No regrets for UK Jewish academic who lost landmark anti-Zionism case

The judges ruled scathingly against Ronnie Fraser, saying British law does not protect Zionist beliefs, but he’s fighting on against his trade union, which he says seeks to systematically demonize Israel

Illustrative: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

LONDON – The UK is already known as a hub for the delegitimization of Israel, but the situation is about to worsen. According to Ronnie Fraser, there is likely to be an upturn in anti-Israel activity on university campuses and among trade union activists.

Ronnie Fraser (photo credit: courtesy)
Ronnie Fraser (photo credit: courtesy)

The reason is a landmark legal case, launched by Fraser himself, which he just lost. A freelance mathematics lecturer, Fraser took the University and College Union (UCU) to an employment tribunal for harassment, alleging that its anti-Zionist activity – including several votes on an academic boycott – crossed the line into anti-Semitism to the extent that the academics’ trade union was “institutionally anti-Semitic.” In a mammoth case heard over 20 days in late 2012, 10,000 documents were presented and 29 witnesses testified on Fraser’s behalf, including two members of Parliament. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson also submitted written evidence.

The stakes were clear: win, and anti-Israel activists would have to be much more careful about the language and tactics they used. Lose, and they would gain some legal protection.

On the eve of Passover, the employment tribunal rejected Fraser’s case in scathing terms, clearly seeing it as an attempt to shut down debate on Israel.

“At heart,” wrote the three judges, “it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means.”

While the law protects race and religion, it did not protect Zionist beliefs or ‘an attachment to Israel,’ because they were not ‘intrinsically a part of Jewishness’

While the law protects race and religion, the judges ruled, it did not protect Zionist beliefs or “an attachment to Israel,” because they were not “intrinsically a part of Jewishness,” and the litigation showed “a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.” Calling the case a “sorry saga,” they regretted that the case was ever brought, and hoped it was never repeated.

For the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, several of whom testified on Fraser’s behalf, it was a considerable blow. In an interview with Times of Israel, Fraser says he was “saddened” by the decision, but three weeks on is stoical, buoyed by a stream of supportive messages from around the world.

He lost, he says, because the judges did not clearly understand what anti-Semitism is, particularly the “new anti-Semitism” which seeks to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state, not just the Jewish people.

Those who believe that Israel is not “intrinsically a part of Jewishness” probably do not understand Jewish heritage, he says. The problem is that there is no definition of anti-Semitism enshrined in British law.

“If I was to call you a dirty Jew, the police could take action. If I call you a Zionist and a racist, they won’t – it’s deemed to be political discourse. But Zionist is a substitute word for Jew.”

One lesson from the trial, he believes, is that the community must set, publicize and insist on its own definition of anti-Semitism – a challenge he is willing to take on himself. It must also reclaim the narrative of Israel being central to a Jewish identity.

“We have to define it as Jews, for ourselves. We can’t let other people define what Jews are,” he says.

Fraser, who founded and directs the Academic Friends of Israel group, was not always a campaigner. An amiable, mild-mannered son of Holocaust refugees in his mid-60s, he trained as an engineer and had no great interest in Israel until he joined the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s representative organization, in 1984. He visited for the first time in 1990. In 2001, he became a math lecturer at Barnet College in the Jewish heartland of north London and the following year joined the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, which merged with another group to become UCU in 2006.

While the majority of the union’s membership had and has no interest in Israeli issues, “a small number of activists on the left took control of the executive and made life difficult,” he says.

Initially Fraser found many like-minded people on Middle Eastern issues, but he became increasingly isolated as successive Jewish members (and a few non-Jews) resigned in protest at what they saw as UCU’s unreasonable focus on Israel/Palestine. Among the issues raised in Fraser’s case were repeated resolutions promoting an academic boycott; 1,500 messages concerning the Middle East out of 7,000 on the activists’ email list between 2007-2011; the hosting of a South African trade unionist who was under investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission for making inflammatory comments about Jews; and allegations of bullying at union conferences and meetings.

In May 2011, the UCU annual congress voted on a proposal to reject the working definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC) on Racism and Xenophobia, which categorizes several anti-Zionist arguments as anti-Semitic, for example claiming that the state of Israel is a racist endeavor. For Fraser this was a turning point. He believed UCU was “legislating anti-Semitism out of existence” in order to stifle debate about its anti-Israel activity.

