns the firing of Professor Salaita as a blatant violation of his academic freedom

calls on the general secretary to issue a statement in support of Professor Salaita on behalf of UCU

authorises a payment of $100 to be made to support Professor Salaita’s legal challenge against the University of Illinois.

As a force in higher education UCU isn’t very influential. Several other motions were to do with union democracy and are indicative of a democratic deficit. UCU has been characterised as domineering activists and a correspondingly inert membership, both easily dismissed by sector policy makers. An important thing to know is that, when given a chance to have their say on boycotting Israel, even though the activists are pushing it the members reject it. The motions, the back-turning, and the double standards on academic freedom are the sorts of postures weak unions strike. The solution can only be for members to get involved and active.

Elections for the UCU NEC – don’t forget to vote – Sarah AB

The UCU is going through turbulent times as its membership continues to fall.   There is a split between those, such as Sally Hunt, who want to retrench – for example through reducing the size of the executive committee – and those who resist such moves, calling instead for renewed efforts to increase membership.

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=422602

On Engage, stories about the UCU have obviously focused on Israel boycotts and anxieties about other manifestations of antisemitism. But the reason people react so strongly to such concerns isn’t because they are anti-union but because they fully recognize the importance of unions, particularly in the current climate, and don’t want them to adopt policies or practices which are both wrong and divisive.

http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6515

If you are a UCU member you will probably have received your ballot papers by now.  Candidates typically invoke the same issues – job security, pay, pensions and equality. Given the fact that all candidates are signed up to such core trade union values, it seems reasonable to identify those who seem least likely to further alienate members – and of course potential members. These are the candidates for whom I will be voting:

Vice President

Dominique Lauterburg who describes herself as ‘an independent voice [who] will always put the interests of our union’s members first.’

Honorary Treasurer

Angela Roger who points out that ‘we can’t afford to lose members because they see the union as wasting money on divisive and ineffective campaigns driven by political ideology.’

Representative of Disabled Members

Roger Walters who wants a union which ‘listens to and respects the views of members rather than thinking that the activists and leadership know best, and which avoids futile gesture politics’.

Representative of LGBT Members

Mary Jennings who says she ‘resist[s] attempts to waste union resources on peripheral political causes.

Representatives of Black Members

Gifty Burrows

NEC HE Sector

Joe Gluza who says the union shouldn’t ‘waste our limited resources … to pursue causes which have little support amongst Members and which detract from the Union’s main duty to look after Members’ interests’

Jimmy Donaghey  

Julia Charlton

Gordon Watson

Roger Brooks

I will most certainly not be voting for Sean ‘Lehman Brothers’ Wallis.

https://engageonline.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/sean-wallis-antisemitism-lehman-brothers-anti-boycott-lawyers-when-in-a-hole-stop-digging/

Sarah AB

To Sally Hunt regarding UCU’s Holocaust Memorial Day film

An email to Sally Hunt from UCU member Vanessa Freedman. She sent it on 12th December last year and has yet to receive a reply. Meanwhile she posts it here.

Dear Sally

Thank you for your invitation to take part in the Holocaust Memorial Day film. I have no testimony to share as none of my family was directly affected by the Holocaust. In any case I have grave reservations about this project, which seems like mere window dressing given the UCU leadership’s continued refusal to address the issue of institutional antisemitism within the union – to the extent that one Jewish member has been driven to take legal action.

The Congress motion on antisemitism in 2009 that instructed  the NEC to organise events on Holocaust Memorial Day failed to mention antisemitism within the union; an amendment proposed by my branch – instructing the NEC also to investigate the reasons for resignations from UCU members apparently in connection with perceptions of institutional antisemitism – was defeated at Congress. Such an amendment should have been unnecessary: when letters to you include statements such as ‘I, like many others, can no longer bear the shame and embarrassment of belonging to an institution which is willing to discriminate against Jews, and whose readiness to do so is supported by leading members of its Executive Committee’ (Eve Garrard, 1 July 2008), and ‘this is the only organization with which I have been involved in which I have been made to feel uncomfortable as a Jew’ (Dov Stekel, 2008) you and the NEC should have taken these seriously.

Other instances of concern to Jewish and other members include UCU’s invitation to Bongani Masuku to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that Masuku’s statements amounted to hate speech against the country’s Jewish community; and Congress’s rejection of the EUMC definition of antisemitism, which has led to more resignations and statements like ‘whether intentionally or otherwise, this has made UCU an even more uncomfortable place for Jewish members than it was previously … your repeated claim that UCU abhors anti-Semitism is not borne out by the evidence; rather, the evidence points overwhelmingly in the other direction … I sent you three emails on related issues in 2008 … I think you would agree that a trade union which abhorred anti-Semitism would take such emails from an ordinary member seriously. Regrettably, I never received a reply to any of them … I no longer wish to contribute my money to an organisation which has a problem with institutionalised anti-Semitism’ (James Mendelson, 14 July 2011).

Unless you and the NEC are prepared to take these concerns seriously, initiatives to mark Holocaust Memorial Day are an empty, even cynical, exercise.

