How Israel’s supporters are attempting to shut down boycott debate in UK unions

27 December 2012

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An anti-boycott activist’s lawsuit against his own union is a test balloon for the pro-Israel lawfare strategy.

(Bob MacCallum / Twitter)

A panel of three judges listened patiently last month as witness after witness lined up to support Ronnie Fraser’s case against the University and College Union, of which he is a member, for “institutional anti-Semitism.”

Fraser alleges union motions passed over the last few years have discriminated against him as a Jew, after they called for discussion of the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli universities.

But as previously reported by The Electronic Intifada, Fraser’s definition of anti-Semitism is so wide as to conflate all criticism of Israel with hatred for Jews (a form of logic some would argue is in itself anti-Semitic).

Fraser’s lawsuit and his long-standing activism against the Israel boycott begs the question: is Fraser’s case being funded, supported or coordinated with the government of Israel? And who are the forces behind it?

The scale of the case

At the end of October, immediately before the three-week hearing, a panel of three judges spent a week reading a copious amount of material. The documents filed ran into 23 binders of witness statements and other documents.

Fraser’s team reportedly filed more than 30 statements, while the University and College Union relied on seven, all from union officials (“UK academic union faces claims of ‘institutional anti-Semitism’,” The Times of Israel, 30 October).

While this may sound like a strategic miscalculation, it had the advantage of giving Antony White, the head of the union’s legal team, the lion’s share of the cross examination.

Fraser’s witnesses frequently indulged in tedious speech-making, giving long-winded answers which often avoided answering simple questions. On the final day, White said of Fraser’s own evidence that: “he wasn’t a witness who found it easy to give a direct answer” — a vice typical of many of them, according to White.

According to one Israeli media account: “Fraser seemed to struggle with questions concerning the dividing line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, stating several times that ‘I’m not an expert’ and declining to elaborate. He also, at times, seemed to have difficulty answering White’s questions directly, asking for a large number of questions to be repeated” (“Tearful UK Jewish academic tells court his trade union has crossed the line into anti-Semitism,” The Times of Israel, 1 November).

Fraser’s witness statement was “deliberately misleading” on a number of points, submitted White on the final day.

Prominent Zionist figures appeared in court to support Fraser and testify in his case. Labor Friends of Israel’s Denis MacShane was one of them.

With unfortunate timing, MacShane had to resign as a member of parliament shortly before. A parliamentary committee discovered he had filed false invoices, in the “gravest case” of abuse of the expenses system they had ever come across. MacShane said some of these claims were filed to support his work in Europe against anti-Semitism (“Labour expels Denis MacShane over false expenses invoices,” Guardian, 2 November).

Who is Ronnie Fraser?

Formerly a lecturer at Barnet College, since initiating the lawsuit in July 2011, Fraser has been describing himself to press as a freelance mathematics lecturer.

But he has also been a long-standing activist against the academic boycott, and has written several long essays on the subject.

In one of these, published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Fraser cautioned: “The antiboycott endeavor must … carefully choose [its] battles” (“The Academic Boycott of Israel: A Review of the Five-Year UK Campaign to Defeat It,” 2 March 2008).

The Jerusalem think tank is run by Dore Gold, an adviser of former Israeli prime minister and accused war criminal Ariel Sharon.

Fraser’s group, Academic Friends of Israel, founded as a company in 2004, is not wealthy enough to sustain an expensive legal campaign. According to documents filed with Companies House, its net worth has never been above £3,930 ($6,388), and that was in November 2005. Its most recent filing on 30 November listed only £1,731 ($2,814) net worth.

In his final submissions, Fraser’s lawyer reminded the court that according to Fraser, Academic Friends of Israel is “headquartered in his bedroom” and that its “members” were in fact the “involuntary recipients of his email communications.”

The “grounds of defense” document filed by the union’s lawyer states that in a 17 April 2008 email to the University and College Union’s “activists list,” Fraser wrote: “I consider an anti-Semitic comment to be one that is directed against Jews or targeting specifically the State of Israel which was conceived as a Jewish state.”

According to the union’s legal team, this is a wider definition than that put forward in the lawsuit.

Asked for comment in the corridors outside the courtroom, Fraser would only say he could not to speak to The Electronic Intifada.

The Electronic Intifada later called Fraser to ask where his funding for the case was coming from. He said he would not be talking to the press until judgment is received.

Firm represents Israeli government’s interests

Anthony Julius, Fraser’s lawyer, also seems to have a definition of anti-Semitism that includes any criticism of Israel. Addressing a 2007 meeting of anti-boycott activists, he said: “anyone who is irrationally hostile to Jews or a Jewish project … which is Israel — is an anti-Semite. End of story” (“‘Engage’ says no to boycotting Israel (Anthony Julius),” YouTube video, time code 02:32).

