Wednesday, September 05, 2018

On The UK's "Not Anti-Semitic" Teacher Case

A story is currently floating through the Jewish press about a UK tribunal ruling which, we're told, concluded that a dismissed teacher who said (among other things) "Every sane human is anti semitic" was "not anti-Semitic."

Is this accurate? Kind of, though I think it's a bit misleading. But it's also a bit revealing. It's certainly a good illustration of why you should always try to read the actual opinion.

The teacher, one Harpreet Singh, was facing suspension of his license for a variety of alleged infractions, including having engaged in "offensive and/or racist comments" on social media. "Every sane human is anti semitic" was one example, another was "Of course we hate Jews". So pretty straightforward. His defense was, as one might expect, that he does not hate Jews "as such", that he was actually targeting Israel and its supporters, that his comments were taken "out of context," that while they were certainly wrong they were "provoked," and that they were ultimately a "reactive response" regarding an issue he felt "passionate" about.

The tribunal hearing the case concluded that Singh's posts were indeed racist, and that he had accordingly failed to show due tolerance and respect towards the rights and beliefs of others. Perhaps most interestingly, they also found that while Singh had recognized his comments were wrong and offensive, his repeated attempt to contextualize them by noting how they occurred in the context of "passionate" public debate suggested that he was at least potentially at risk to reoffend (in circumstances where said passions were again roused). Consequently, the tribunal voted to suspend his teaching license indefinitely (though he can try -- without guarantee of success -- to try to get the ban lifted after three years).

So why did the tribunal say at one point that it "accepted that Mr. Singh is not anti-Semitic" (and it did indeed say that)? Given that the tribunal did find that Mr. Singh had engaged in racist remarks and did impose a substantial punishment, it doesn't seem quite right to say that the panel was implicitly excusing what Singh said. More likely, it was trying to say something of the form that Mr. Singh was not anti-Semitic "to the bone", that it accepted that these comments were out-of-character, that they were motivated not by hatred of Jews "as such" but rather some desire to come to the defense of Palestinians. It matters that the tribunal nonetheless concluded that the comments were racist -- after all, not everyone agrees that racist targeting of Jews exists in circumstances where it is motivated by anything other than hatred of all Jews-qua-Jews.

Yet even though along the tangible metrics the tribunal seemed to reach the right outcome and apply an appropriate sanction, there still may be some grounds for unease. In his book Contemporary Left Antisemitism, David Hirsh speaks of the phenomenon of "pleading guilty to a lesser charge". Those accused of antisemitism are frequently willing to cop to many things -- they'll accept that their statement was offensive, outlandish, over-the-top, bullying, insensitive ... "to anything so long as it is not antisemitism" (14-15). And ditto those tasked with assessing claims of antisemitism -- they'll agree that the comments in question were extreme, uncivil, nasty, disrespectful, (maybe) even racist -- but for whatever reason they won't be willing to actually pull the trigger on "anti-semitic".

So it is notable that while the tribunal opinion repeatedly labels Singh's comments as "offensive", as "intolerant", as "racist" -- it never once refers to them or him as "anti-Semitic." Indeed, across the entire opinion the only mention of the term -- other than when they quote the comment where Singh effectively calls himself anti-Semitic -- is when the tribunal goes out of its way to absolve Singh of that particular charge.

Now maybe there's an innocent explanation for that. I'm unfamiliar with the particulars of how British professional licensing proceedings are structures; perhaps there are technical reasons for why certain words get used and others not. But there's still that nagging sense that, no matter how clear the case, "anti-Semite" seems to remain a bridge no one is willing to cross. Lesser charges, yes, but not that.

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