By then he felt so isolated that he requested that another Jewish member accompany him into the conference hall.

‘The Union’s policies had ethnically cleansed Congress of people like me, so as an Orthodox Jew I was on my own’

“The Union’s policies had ethnically cleansed Congress of people like me, so as an Orthodox Jew I was on my own,” he asserts.

During the meeting, Fraser challenged members to take complaints of anti-Semitism more seriously: “Instead of being listened to, I am routinely told that anyone who raises the issue of anti-Semitism is doing so in bad faith,” he said from the podium. “Congress, imagine how it feels when you say that you are experiencing racism, and your union responds: stop lying, stop trying to play the anti-Semitism card.”

Prefiguring his sentiments about the trial, he added, “You, a group of mainly white, non-Jewish trade unionists, do not have the right to tell me, a Jew, what feels like anti-Semitism and what does not.”

According to one observer, this was met with “stony silence.”

When the UCU vote took place, Fraser counted just four votes against including his own, compared to around 200 in favor.

“It was personal,” he says. “It was a huge defeat emotionally. I was so upset by it. I’m not a very emotional person really – that’s why I can do campaigning – but I was really upset for three days. I knew then that something had to be done.”

That is when he decided to sue, aided by superstar lawyer Anthony Julius of Mishcon de Reya, best known as Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, but also an expert on anti-Semitism who had long been involved in the UCU issue and even previously threatened the union with legal action.

‘It is my way of saying “never again”‘

In fact, Fraser’s emotions were on display again during the trial, when he was visibly tearful while taking his oath, and then again broke down explaining why he had refused to leave the union even as he believed it mistreated him: “I continued to put up with hurt and humiliation because my parents were refugees from the Holocaust. My mother’s parents, we think, died in Auschwitz as a result of the Nazi extermination of Jews and anti-Semitism. It is my way of saying ‘never again’.”

Over two days of cross-examination, UCU’s lawyer pressed him, and later other witnesses, on one point: Is there or is there not, within the Jewish community, “a range of views” about Israel? The implication was that opposing Israel does not make one anti-Semitic.

At the time Fraser seemed to occasionally struggle to formulate his answers. He now agrees that there is a spectrum of opinions, but says it is wrong to award equal legitimacy to “the views of a minority of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist Jews and the views of the majority of the community” who do support the Jewish state, since a connection to Israel is a central part of Jewishness.

He denies, however, that he wanted to curtail anyone’s freedom of speech, as the judges alleged in their verdict.

“The debate about the conflict can continue until the cows come home,” he says. “I only care about the point at which it spills into anti-Semitism, and then it’s personal.”

This is why the tribunal was wrong to suspect him of trying to “achieve a political end,” he adds.

‘This is not political for me, it’s not about Israel and the Palestinians. It’s about anti-Semitism’

“This is not political for me, it’s not about Israel and the Palestinians,” he says. “It’s about anti-Semitism.”

Fraser seems outraged by the judges’ suggestion that his case was “gargantuan” in scale, “manifestly excessive and disproportionate,” and a waste of the court’s time and resources. He returns to the question he asked the UCU delegates when they rejected the EUMC definition: “Imagine how it feels when you say that you are experiencing racism,” and are told, “stop trying to play the anti-Semitism card.”

While Fraser is still getting legal advice about whether to appeal the verdict, he says he hopes the result does not dissuade others from taking similar action.

“It was a very harsh decision, but we are pioneers in this, claiming institutional anti-Semitism. Maybe others will be more successful.”

He is dismissive of those who now claim that his case should never have been launched in the first place, saying that they did not complain at the time and are just reluctant to make a fuss, and insists that he has “no regrets at all.”

In fact, he hopes that at least one positive may come out of his case: that even if the anti-Israel activists are emboldened, the trade unions’ managements will be more transparent and more professional in dealing with their Jewish members’ concerns.

Despite everything that has passed, he intends to stick around UCU to find out. “I am going to be a UCU member for the foreseeable future,” he says. “If I give up, they’ve won.”

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