An academic has lost his case against the Universities and Colleges Union, which he alleged is anti-Semitic, with the furious tribunal slamming those who brought the case as having "a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression."
Ronnie Fraser, founding director of Academic Friends of Israel, an organisation which the judge said "consists of him, his wife and a computer", had argued that the UCU was institutionally anti-Semitic because it had voted to boycott Israel.
Labour MP John Mann and former Labour MP Denis Macshane were also given blistering rebukes in the judgment, with Tribunal Judge Snelson saying both gave "glib evidence, appearing supremely confident of the rightness of their positions."
Ronnie Fraser alleged that the Union was anti-semitic after it introduced a boycott of Israel
The tribunal ruled this week that "a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel or any similar sentiment... is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness and, even if it was, it could not be substituted for the pleaded characteristics, which are race and religion or belief."
Fraser had argued that the union’s “relentless” focus on the boycott attempts created a “horrendous” situation for Jewish academics.
Giving evidence in November last year, Fraser said he decided to take action after a vote in 2011 by the Union to reject the working definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC) on Racism and Xenophobia, which categorises several anti-Zionist arguments as anti-Semitic, for example arguing that a Jewish state is a racist endeavour.
Fraser told the Tribunal: “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.”
Fraser was represented by lawyer Anthony Julius, best known as Diana, Princess of Wales’ divorce lawyer and the author of books on anti-Semitism. But despite calling MacShane, Mann and the Booker Prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson as witnesses, all of his 10 claims of harassment were “dismissed in their totality”.
The 20-day hearing and a 23 volumes of evidence were “manifestly excessive and disproportionate”, the tribunal said.
The judgement said that the tribunal members "greatly regret that the case was ever brought. At heart, it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means.
"Lessons should be learnt from this sorry saga. It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated.
"We are also troubled by the implications of the claim. Underlying it we sense a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.
"The Employment Tribunals are a hard-pressed public service and it is not right that their limited resources should be squandered as they have been."
The judgment did not critise Fraser directly, and called him "a sincere witness" but hinted that he had been badly advised. "He believes passionately in the campaign which he has waged for so long.
"But... we were also struck by the contrast between his simple, down-to-earth style and the magnificent prose in which his written case was couched. We do not believe that it would ever occur to him to think that as a member of the respondents [i.e. UCU] he inhabits an environment of "thickening toxicity."
It went on to suggest that Fraser knew that he was likely to encounter passionate and personal campaigning if he chose to be a pro-Israel activist.
“He chooses to engage in the politics of the union in support of Israel and in opposition to activists to the Palestinian cause.
“When a rugby player takes the field he must accept his fair share of minor injuries. Similarly, a political activist accepts the risk of being offended or hurt on occasions by things said or done by his opponents (who themselves take on a corresponding risk).”
The judge said Mann gave evidence without ever having witnesses "any Congress or other UCU meeting.
"And when it came to anti-Semitism in the context of debate about the Middle East, he announced, 'It's clear to me where the line is...' but unfortunately eschewed the opportunity to locate it for us.
"Both parliamentarians clearly enjoyed making speeches. Neither seemed at ease with the idea of being required to answer a question not to his liking.'"
Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, told Times Higher Education: "This has been an extremely difficult period for the UCU staff and members involved in defending the union’s position and I am especially pleased therefore that the tribunal found our witnesses to be careful and accurate.
“The claimant, while unsuccessful, of course had the right to challenge the union in the courts and will be treated with respect within the union as will his views on this question.
“Now that a decision has been made I hope in turn that he, and others who share his views, will play an active part in the union and its debates rather than seek recourse to the law.”