Commentary Magazine


How British Justice Failed Ronnie Fraser

On Monday night, as Jews around the world sat down for the first seder of the Passover holiday, anti-Zionists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere held a very different celebration to mark the comprehensive dismissal of a discrimination case brought by Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish math teacher, to an employment tribunal in London.

As I reported back in November, Fraser’s courageous battle against anti-Semitism in the labor union to which he belongs, the University and College Union (UCU), propelled him into a courtroom showdown with the advocates of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education. Fraser’s argument rested on the contention that the union’s obsessive pursuit of a boycott negatively impacted its Jewish members. A series of ugly episodes–among them the posting of a claim, on a private listserv run by the UCU, that millions of dollars from the failed Lehman Brothers’ bank were transferred to Israel, as well as the address given by a leading South African anti-Semite, Bongani Masuku, to a UCU conference–convinced both Fraser and his lawyer, the prominent scholar of anti-Semitism Anthony Julius, that the union had become institutionally anti-Semitic and was therefore in violation of British laws protecting religious and ethnic minorities.

The tribunal’s judges, however, didn’t agree, issuing what London’s Jewish Chronicle described as a “blistering rejection” of the entire case. As the news spread, anti-Semites on the far left and extreme right crowed that the verdict was a “crushing defeat” for the “Israel lobby” (in the words of the Electronic Intifada) and the just deserts of a “whiny Jew” (in the inimitable phrase of the neo-Nazi bulletin board, Stormfront). The miniscule Jewish anti-Zionist organization Jews for Justice for Palestinians dutifully lined up behind this chorus, declaring that Fraser’s “mission” to prove himself a “victim” had failed.

Why did the Fraser case collapse in such spectacular fashion? In part, the problems were technical and procedural; several passages in the verdict argued that the UCU’s officers were not themselves responsible for the specific instances of anti-Semitism Fraser’s complaints highlighted, while another lazily bemoaned the “gargantuan scale” of the case, asserting that it was wrong of Julius and Fraser to abuse the “limited resources” of the “hard-pressed public service” that is a British employment tribunal. The verdict also contained extraordinary personal attacks on the integrity of Fraser’s witnesses, among them Jewish communal leader Jeremy Newmark and Labor Party parliamentarian John Mann, and even insinuated that the plain-speaking Fraser was unwittingly being used as a vassal by the articulate and florid Julius!

Ultimately, though, highly partisan political considerations decided the outcome. After dismissing all 10 of Fraser’s complaints as an “impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litiginous means,” the honorable judges then leveled some acutely politicized accusations of their own. Fraser and his supporters were accused of showing a “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.” Their broader conclusion, that it “would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated,” is clearly designed to discourage other potential plaintiffs from pursuing complaints against the UCU.

Most disturbing of all is paragraph 150 of the verdict, which will doubtless become shorthand for one of the most insidious attempts to redefine anti-Semitism ever devised. After accepting that British law does protect “Jewishness” as a characteristic of individuals, the judges went on to say that “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel … cannot amount to a protected characteristic.”

This excerpt of the verdict should not be understood as protecting the rights of anti-Zionists to free speech. It is, rather, about protecting anti-Zionists from accusations of anti-Semitism by arguing that anti-Zionism is, by definition, not anti-Semitic.

Of course, elsewhere in the verdict, opposition to Zionism is conflated with “criticism of Israel,” which has the neat effect of making Fraser and those who think like him–as Julius pointed out, a clear majority of Jews–appear radically intolerant. But when the core themes of anti-Zionism are unmasked–the denial, uniquely to the Jews, of the right of self-determination, the portrayal of Israel as a racist, and therefore illegitimate, state, the presentation of the Palestinians as victims of a second Holocaust, and the use of the term “Zionist” as a codeword for “Jew”–we move far beyond the domain of permissible policy criticism into open defamation.

More fundamentally, the verdict denies Jews the right to determine those elements that comprise their identity and leaves the definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism to (often hostile) non-Jews. (As I argued in a February 2012 COMMENTARY essay, that has been the case ever since the term was first coined in the 1870s.) As Fraser himself noted in a statement emailed after the verdict was delivered, “[F]or the court to say that, as Jews, we do not have an attachment to Israel is disappointing, considering we have been yearning for Israel for 2000 years and it has been in our prayers all that time.” Fraser added that the verdict “highlighted the need for Anglo-Jewry to urgently adopt and publicize its own definition of antisemitism.” 

The lesson of the Fraser debacle is simply this: a single employment tribunal in the United Kingdom has created a precedent which will be invoked by every Jew-baiter around the globe; namely, that when Jews raise the question of anti-Semitism in the context of visceral hostility toward Israel, they do so in bad faith. That such a bigoted principle can be established in a democracy famed for its enlightened judicial methods is, perhaps, the most shocking realization of all.

So, yes, Ronnie Fraser was defeated. But so too was British justice and fair play.

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