Julius is famous for handling Princess Diana’s £17-million (then approximately $22.5 million) divorce settlement in the 1990s, and, more recently, for his involvement in Heather Mills’ divorce from music legend Paul McCartney. In 2007, he was named the second-most famous lawyer in the UK (“Revealed: UK’s most famous lawyer,” The Lawyer, 12 September 2007).

But he is not an employment expert like Antony White, head of the University and College Union’s legal team. And in court, Julius seemed under-prepared, turning the judges to the wrong documents on several occasions, admitting once to “the chaos of my false references.”

His firm Mishcon de Reya has a special department for Israel-related cases which its website boasts acted on behalf of two Israeli universities on “an anti-Israeli boycott” in the UCU’s predecessor unions in 2005 and 2006.

Julius and Mishcon de Reya also approached Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics store, about getting an injunction against boycott protesters (whose campaign to shut down the London store ultimately succeeded last year) (“Ahava finally closes its doors in London,” The Jewish Chronicle 27 September 2011).

In 2003, the firm acted for the Israeli embassy and Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, objecting to the Press Complaints Commission about a cartoon in The Independent that depicted the accused war criminal as a grotesque monster (the complaint was rejected and the cartoon won a Political Cartoon of the Year award) (“Mishcon de Reya, solicitors on behalf of the Embassy of Israel and Ariel Sharon,” Press Complaints Commission, report 62 [undated]).

Antony Julius had taken on Fraser’s case pro bono, he said in a phone call.

Julius defended the readiness of his case, and what he said was an “ironic” comment about his chaotic references: “look at the written submissions and the range of witnesses that were deployed to see how ludicrous it is to say we were not prepared.”

He denied the case was receiving any support from the Israeli government: “I’m sorry to disappoint your fantasy of a conspiracy, but no it isn’t … Why would you assume it’s being supported by the Israeli government? … The question itself can only come from a person who is in thrall to such a fantasy.”

But one of Julius’s own witnesses was boasting to the Israeli press earlier this year about just such a “fantasy.”

Jeremy Newmark told the Israeli daily Haaretz that his Jewish Leadership Council was working with the Israeli government to take legal action against public services union UNISON over an alleged boycott of Moty Cristal, an Israeli army officer in the Crisis Negotiation Unit: “We are liaising closely with the government of Israel in this matter.” The paper also reported that Cristal’s lawyer is James Libson — Executive Partner at Mishcon de Reya (“Jewish leaders hope to delegitimize Britain’s Israel boycott,” 24 August).

This writer saw Libson in court keeping an eye on the Fraser case.

A “voice for Israel” in the unions?

Although the union has so far not implemented an academic boycott, congress after congress has passed motions generally supportive of boycotts. The anti-boycott membership base, then, seems to be a small minority. But a vocal and well-supported one.

Have some members joined the union, possibly backed by well-funded and influential institutions connected to the state of Israel, for the purpose of sabotaging the academic boycott?

The Electronic Intifada has obtained a November 2011 video of Jeremy Newmark (now removed from YouTube) in which he encouraged Zionist activists to joins unions to be “a voice for Israel” and combat boycott motions. “If you’re not in a trade union and you’re able to join one: join one. When you see these resolutions appear, speak out,” he told a small audience attending a session of The Big Tent For Israel, a conference that brought together a wide variety of Zionist groups which he addressed.

One former University and College Union member, James Mendelsohn, admitted under White’s cross-examination that he had joined “in part” to combat boycotts of Israel (though it wasn’t the only reason, he said).

Not long after Fraser filed this suit, Mendelsohn wrote a letter resigning from the union to secretary-general Sally Hunt, claiming “Jewish members have left UCU in droves” — which the union disputes (“James Mendelsohn, Senior Lecturer in Law, Huddersfield University, Resigns from UCU,” Engage blog, 14 July 2011).

Dan Ashley at the University and College Union press office said the union would not comment to the press about the case.

Lawfare

Lawfare” is a term often used by pro-Israel groups for use of the law to attack or defend Israeli policies. Influential Israeli think tank the Reut Institute described it as part of the Israel “Delegitimization Network” — its term for the Palestine solidarity movement. Reut once called for the government of Israel to “sabotage” the Palestine solidarity movement.

Whatever verdict is handed down in March or April 2013, the movement towards boycott, divestment and sanctions in the UK’s unions is already so far advanced that it seems unlikely to be reversed.

Even the most conservative of the UK’s unions don’t take lightly to legal threats made from outside lobby groups.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and worked in occupied Palestine.

Comments

Great investigative journalism! I enjoy reading your contribtuions to EI. Good work!