A fighter for Jewish freedom: In praise of Ronnie Fraser

I first met Ronnie Fraser, director of Academic Friends of Israel, in 2011 at the Big Tent for Israel conference in Manchester.  He attended a panel session I participated in on Israel Advocacy and asked a very pointed question about the limits of engaging with anti-Zionists, which elicited a broader discussion regarding whether it is worth civilly debating with those who would deny Jews the right to statehood.

Fraser’s decision to take on the British academic establishment suggested that he, for one, clearly knew the answer to this question.  

In 2011 Fraser took legal action against the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK  in the face of what he argued was institutional antisemitism, which included the union’s decision to reject the EU Working Definition of Antisemitism on the grounds that it had the effect of ‘silencing debate on Israel’. 

Here are the relevant Israel related passages from the EU working definition of Antisemitism, much of which the UCU evidently objected to:

  • denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor
  • applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
  • using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis
  • drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

As David Hirsh argued on the UCU decision to reject the EU working definition: 

“…the disavowal of the EUMC definition allows the union to carry on treating ‘Zionists’ as disloyal, singling out Israel and only Israel for boycott, holding Israeli universities and scholars responsible for their government, and allowing ‘Zionist’ union members to be denounced as Nazis or supporters of apartheid.

Israel murders children? Israel controls US foreign policy? Star of David = Swastika stuck on your office door? Jews invent antisemitism to delegitimise criticism of Israel? Host a man found guilty of hate speech by the South African Human Rights commission? Exclude nobody but Israelis from the global academic community? All of these are considered, implicitly by UCU motions, and clearly by UCU norms, to constitute ‘criticism of Israel’ and so are defined, in practice, as not being antisemitic.”

Fraser, a Jewish UCU member, initiated legal action arguing that the atmosphere of antisemitism created an ‘intimidating’, ‘hostile’, ‘humiliating’, ‘offensive’ work environment’ for him.

A few days ago, the Employment Tribunal dismissed his claim:

Ronnie Fraser’s personal statement on the tribunal’s dismissal of his claim against the UCU reads as follows:

I am naturally disappointed by the decision of the Employment Tribunal to dismiss my claim of harassment against the University and College Union (UCU).  I am however very grateful that the hearing provided us with the opportunity to raise and discuss in great detail the issues of discrimination and antisemitism which are so important to Anglo Jewry.

I believe that the many witnesses we called were able to provide evidence to the tribunal of an intolerable atmosphere over a number of years and that the UCU did nothing to stop these institutionally anti-Semitic acts taking place.

Having read the judgment there are two points which greatly concern me. The first is “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel cannot amount to a protected  characteristic. It is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness…” (para 150). For 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. The second point highlighted the need for Anglo-Jewry to urgently adopt and publicise its own definition of antisemitism. 

As a member of the Board of Deputies I intend to campaign for us as a community to accept a definition of Jewishness which includes a connection with Israel and the adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism.

I would like to thank my wife, my family, my witnesses, and all those who supported my action both from within the Jewish community and elsewhere for their incredible support and understanding over the last two years.

I would also like to thank my solicitor Anthony Julius and all the staff of Mishcon De Reya for all their magnificent work and support.

Ronnie Fraser may have lost one legal battle but, in boldly challenging those intoxicated by hatred towards the only Jewish homeland that ever was and ever will be, he hopefully will inspire others to continue the broader fight. 

The economic, social, academic and political exclusion of millions of Jews from the international community, in the form of boycotts or other such codified restrictions, has a dark and dangerous history, and is anathema to progressivism and equality even broadly understood.  

Further, questioning the Jewish state’s right to live, whether such a rejection of Jewish self-determination is couched as a “one-state solution” or by other such euphemisms, represents an assault on Jews’ political rights, an ominous threat to their physical safety, and should be seen by genuine anti-racists as morally beyond the pale.

Jews in the UK and elsewhere need to see in Fraser’s refusal to bow down, in the face of a reactionary assault by the British elite against fundamental Jewish rights, the broader truth that equality for Jewish minorities which is contingent upon passing a political litmus test – implicitly requiring that they morally distance themselves from fellow Jews in the only state with a Jewish majority – is not ‘equality’ at all.

Those “who wish to ensure that the Jewish liberation movement is more than a passing phenomenon”, Hadar Sela has forcefully argued, “must take responsibility for it and ownership of it”, and “stop being nice, polite and passive” in the face of such determined malevolence. 

It is a fool’s errand to civilly debate with those who advocate for the erosion of Jews’ inalienable right to equality.  So, let Ronnie Fraser remind Jews around the world that they must reject the political urge to “get along to go along”, that they will never truly be free until all Jews are truly free, and, most urgently, on the necessity of understanding the historical and moral imperative that there are some things in life worth fighting for.   

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