Defining Anti-Semitism

UK Jew’s Harassment Claim Fails

Paul Usiskin on the sometimes blurry line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

When I was nine, I was sent to the kind of school Dickens wrote about in Nicholas Nickleby. My first experience of anti-Semitism came at Easter, when after a class on Jesus, I was taunted with "the Jews killed Christ," which quickly became "you killed Christ." My knowledge of faith and Jesus was sketchy and I was shocked at my presumed culpability. I was "the son who didn't know" the link between my faith and Israel.

Eight years ago, I supported Ronnie Fraser, head and "sole trader" of Academics for Israel, at a teachers’ union conference in the UK. He was fighting a motion for targeted academic boycott of two Israeli universities. A fringe meeting of 80 delegates saw a debate between two senior women members. Before that, there were coordinated "warm-up" acts that stoked the fires of anti-Israel sentiment. When the anti-boycott speaker began, she was loudly heckled. She was not a Zionist, but an academic who believed in academic freedom. She later told me she recognized several Socialist Workers Party agitators in the room.

Ronnie spoke, clearly upset, and said what he'd seen was anti-Semitism. I watched the faces; they looked like they'd just been slapped. Later he admitted his accusation had been mistaken. But for Ronnie, son of Holocaust survivors, there is no dividing line between being a Jew and being a Zionist. His experience as a Jew and as a political campaigner fighting anti-Zionism is a complete whole. And in October of last year he brought a case to an Employment Tribunal against the union for unlawful harassment of him as a Jew.

He and other campaigners had successfully used the law before when a 2008 draft union congress motion proposing academic boycott was deemed beyond the union's legal powers. But legal advice to the anti-boycotters said, "given the importance of political freedom of expression," a harassment complaint based on the union allowing the motion's debate would fail. In many respects, this reflects the tenor of the Employment Tribunal's findings. It was uncomfortable with the "institutional anti-Semitism" with which Ronnie charged the union and which he claimed constituted harassment of him as a Jew.

The Tribunal, faced with the Herzlian task of finding a dividing line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, recognized that without an agreed definition of anti-Semitism, asking union witnesses whether a comment was or wasn't anti-Semitic "lacked any meaning." The European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) produced a working definition in 2005. Ronnie Fraser accepts it. The union rejected it. It has no legal status in the UK.

Ronnie lost his case. Reading the 50-page Tribunal Finding is a multi-faceted emotional experience. The Employment Tribunal is just that, and it is clear that its members felt their context was being overwhelmed, if not abused, for a matter so vast. But when law is confronted with matters as passionately contested as these, it produces conclusions that are constrained by law and law alone.

Facebook has been filled with verbal whoops and high fives for the union, some of the language of which verges on, well, anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. And Ronnie is moving on to working for a definition of anti-Semitism that may make it into UK law.

What is inescapable is how things have changed since my childhood. Anti-Semitism is not publicly acceptable, but then neither is racism, though expressions and incidents of both occur. The change is that Israel is an undeniable fact, and linked with it directly is anti-Semitism. Herzl thought he could stop it by moving Jews out of its path and into their own land. Did he imagine that his dream would perpetuate this longest of hatreds?