Reviewing the Stephen Sizer Church Disciplinary Measure Tribunal

Here’s a little further commentary on the Stephen Sizer case with the intent of helping us think about how we best get to the heart of issues.  In my initial article, I suggested that those seeking to draw attention to antisemitism with regards to Stephen Sizer seem to have taken a bit of a scatter gun approach.  I was describing there, not just the specific case but the approach in general. However, the case is worth a look at.

Here’s the actual ruling.

I’d like to highlight a couple of things before I move into discussion of the substance of the case.  I’ve commented elsewhere that I wasn’t too impressed with how the Tribunal ruling read and in fact it seems that they were lucky to stumble on a ruling at all.  It reads like a quasi/pseudo court case and whilst chaired by a KC doesn’t fill me with confidence from a legal perspective. 

First of all, there is quite a meandering discussion about how antisemitism should be defined.  I’m not sure what was to be gained by this given that the Church of England has already accepted the IHRA definition in line with the UK Government.

Secondly, the ruling, in describing the proceedings, rather than sticking to factual reporting of what was said during presentation of arguments and cross examination slips into subjective conjecture.  For example, take this comment:

On some occasions she appeared to be reluctant to answer the questions Mr Hofmeyr put to her. Although she is a practising solicitor, when a number of names of distinguished legal critics were put to her, she said that she did not recognize their names.”

(para 47)

This reads like an attempt to undermine the complainant’s case by belittling her and questioning her professional standing. All of this is based on an attempt to second guess her emotional posture and a subjective view of whether or not she should have heard of some critics that were in the opinion of the CDM “distinguished.”  The Tribunal cannot even be bothered to name said critics so we must take their word for it that they were in fact “distinguished legal critics.” 

Then we are told:

In cross examination, Mr Arkush denied that he had met the Reverend Nick Howard or Mr Weissman. A number of questions were put to him about the role of Mr Howard lobbying the Board, which Mr Arkush denied and said that the Board was careful to take its own decisions. He did not consider that the Board would lightly bring a complaint against a member of the clergy but would try to head it off.

(para 58).

The implication here is that the complainants have been set up by others from outside of the Jewish community.  Yet, it does not matter whether or not the complainants had been in contact with Nick Howard, nor whether they were on top of their own professional careers.  What matters is whether or not Mr Sizer had engaged in antisemitic behaviour.  That is an objective matter.

Now, let’s come to the substance of the case.  There are three things that the case considers.  First, whether or not Mr Sizer was antisemitic.[1] This was an attempt to make a judgement on his character.  My advice on this would be that they would have done better not to second guess his heart motives.  It does not matter whether we consider a person generally racist. If they say something abusive to someone because of their ethnicity or discriminate because of colour of skin or national background then they have they have been racist.  This is what matters.  Further, to use another example. If the disciplinary case was considering an accusation of adultery, then it would be strange for the tribunal to begin by asking whether the person was an adulterer as a consideration of their general character. Of course they were not an adulterer up until the moment that they were unfaithful to their wife.  However, the description of them as an adulterer reflects the specific sin they have committed.

Then there’s the question of whether Stephen Sizer’s behaviour caused offence to the Jewish community. This is an interesting one. You see, first of all, I don’t believe that we have a right to not be offended. There are plenty of things that we may say or do which others might find offensive.  If you were to state that my football team, Bradford City are pretty rubbish, I and other Bantams may be mortally offended.  It might not be polite for you to say that as my dinner guest but you are entitled to your opinion and in this case it would be true!

Similarly, if someone were to argue, as many have that the current Israeli State, reflecting numerous changes of government has acted towards the Palestinian people in a manner that falls short against International Treaty expectations, if you were to say that you believed that the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights was unjust, if you argued that the IDF had committed war crimes when firing on civilians, then many Jewish people may find those opinions offensive. However, it would all be legitimate comment.  You would be giving your assessment of known facts.  The point here is that sometimes the impression is given that it is difficult or nigh on impossible to critique Israel without straying into antisemitism but it isn’t!

So, on the one hand why would a Church Tribunal be talking about offence when a minister of the Gospel cannot help but offend those of other faiths by insisting on the uniqueness of the Cross? Well, actually there is a reason in this context where it might become relevant.  If the respondent was being accused of acting in a way that could be shown to be intended to give offence or if he should have been reasonably alert that it would be offensive, then if that offense was specifically targeted at people because of their ethnicity then it would be an example of racism.  So, if Sizer said things that some people might find incidentally offensive then this was completely irrelevant to the Tribunal.  If, however, he was saying things in a way that were intentionally, recklessly or negligently liable to give offense specifically to Jews and had nothing to do with the offense of the Cross, then that would surely amount to a form of antisemitism.

The tribunal were then asking two further questions. First had the respondent acted in an antisemitic manner and had he behaved in a way that fell short of what was expected of a member of the clergy.  It is worth noting here that from a non-Anglican perspective, I think that the “falling short of clergy standards” is a bit of a red herring in this case. If what Sizer did was wrong, then it was so wrong as to be unacceptable for any member of the church, not just a member of the clergy.

However, this is where I think that the scatter gun approach was particularly problematic.  The Tribunal appear to have looked at each individual example on its own merit.  Yet, surely that was not the point of the case.  The point was not that he had said and done lots of antisemitic things, even if the complainants believe he had. No, the point was that we already knew that there was one example of antisemitism, the spreading of 911 conspiracy theories and that Sizer had officially apologised for this and agreed to having his behaviour moderated.  The argument surely should then have been that the evidence from other examples showed that the conspiracy theory incident did not arise out of nowhere and that subsequent behaviour of boundary pushing demonstrated that there had not been true repentance.  This was what the Tribunal should have been considering.

I think that as you read the ruling carefully, you should be able to draw your own conclusions.  I am happy that the Tribunal did get to the conclusion it did but I’m not convinced that its findings were as sharp and conclusive as they could have been. 

[1] See para 115.

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