Tearful UK Jewish academic tells court his trade union has crossed the line into anti-Semitism

Mathematics lecturer Ronnie Fraser breaks down under questioning in landmark tribunal

University and College Union logo
University and College Union logo

LONDON — A British college lecturer broke down in tears in court on Wednesday while explaining why he had remained a member of the academics’ trade union despite feeling that it was institutionally anti-Semitic.

“I continued to put up with hurt and humiliation because my parents were refugees from the Holocaust,” said Ronnie Fraser, a freelance mathematics lecturer. “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’, I don’t want my four children, my nine grandchildren, to have to suffer what they did.

“That is my motivation for continuing to put up with everything, the way I’ve been treated by the union. I didn’t want it to happen to them.”

Proceedings had to be brought to a halt for several minutes while Fraser, who had already struggled to contain his tears while taking the oath earlier in the morning, collected himself.

In a potentially landmark case against the University and College Union (UCU), which is being heard at an employment tribunal in central London, Fraser is claiming that the union created a hostile environment for him as a Jew by repeatedly crossing the line from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism. His case revolves, amongst other matters, around repeated motions to implement an academic boycott of Israel.

Earlier in the day, UCU’s lawyer, Antony White, sought to portray the disagreements between the sides as purely political, questioning Fraser at length over his role as director of the Academic Friends of Israel group. Reading through its mission statement clause by clause, he suggested that AFI was a “single-issue, campaigning organization” which helped others “campaign around political issues” such as the academic boycott and anti-Israel policies.

Fraser replied that “on their own, as you plucked them out,” the issues “could be termed political”, but insisted that the union’s “relentless” focus on the boycott attempts — despite a legal opinion that suggested that implementing a boycott would be illegal — created a “horrendous” situation for Jewish academics such as himself, which was humiliating.

Fraser described how “frightened” he had been by a demonstration that took place at a conference held by National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), one of UCU’s predecessors, in 2003.

“It was unbelievable, a totally unexpected demonstration,” he said. “It was the first time I’d gone to Conference…. I went to support a Trade Unions for Israel stand. All of a sudden at lunchtime… 30 demonstrators suddenly turned up in front of us, each one held up a big board with letters spelling ‘Israel out of Palestine”. They chanted this incessantly for three-four minutes, it was very frightening… Then the NATFHE badges appeared, ‘NATFHE defends Palestine’.”

When White suggested that the “confrontation and debate was political,” however, Fraser conceded, “The demonstrators were making a political point.”

Fraser seemed to struggle with questions concerning the dividing line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, stating several times that “I’m not an expert” and declining to elaborate. He also, at times, seemed to have difficulty answering White’s questions directly, asking for a large number of questions to be repeated.

Much of the discussion in the afternoon concerned a vote taken by the UCU Congress in 2011 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. The EUMC definition categorizes several anti-Zionist arguments as anti-Semitic, for example claiming that the state of Israel is a racist endeavor.

In his witness statement, Fraser said that “this decision was the tipping point and a step too far, leading me reluctantly to bring this claim. Their rejection was not accompanied by the adoption of any other definition, nor even by the promise of one. To me, as a Jewish member of UCU, this felt like a muzzle. If I couldn’t talk to the union about the anti-Semitism I saw around me, then I would have to talk about it to the Tribunal…. UCU has attempted to legislate anti-Semitism out of existence.”

White asked Fraser whether this was an exaggeration.

The union “took the one definition the majority of Jews would accept and effectively de-legitimised it,” replied Fraser.

He spoke of his increasing isolation as almost all of the academics who had supported him in opposing the boycott motions resigned in protest, over a period of years.

“I had been to Congress in 2007 and there had been an even-handed debate on boycotts, there were lots of other speakers like myself, especially Jewish members… By 2011, all I had left that I thought was reasonable was the EUMC definition. I didn’t want to go to Congress — I was worried I would be on my own. All the other people who had been there in 2007 were gone. All that I had left was the EUMC definition — then the Union voted it out.”

White also challenged Fraser’s statement that the EUMC working definition was “something of great significance to a Jewish member,” pointing out that three of the speakers against it were actually Jewish. He put to Fraser that the differences between them were not to do with religion, but with politics.

Fraser responded that those three speakers had been characterized in the union as “good Jews. I’ve been described… [as] a bad Jew. The good Jews were the ones who supported the policies of the union, the bad Jews were the ones who had be be held accountable for Israel,” he said. “I”m not a bad Jew, I go to synagogue. I’m a member of mainstream Anglo-Jewry who supports and believes in the EUMC definition. The three Jews you mentioned are a very small minority of the Jewish community.”

Fraser’s testimony as continuing on Thursday. The hearing is expected to take three weeks.

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