I have resigned from the University and College (UCU), the only recognised trade union representing academics in higher education in the UK. Two events led up to this decision, although in truth I had always had an uneasy relationship with the union, given its deep tradition of anti-Zionism.
The first event was the antisemitic reaction online to the tragedy at Meron – celebrating the deaths of “Israeli settlers” in “north occupied Palestine” [see the Jewish Journal, April 30th]. On the same day, I read a round-robin email from the UCU branch at UCL where I work setting out in detail their ongoing opposition to the university’s adoption of the IHRA definition. The document indicated that it was fine to regard Israel as a racist settler-colonial state, and argued that there could never be anything antisemitic associated with this line of argument – in other words anti-Zionism and antisemitism are categorically distinct.
Then I thought – I’m really sure that celebrating the deaths of Jews as the vanquishing of settlers is antisemitic, it does cross the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
The UCU message did not cross this line in and of itself, but showed a cruel indifference to it. The same indifference we saw from Corbyn and Labour and that we saw in Durban in 2001. The IHRA was a reaction to Durban by the democratic world, which said that there is such a line and we won’t cross it. The Union and their supporters have the same implicit worldview that infected Durban and Labour, a worldview that makes it so easy to cross that line – Jews are rich and white and can’t really be subject to oppression, so the nation state of the Jews must inescapably also be a force of white colonialism.
As we saw with the cesspit of antisemitism that surrounded Corbyn and with the outbreak of antisemitism in the UK in the last few days, in real life, not in the world of arid academic arguments put forward by UCU, this logic means the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism gets crossed all the time, and the IHRA gives nothing more than a framework for carefully thinking about this reality.
Unions are supposed to be about protecting the rights of their members, about pensions and working conditions. I joined the union because I think that they have an important role to play in modern life, and on some level I also felt unions play a role in working towards a more equitable society. By leaving I lose valuable protections that the union provides to members, as well as feeling that I have been forced out. There has been an increasing focus by universities on equality, diversity and inclusion. Achieving inclusion is always challenging – there are always sites of tension and trade-offs to be made, and these choices are in a real sense political and values-laden. In the aftermath of Durban, western democracies made a political choice to stand with Jews against antisemitism, and not to give equal stature to those who elided anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Universities also have a similar political and values-based decision to make about what they mean by inclusion. It cannot mean even the possibility of equivocation about celebrating the deaths of Jews as “colonial settlers”. That is why I am no longer a member of UCU.