Questioned in court, head of UK academic union rejects anti-Semitism accusations

Questioned in court, head of UK academic union rejects anti-Semitism accusations

Facing a Jewish lecturer’s lawsuit, longtime Israel critic Sally Hunt denies members’ anti-Zionism crossed a line into racism

"I don’t agree it is a hostile environment for Jews," UCU secretary general Sally Hunt said in court Monday. (Photo credit: Courtesy of UCU)
"I don’t agree it is a hostile environment for Jews," UCU secretary general Sally Hunt said in court Monday. (Photo credit: Courtesy of UCU)

LONDON — Britain’s trade union for academics has “zero tolerance for racisms of color, but a great deal of tolerance for anti-Semitism,” a leading lawyer suggested in court Monday.

“There is zero tolerance for racist language where it’s racist against [people of] color, but a great deal of tolerance where it’s against Jews,” added attorney Anthony Julius, who has represented Princess Diana and historian Deborah Lipstadt and is an expert on anti-Semitism.

Julius was cross-examining Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), which has been taken to an employment tribunal by a freelance mathematics lecturer, Ronnie Fraser, over allegations that it is institutionally anti-Semitic. Hunt is the lead witness for the respondent, which is presenting just four witnesses after more than 30 testified for the claimant.

The case hinges on whether anti-Zionist debate within the union spilled into anti-Semitism.

Seeking to establish his contention that UCU was sensitive to all forms of racism but anti-Semitism, Julius asked Hunt why the union called attempts to boycott Israel “graylisting.”

Hunt, a longtime, fiercely vocal critic of Israel, replied that she did not know, and that the term predated her employment at UCU.

“You’re being evasive, aren’t you?” asked Julius. “You know precisely why it’s called graylisting.”

He suggested that the word “blacklisting” has racist connotations with which the union was uncomfortable.

“It does, but I don’t know its origins in the AUT,” insisted Hunt, referring to the Association of University Teachers, one of UCU’s predecessors.

In another tense exchange, Hunt said she thought that Fraser was “brave” to speak out against a 2011 motion, later passed, to reject the working definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC) on Racism and Xenophobia, which is often used in universities.

“He obviously felt that he was on the losing side of the argument. He was brave to speak up anyway,” she explained.

‘He is telling the truth as he knows it,’ Hunt says of the Jewish lecturer suing her union

“You think he was brave because he felt a great deal of antagonism” from the union members at the conference, Julius suggested. “That’s what he said.”

“He is telling the truth as he knows it,” replied Hunt, adding that the union enabled a “fair and balanced” debate.

“I put it to you that you have to say that because it’s in line with your defense in this case,” countered Julius. “But you say he’s brave because he feared an anti-Semitic mood in the union.”

Earlier in the day, much of the testimony concerned comments UCU members posted on an email discussion group known as the “activists’ list,” which Fraser contends were often anti-Semitic and created “an atmosphere of intimidation.”

For example, the court heard that in January 2010, following Holocaust Memorial Day, Keith Hammond of the University of Glasgow wrote, “Yesterday for me was a good opportunity to really remember the Holocaust and all those good people who went to their deaths because they refused to accept the kind of reasoning that is put in circulation now by Israel and its man in No 10, Gordon Brown,” a reference to the then-prime minister.

The comment, Hunt conceded, was “not a legitimate view. It was an ignorant view that doesn’t bear much attention before you can see it for what it is. Ronnie [Fraser] said a lot of it is ranting — that’s spot on.”

Listserv comments, she said, had to be legal and abide by the “aims of the union,” but she would not define what other types of comments would be illegitimate, and defended the general tone of the email list.

“Some of the views are being tested here. That’s for the tribunal to decide,” she said. “Some of the language used in the activists’ list is less than temperate, but members of the union are very well-versed in robust discussion.”

Hunt rejected the suggestion that successive academics — about 20 — resigned from UCU because they felt it was anti-Semitic. The real reason, she argued, was that they were upset at the political debate surrounding Israel and academic boycotts.

“If an individual resigns because they say they have been treated in an anti-Semitic way by the union, show me the evidence — that should be investigated,” she said. “If a member resigns as part of a political debate on the rights and wrongs of anti-Zionism and Israel and Palestine, that’s part of a political debate. It’s their right to stay in or go out. It’s very sad they left, but it’s not the only place it happens — [people resign over] pay, pensions, abortion rights. It’s simply what happens in unions.”

In 2009, UCU rejected a motion to investigate why so many Jewish academics were resigning.

An MK says the union’s unwillingness to discuss anti-Semitism within its ranks was ‘unusual and unique in hundreds of meetings’

“Notwithstanding this,” Hunt wrote in her witness statement, “I had discussions with [UCU senior management team member] Matt Waddup to consider whether this was a matter about which we needed to be concerned. It is my recollection that he examined the membership data and concluded that the number of resignations was small, and that therefore this was not an issue which should be given priority over other more pressing matters.”

“Do you agree,” asked Julius, “that any ordinary Jewish member contemplating the voting down of this amendment, then reading your witness statement, would conclude that anti-Semitism in the union — what we’ll now call a ‘hostile environment for Jews’ — was not a pressing matter for the union’s general secretary?”

“I don’t agree it is a hostile environment for Jews, and the answer to your question is no,” said Hunt.

Earlier in the day the court heard from non-Jewish Member of Parliament John Mann, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, which in 2006 published an official, extensive report into anti-Semitism in Britain.

In a follow-up meeting with UCU, he said, Hunt and other UCU officials wanted to talk about anti-Semitism on university campuses, but refused to discuss anti-Semitic discourse in their own ranks.

This was “unusual and unique in hundreds of meetings,” he said. UCU was “the only institution not prepared to enter into any debate or discussion of the findings . . .

“There was an incredible reluctance to admit there was anything to discuss — I found this astonishing. I was quite gobsmacked that one of the institutions wasn’t prepared to discusses the issue of anti-Semitism. There was no one else not prepared to do so.”

UCU, he said, presented policies on racism and a list of events it run about the Holocaust.

“That was used as the rationale to not being prepared to look at their own institutional problems. I made the point that they have to look at their own problems. They said, ‘We are by definition doing anti-racism things, so there can’t be a problem.’ ”

The tribunal will continue Tuesday.

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