Having been an American high school exchange student in the north of England, in Wallasey, during the wonderfully colorful years of 1962-63, and having visited the UK more than any other country in my life, with many friends there, I considered myself an Anglophile and at home. Still, I remember it was not uncommon for my English mates to cup their hands around their noses and make stupid noises sometimes when I was around.
I was 15 years old and would laugh along with them, not realizing until later that this was a pretty universal expression of anti-Semitism which the Brits regarded as hilarious. It was referencing the stereotypical large Jewish nose so often characterizing Jews around the world. So at an early age, I became very much aware of British “institutional anti-Semitism.”
Fast forward to many years later. As co-founder and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, one of my major preoccupations from about 2005 through my tenure as chair of the SPME BDS Committee through just last year was the ongoing vile and shrill attempt of the major professors’ union in the UK to demonize Israel, delegitimize it and hold it to a double standard. The union called for boycotts of Israeli academics and institutions with a relentless consistency that would have made Hitler and Goebbels quite proud. First the AUT, then NAFTHE and then the UCU continually considered boycotting Israeli institutions and academics both publicly and silently. At one point, SPME sponsored a series of statements signed by scores of thousands of academics worldwide, including 55 Nobel laureates, decrying these actions by their British colleagues.
One of the earliest British voices against this union insanity was Ronnie Fraser, a journeyman instructor and member of the union. When I first encountered Ronnie, though he had some impressive support in the UK, he did not have the ear and respect of other academic voices slowly emerging there against these actions. So we formed a working coalition between our fledgling organizations, Academics for Israel and SPME.
Other anti-boycott voices that seemed to be more moderate than ours emerged, and major Jewish organizations pumped resources into them and not us. Nevertheless, our organizations gained favor among grassroots faculty for dealing with the issue of BDS as an academic and anti-Semitic issue rather than as a political one, and for that many stepped forward to lend us their names against the wrongheaded union. Public boycotts have been staved off since 2005 thanks to the tireless efforts of Ronnie Fraser and other colleagues who eventually came to appreciate the efforts of this heroic figure.
Having worked shoulder to shoulder with Ronnie over the years, I can attest to the toll the union’s institutional anti-Semitism took on him and his family.
His voice to end that anti-Semitism within the union was greeted with hostility and sometimes even friendly fire and attempts at fragging. He was dealt with brutally – frequently, as we say in Yiddish, as a “schande” ( a shameful character) – by colleagues and leaders who were not supportive of his efforts when it really counted for reasons they too must be held accountable in this difficult time in Jewish life in Britain.
Ronnie has remained dignified, noble and righteous through all of this vilification and indignity.
That a distinguished British jurist such as Anthony Julius was able to see the injustice in all of this and make the case for Ronnie is itself testimony that institutional anti-Semitism exists in the professorial union as it does in British society.
I am wondering if now that this is all over, the jurists who made the outrageous rulings they did and engaged in the unspeakable scolding of Ronnie and Mr. Julius are, in the privacy of their own abodes, cupping their noses and making stupid sounds, making fun of Jews who in England have no right to protest institutional anti-Semitism. The highly touted system of justice in the UK has simply failed, and failed shamelessly.