Union Disunity

‘Why did a member of the University and College Union sue it for supporting academic boycotts of Israel?’

Ronnie Fraser is a sincere and passionate, though not uncritical, supporter of Israel. Now in his mid-sixties, he has spent the past decade or so teaching mathematics in schools and colleges. In 1998, Fraser joined a trade union representing teachers in higher education. Following the merger of his union with another in 2006, he became a member of the University and College Union.

The UCU is far from being a supporter of the Jewish state. Fraser’s view is that his union did nothing to stop institutionally anti-Semitic acts over several years. At its policy-making conferences in 2007 and in 2009, members supported academic boycotts of Israel. On legal advice, neither motion was implemented by the union’s executive.

I can well understand how upset Fraser was by decisions such as these. In 2007, the National Union of Journalists voted at its annual meeting for a boycott of Israeli goods, a policy I could not possibly have respected. I resigned, after more than 30 years’ loyal membership. 

During the same year, 47 Jewish members left the UCU because of its policy towards Israel, plus another 12 for unspecified reasons — although 53 Jews joined. Fraser stayed put, investing his energies in the Academic Friends of Israel — an impressive-looking body that turns out to be little more than himself, his wife and his computer.

His disarming admission to this effect was made to an employment tribunal in proceedings Fraser brought last year against the UCU. At first sight, this seems to have been a category error. Fraser was not employed by the UCU. He did not lose his teaching job. What was the basis of his claim?

The answer is section 57 of the Equality Act 2010, which says that trade organisations must not harass their members. Harassment for these purposes is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic”. Those characteristics include race and religion. To qualify as harassment, the conduct must violate the victim’s dignity or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him or her.

What Fraser was therefore trying to establish was that UCU had unlawfully harassed him by subjecting him to unwanted conduct relating to his race and religion. His strong attachment to Israel, he argued, was an aspect of his Jewish identity.

To win his case, he had to establish that the union was responsible for the conduct of those fellow members who had passed motions that were hostile to Israel. His lawyer based this claim on a concept of “institutional responsibility” that the tribunal found was “not, so far as we are aware, known to our law” and “wholly untenable”. It ruled in March that the UCU did not violate Fraser’s dignity or create a hostile environment. And Fraser’s complaint did not meet the test of reasonableness: a political campaigner must accept the risk of being offended by his opponents’ views.

Of ten complaints brought by Fraser, all but one were dismissed as without substance, devoid of merit, palpably groundless, obviously untenable or hopeless. The tenth had been brought 18 months too late. 

Fraser expressed his disappointment in a courteous statement. He rightly took exception to one phrase in the tribunal’s ruling, that a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel was “not intrinsically a part of Jewishness”. This appears to have been based on evidence that some Jews do not support Israel. But, even if the tribunal was justified in concluding that Zionism was not a protected characteristic, this finding  — though not binding on other courts — is glib to the point of offensiveness. 

The tribunal, comprising a legally-qualified employment judge and two other members, said Fraser’s claim showed a “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression”. It also represented “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”. In the Jewish Chronicle, the barrister Jonathan Goldberg QC called it “an act of epic folly”. He added: “You only bring such showcase litigation if you are certain to win.” Welcoming the ruling, the UCU reaffirmed its opposition to anti-Semitism and said it would treat Fraser and his views with respect.

Fraser cannot be blamed for bringing a misguided claim. But who transformed what the tribunal described as Fraser’s “simple, down-to-earth” oral evidence into the “magnificent prose” of his written case? Fraser was represented by Anthony Julius, a leading campaigner against anti-Semitism. But the best advocate is one who can take a detached view of a client’s case.

What explanation did Julius give the Jewish Chronicle? Since he is the newspaper’s chairman, I was confident he would favour it with an interview. Alas, he was “unavailable for comment this week”.

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