Readers of this blog (if, in fact, there are any left after our long periods of unexplained hiatus) might recall that I’ve complained about the University and College Union before. Since writing that post, and returning to the UK, I did, as I indicated I intended to do, join the union–a decision I have not really had cause to think twice about until just now. This past Thursday, I received the following email:
Holocaust Memorial Day is observed annually on 27 January. It is a day where we share the memory of the millions who have been murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The day reminds us to challenge hatred and persecution in the world today. You can read more about the day here: http://hmd.org.uk/
As part of UCU’s commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day 2013, we are producing a short film for UCU branches, members and beyond. The film will feature UCU members who will share why HMD is important to them not only as trade unionists campaigning for equality and justice but personally for their families, friends and communities.
I am inviting you to participate in this film and share with other UCU members why this day is important to you. The film will be available to all UCU members and it is hoped it will reach a wider audience. It is an opportunity for branches, smaller groups of UCU members and others to come together to watch the film and commemorate the day. This could be a period of quiet contemplation or a discussion on the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides and how to ensure we make the present a safer and better future.
I am sending this email directly to you as a UCU member who has disclosed on the application form that you are Jewish. It is vital in my view that the film involves those members whose families have been victims of the Nazis. The sharing of the testimonies of survivors and their descendants provides a unique insight into the experience of those who have suffered exclusion and persecution.
I will also be sending this message to all UCU members so please forgive me if you receive this message twice but I wanted to make sure you get an opportunity to contribute should you wish.
If you wish to consider your testimony being included in the film, please email Sharon Russell at [redacted].
UCU general secretary
What on earth? Where do I even start?
Of course, as a Holocaust scholar I share the concern–which has been growing in the field for some time–about Holocaust Memorial Day teaching all the wrong lessons: putting the focus exclusively on the Holocaust as a Jewish issue, instead of genocide as a human issue; dislocating urgent conversations about human rights in the present in favour of a lot of hand-wringing about the awful things that happened then, and a lot of implicit back-patting about how we all know so much better now; a repeated recitation of atrocity contributing to a loss of meaning, to normalisation, and to compassion fatigue. That being said, I recognise that these concerns are still mostly confined to the academy, still matters open to some debate, and have not yet really filtered in to popular discourse, or even all parts of the academy; it is perhaps a bit unfair of me to expect UCU to demonstrate a cutting-edge awareness of the nuances of Holocaust commemoration.
However, this letter is not just about an academically questionable attempt on the part of UCU to participate in Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s also–even primarily–about the Union’s relationship with its members, about who it perceives its constituents to be and how it imagines itself serving them. And on that front, the letter raises serious questions.
First, this was not a general letter; it was addressed specifically to members of the Union who have identified themselves as Jewish. As I already mentioned treatment of the Holocaust as a particularly Jewish concern is problematic, but not unique to UCU. However, the phrasing of the letter suggests that in the mind of UCU leadership, all Jews must have had close family members victimised by the Nazis. This is, of course, not even close to true; the assumption is, to put it bluntly, an instance of religious stereotyping.
Second, and even more problematically, the letter was addressed specifically to members of the Union who identified themselves as Jewish on the Equality Monitoring section of the membership application form. In the UK, Equality Monitoring forms usually come with an assurance that the data collected will be held as private, used only in anonymised form, to monitor broad trends in equality and diversity. After receiving this letter, I pulled up an online copy of the membership form, and noted that UCU actually makes no such assurance to its members–but every single one of my colleagues who I have spoken to was shocked and appalled at the apparent invasion of privacy such a targeted letter represents. It appears that they were also under the impression that disclosures they made to UCU for the sake of equality monitoring were meant to be treated as private information.
I rather suspect that if an employer were asking UCU members to fill out what appeared to be a standard equality monitoring form, minus the standard disclaimer, and then using the data thus collected to target specific groups of employees, the Union would object rather strenuously. While I’m sure UCU will say they have done nothing illegal–no promises of confidentiality or limited use were explicitly made, and therefore none have been broken–they have also not gone to any lengths to act ethically in informing members explicitly how information that we disclose for the purpose of equality monitoring may be used.
Even worse, however, the disclosure that UCU is willing to target groups of its members based on religion (and, presumably, race, gender, sexual orientation and disability status) comes in the very same week that a Hungarian MP’s proposal to make a list of Jews in the country has been in the news. Of course, the Hungarian list is a matter of concern precisely because of the historical resonances: making lists of Jews has been the first step to expelling Jews from professions, confiscating property, deportation, and murder–most famously, but not only, during the Holocaust. The fact that UCU did not pause to consider the implications of a message targeted solely at their Jewish members, especially in light of current events and even more especially when the very subject of that message is Holocaust awareness and commemoration, is insensitive in the extreme.
In fact, taking this letter together with the 2011 decision, it seems to me not unreasonable to conclude that UCU has no issue with singling out and stereotyping its Jewish members (or at least those of us who have not yet resigned in protest), and very little intention of seriously protecting our rights in the workplace.
I wrote most of this in a letter to UCU yesterday, and have yet to receive a response. I did receive a second, general invitation to participate in the Holocaust Memorial Day video in the UCU Campaign Update mailing sent this afternoon. I would urge other UCU members concerned either by the use of equality monitoring data (which potentially affects us all) or by the specific poor judgement shown by UCU in targeting a list of Jewish members at this time and in this way to send their own letters.