Academia,  antisemitism

UCU vs Ronnie Fraser: some thoughts on the verdict

Despite being deeply interested in the result of Ronnie’s Fraser’s case, I expected the ruling itself to be rather dry, with the result hinging on precedents set by case law.  While fully sharing the concerns which motivated the many other witnesses, and Ronnie himself, to pursue this case, I realized that the tribunal would have to judge it according to various quite technical criteria.

To some degree, of course, this has been the case – one very simple count against Ronnie Fraser was that several of the incidents he referred to were deemed out of time. There is also a long discussion of issues such as ‘vicarious liability’, as part of a determination as to whether UCU could be held responsible for the effects on members of actions carried out, not just by paid employees, but by, for example, the NEC.  My response to the (hugely disappointing) result would have been rather different if the ruling had limited itself to such matters.

However the later parts of the ruling went beyond these technical issues, and were less dry – and less dispassionate.  First (p. 18) a range of possible views on the relationship between Israel and antisemitism was surveyed – and it was noted that the claimant’s witnesses did not all sit on precisely the same point on this spectrum.  (I can imagine the other side’s counsel might have had something to say if we’d all had identikit views, which we could articulate with unhesitating fluency.) The ruling then goes on to, as it were, throw its hands up in the air and suggest that it’s hardly worth the bother of trying to adjudicate on such matters given the lack of precise agreement on terms (p.19).  But that is true of any ‘ism’ or ‘phobia’.

The ruling cited the controversy over two recent cartoons, one in the Guardian one in the Sunday Times. It was asserted that:

‘some attacked the cartoons as anti-semitic: others replied that the critics were merely trying to silence legitimate political comment’ (p. 19).

That’s a binary which will be familiar to many who have followed those issues, and it’s a very inadequate one.  As it happens I was inclined to agree with those who found the second (Scarfe) cartoon not antisemitic – but I certainly didn’t think those who disagreed were trying to silence legitimate political comment.  One of the big problems with our most vocal opponents is their insistence, not simply that we may be mistaken, but that we are arguing in bad faith – i.e. trying to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.

I can’t possibly dispute the more technical aspects of the ruling, and it would be completely irrational simply to assert that the ruling is wrong about incidents I didn’t witness, and cross-examinations I didn’t attend.  But I did think the judgment was framed in a way which reflected a disappointing failure to engage with the underlying arguments and evidence put forward to support Ronnie Fraser’s case.

For example, whereas the views of those associated with the All Party Inquiry into Antisemitism, such as John Mann, are described with implicit scepticism, the union’s response, including its suggestion that the Enquiry itself was ill-conceived because it should have included Islamophobia in its remit, seems to be treated uncritically (p. 25).

With the ruling, just as with the original case, one of the most significant elements relates to Bongani Masuku.  On p. 30 it is noted that Ronnie Fraser contacted Mr Waddup at 3pm on 3 December to raise grave concerns about Masuku’s invitation to a UCU hosted meeting.  It is then asserted that no evidence was available of the ruling at this time, although it is acknowledged that some indication of the problem could be found on Engage.  But a post with news of the full ruling was in fact published on 3 December, on Engage, albeit perhaps not until the evening, given that the first comment was dated 8pm.  In any case plenty of information about what he said was available online prior to that date, and a formal ruling shouldn’t have been needed to set alarm bells ringing.

Whereas those standing with Ronnie Fraser come in for various acidulated digs in the ruling, the discussion of Masuku (although there is some acknowledgement of a problem here) has a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ tone.  This is its staccato summary of the Leeds UCU meeting:

117 The conference proceeded. Mr Masuku spoke. The event was unremarkable and it was not suggested that anything improper was said or done.

‘The event was unremarkable’ – except for the minor detail that no one seemed to have been bothered that a man deemed guilty of hate speech was speaking on the sensitive topic of BDS and no one much seemed to regret it either:

As we have mentioned (para 71), the subject of Mr Masuku was raised at the 2010 Congress, when a motion referring to his allegedly anti-Semitic utterances and proposing that Congress dissociate itself from his “repugnant views” was put to the vote but lost.

By contrast the ruling takes on an aggrieved tone when describing David Hirsh’s words at a UCU 2010 conference on antisemitism (p. 33).

Here’s a reminder of that hate speech which had to be qualified first with the word ‘allegedly’ and then with scare quotes:

“…as we struggle to liberate Palestine from the racists, fascists and Zionists who belong to the era of their Friend Hitler! We must not apologise, every Zionist must be made to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our brothers and sisters in Palestine. We must target them, expose them and do all that is needed to subject them to perpetual suffering until they withdraw from the land of others and stop their savage attacks on human dignity…”.

“If the offices of the Zionist Federation and that loud-mouthed Rabbi and his SABJD were in town we would have marched there. All we wanted, as we still want to target are all who represent evil and suffering, whether its companies, individuals, offices, etc. We are working on identifying them now. It’s a pity if they are in residential areas, which unfortunately will not deter us. No one must enjoy peace while supporting and promoting the suffering of others, so goes our believe and we shall enforce it to its fullest.”

Towards the end of the ruling it is asserted that underlying the claim is ‘a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression’ (p. 44).  A value for just those qualities made me begin to take note of the boycott debate.   And in fact this case went far beyond that issue, important though it is.  I suggested at the end of this post that different standards for freedom of speech might be appropriate in different contexts.  This principle seems to be acknowledged by the UCU, in fact, given that its activists’ list has a moderator.

I’m all for freedom of expression – I am completely opposed to legislation against Holocaust denial, for example.  But if you are going to say that freedom of expression always trumps other concerns, in every context, then that amounts to saying there should be a free for all for sexism, racism and homophobia in the workplace – and the union.  Is it really a proper use of freedom of expression for a union to take no notice when it is pointed out that one of its invited speakers used hateful and inflammatory language targeted against South Africa’s Jewish community?

As things stand I must resign myself to being in a minority I guess.  For, even though we have had our reasoning, motives, and integrity elegantly dismissed to the delight of our opponents, my views on the issues surrounding the case remain unchanged.

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