UCU is actively alienating its Jewish members

University & Colleges Union (UCU) - an organisation that has suffered a series of resignations by Jewish members claiming institutional antisemitism - is fanning those fears

Adam Langleben is a Political Adviser to Labour peer Lord Janner of Braunstone

Last weekend, the University and College Union (UCU) – an organisation that has suffered a series of resignations by Jewish members claiming institutional anti-Semitism – fanned those fears by  actively voting to ignore a definition of anti-Semitism increasingly accepted on UK campuses.

A motion put forward by the UCU executive committee stated:

“Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS and local student unions in relation to activities on campus.”

“Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.”

However, it would seem as if the UCU have not even read the definition as the document clearly states:

“Criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The motion went on to propose:

1. That UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints);

2. That UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which is involved;

3. That UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.

This motion follows a spate of resignations over the past six years by Jewish members, with many citing institutional anti-Semitism as the reason. Following these resignations (the most recent of which happened yesterday), the UCU did not investigate these claims and has continued to ignore accusations from Jewish members.

A motion to look into the resignations was voted down by UCU’s Congress in 2009; this latest motion at UCU congress takes this a step further. The UCU can no longer be accused of simply being complacent about anti-Semitism, they can now be accused of blocking action on it.

The EUMC definition is by no means a definitive definition of anti-Semitism – anti-Semitism by nature changes with the times. The EUMC definition is one definition for our time, and the definition that the democratically elected representative bodies of the Jewish community broadly agree on serves as a useful guideline for understanding what anti-Semitism is and  how it can manifest itself.

Its widespread adoption would appear to be in line with the recommendations of the MacPherson Inquiry, whose report following the death of Stephen Lawrence stated that an incident is racist if:

“…it is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”

The MacPherson Inquiry goes on to define institutional racism:

‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.

“It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

This seems to be exactly what has occurred in the UCU. The UCU have continually ignored accusations of discrimination against Jewish members. In 2007, Gert Weisskirchen, then  SPD member of the Bundestag Parliament in Germany and personal representative of the Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism, requested a meeting with the UCU. UCU refused to meet him.

When David Hirsh of ENGAGE and Goldsmiths College made a complaint about institutional anti-Semitism to UCU in 2008, the union’s response in dismissing his complaint made no mention of anti-Semitism. More recently, in December 2009, UCU invited Bonganu Masuku, a South African trade unionist who  had just been found by the South African Human Rights Commission to have made anti-Semitic remarks, to the UK to speak about boycotting Israel.

When challenged about Mr Masuku’s comments, UCU defended him by saying the claims against him were “not credible”. 

Last week, The Board of Deputies of British Jews, The Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust jointly signed a letter to general secretary (and Left Foot Forward contributor) Sally Hunt asking her to drop this motion and to take the concerns of Jewish members seriously. These organisations also wrote to Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Phillips stands by the MacPherson Inquiry and stated:

“…if the object of harassment or attacks regards her treatment as being anti-Semitic, even if the perpetrator maintains that their action is politically motivated, the presumption is that the victim’s perception is what defines the incident.”

He went on to suggest that legal problems could arise under the Human Rights and Equality Acts if the motion was fully implemented.

All trades unions ought to take note: Accusations of racism, of any kind, need to be taken seriously and not simply ignored or written off. Any political party or a trade union faced with accusations of racism or discrimination should, at the very least, properly investigate them rather than pass motions denying there’s a problem.

Jewish organisations are now calling for an EHRC formal inquiry, a demand supported by John Mann MP. For the UCU, not only to ignore the concerns of its Jewish academics and community members – but to actively vote to dismiss them out of hand – disgraces the Left.

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