Regards

Vanessa Freedman

James Mendelsohn, Senior Lecturer in Law, Huddersfield University, Resigns from UCU

Dear Sally

Thank you for your message.

I was happy to sign the petition of no confidence in the government’s HE policies and, like you, I have very serious concerns about the White Paper.

Regrettably, though, I am no longer able to join in UCU’s fight against the government’s measures. This is because I am no longer a member of UCU. Following the passing of Motion 70 at the most recent annual Congress, I felt that I had no choice but to resign. Not only does Motion 70 reject the most widely-used definition of anti-Semitism in the world, it fails to provide any alternative definition. The motives of those who proposed the motion are clear: they rightly understood that, according to the EUMC Working Definition, their obsessive campaign to single out Israeli academics for boycott year on year might indeed be anti-Semitic. Whether intentionally or otherwise, this has made UCU an even more uncomfortable place for Jewish members than it was previously. I can no longer contribute money to such an organisation in good conscience.

Please do not send me the same generic response you have sent to others who have resigned on  these grounds. Sadly, your repeated claim that UCU abhors anti-Semitism is not borne out by the evidence; rather, the evidence points overwhelmingly in the other direction. For example, a union which truly abhorred anti-Semitism would have no truck with Bongani Masuku, whose statements were correctly defined as anti-Semitic hate speech by the South African Human Rights Commission. UCU, by contrast, invited Masuku to promote the boycott campaign. Does that sound to you like the mark of a union which abhors anti-Semitism?

Speaking on a more personal level, I sent you three emails on related issues in 2008, which are attached. I think you would agree that a trade union which abhorred anti-Semitism would take such emails from an ordinary member seriously. Regrettably, I never received a reply to any of them.

I no longer wish to contribute my money to an organisation which has a problem with institutionalised anti-Semitism. I am sure I will not be the last Jewish member who feels forced to resign, even at a time when trade union protection and solidarity are more important than ever.  Once again -please do not send me your generic reply. All I would ask you is: do you realise that the boycott campaign is now weakening the union’s numbers and credibility, at a time when a strong union is needed more than ever? And do you ever lie awake at night wondering why, in the 21st century, Jewish members have left UCU in droves?

Yours sincerely

 James Mendelsohn

Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Huddersfield

In 2009 UCU Congress was asked to mandate the union to investigate these resignations.  But Congress said no, it didn’t want an investigation into why people were resigning from the union citing antisemitism as a reason.

UCU members who have resigned:

David-Hillel Ruben

Ariel Hessayon,  Goldsmiths

Michael Yudkin, David Smith and Dennis Noble, Oxford

Shalom Lappin, King’s College, London   

Jonathan G. Campbell, Bristol University  

Colin Meade, London Metropolitan University 

Eric Heinze,  Queen Mary University of London

Tim Crane, Univesity College London

Eve Garrard, Keele University

Raphaël Lévy, University of Liverpool

Sarah Brown, Anglia Ruskin University

The Following UCU members have not resigned; their points of view too need to be taken seriously:

Norman Geras, Manchester University

Lesley Klaff, Sheffield Hallam

Deborah Steinberg, Warwick

David Hirsh, Goldsmiths

Stephen Soskin, Buckinghamshire New University

Ronnie Fraser, Barnet College

Ben Gidley, Oxford

Jon Pike, Open University, Resignation from NEC

Dov Stekel, University of Birmingham

Mira Vogel, Goldsmiths

Robert Fine’s account of Congress, Warwick U

Eva Fromjovic, Leeds University

Robert Simon, LSE

76 UCU members signed a public protest about UCU’s failure to take seriously the criticism made against it by the Parliamentary Inquiry. Read their protest, published in the Times Higher.

39 UCU members signed a public protest at the UCU’s refusal to meet with Ger Weisskirchen at his request. Weisskirchen is the OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office Representative on antisemitism. The protest, which went unheeded and ignored by the UCU.

What overseas issues are UCU Congress interested in? – Ronnie Fraser

Analysis by Country of the International motions debated at UCU annual conferences 2007- 2011

The University and College Lecturer’s union obsession with Israel and Palestine is clear for all to see when one analyses by country the international motions discussed by the UCU’s annual conference in the five years since its incorporation in 2007.

Nineteen of the forty-six motions (41%) debated are about Israel and Palestine, an average of nearly four every year.  The UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) and The University of Brighton each have their names as proposers on six of the nineteen motions.  Tom Hickey, a leader of the boycott campaign, is a member of the NEC and a lecturer at the University of Brighton.

This list does not include the 2011 EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism motion which was discussed came under the Equality Committee heading.

Notable absences from the list are Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia, Saudi Arabia….

Israel and Palestine -19

General -4

Burma -2

Colombia -2

Egypt and Tunisia -2

Iraq-2

Turkey -2

Zimbabwe-2

China -1

Cuba -1

Egypt -1

Greece -1

Haiti-1

Iran-1

Libya -1

Sri Lanka -1

Sudan -1

Why I am still in the dire UCU

“Now I’m going to explain why, in spite of this shocking state of affairs, I am not going to resign from the UCU.”

Geoffrey Alderman writes in the JC.

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