British Court Decision May Foster Academic Boycott of Israel

May 03, 2013

For years, Britain's faculty unions have debated the merits and morality of calls to limit academic ties with Israel because of the country's policies toward Palestinians. Now efforts to boycott Israeli academe seem poised to accelerate after the dismissal of a lawsuit that accused Britain's largest faculty union of fostering a hostile environment toward Jews.

Ronnie Fraser, a Ph.D. student at Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London, and the founding director of Academic Friends of Israel, sued the 120,000-member University and College Union in 2011 under Britain's Equality Act, claiming harassment and citing 10 incidents that created "an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating," and "offensive environment" for Jews on British campuses.

During a 20-day hearing before an Employment Tribunal, which hears labor and related disputes, Mr. Fraser argued that while sexist or racist language was met with zero tolerance during union discussions, anti-Semitic tropes went unchallenged.

In March the tribunal's three-person panel flatly rejected Mr. Fraser's complaints as "manifestly unmeritorious." In a 45-page decision, it said there was no evidence of "anti-Semitic conduct." While it described Mr. Fraser as "a sincere witness," the tribunal accused him of "bad faith" in making the accusations and lambasted him for "an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the union, said she was pleased by the "clear and overwhelming judgment in UCU's favor."

"There are many different views within UCU and wider society about Israel and Palestine, and this decision upholds our and others' right to freedom of expression and to continue to properly debate these and other difficult questions," she said.

A Movement Gaining Momentum

The tribunal's decision may pave the way for the union to consider additional moves to limit academic ties between Israel and Britain. (In 2008 union delegates approved a resolution asking members to question Israeli academics on their political views before working with them.)

"I think more of our colleagues will be willing to come out in public and say they are in favor of boycott," said Jonathan Rosenhead, a leader of the British Committee for Universities for Palestine.

He cited other recent victories for boycott supporters as signs that the movement is gaining momentum: In April the Teachers' Union of Ireland became the first lecturers' association in Europe to call for an academic boycott of Israel, and in the United States members of the Association for Asian American Studies voted to support a boycott. The U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel said it was the first scholarly group in the country to do so.

"The people who are against academic boycott are in disarray," said Mr. Rosenhead, who is a professor emeritus in the department of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Tom Hickey, a national executive member of the union, writing "in a personal capacity" in the British Committee's April newsletter, said the Fraser ruling had given supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign "the opportunity to raise, or to raise again," this issue "in every union that has not yet adopted the policy, and to do it now in circumstances in which the tribunal's judgment can be used in response to any rhetorical accusation of anti-Semitism."

'Stumbling Into Anti-Semitism'

For his part, Mr. Fraser said he was "disappointed" with the outcome of his case and had not yet decided if he would appeal. Some academics have questioned the tribunal's reasoning.

"Although I do not disagree with the decision, there is a worrying lack of concern in the judgment with the different ways in which Jewish people experience anti-Semitism. Some of the language resonates with an English distaste for Jewish 'excessiveness,'" said Didi Herman, a law professor at the University of Kent and the author of An Unfortunate Coincidence: Jews, Jewishness, and English Law (Oxford University Press, 2011).

David Hirsh, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths College of the University of London, saw bigger problems. "The tribunal can't see the point of the whole case, which is that there is a key distinction between being pro-Palestinian and stumbling into anti-Semitism," he said.

"We live in a place where a whole trade union and also an Employment Tribunal can look at this evidence of anti-Semitism and see none of it," said Mr. Hirsh, who is founder of Engage, a Web site that challenges contemporary anti-Semitism.

In 2011 the faculty union did issue a definition of anti-Semitism and warned against the depiction of Jews and Jewish institutions as "sinister, cunning ... mysteriously powerful."

At least one former union official said larger forces were at work in Mr. Fraser's case.

"The Israeli government is definitely involved in all this. I have no doubt at all," Sue Blackwell, a former University of Birmingham lecturer and a former union leader, told The Chronicle. "This is not a conspiracy theory on my part."

An official with the Israeli foreign ministry told The Chronicle that Israel had played no part in the case.

Correction (5/3/2013, 9:31 a.m.): This article originally said incorrectly that Mr. Fraser was a lecturer in mathematics at Royal Holloway College. He is not. He is a Ph.D. student at the college. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.