James Mendelsohn

In May 2022, Rev Dr Stephen Sizer appeared before a Church of England Disciplinary Tribunal, following a complaint made by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 2018. The verdict was handed down on Tuesday 6 December 2022. This post is an initial explainer of the decision and its wider significance. 

Background

From 1997-2017, Stephen Sizer was the vicar, or parish priest, of Christ Church Virginia Water, an Anglican church in Surrey. During this period, he wrote two books on Christian Zionism, taking a highly critical view of Christian support for the state of Israel. During the same period, he developed a national reputation for antisemitism, leading to two previous complaints by the Board of Deputies. The first, made in 2012, was resolved by a conciliation agreement, under which he agreed to have his online activity monitored. The second was made in early 2015, after he posted a link to an article suggesting Israel was behind 9/11, following which he was banned from using social media for six months and from saying or writing on anything connected with the Middle East. A (non-exhaustive) list of Dr Sizer’s activities is set out in this article in the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism.

In 2017, Dr Sizer retired from parish ministry. He relocated to the Southampton area and set up a new charity called Peacemaker Trust. However, like all retired Anglican vicars, he remained subject to the discipline of a bishop – now, the Bishop of Winchester.

The 2018 Complaint

In 2018, the Board of Deputies made a further complaint about Dr Sizer to the Bishop of Winchester, who suspended Dr Sizer’s Permission to Officiate (a license to preach and lead services in the Church of England). This led to the convening of a disciplinary tribunal, which, at Dr Sizer’s request, was held in public in May 2022

The Tribunal consisted of a judge (who acted as chair), three clergy and one lay member. Evidence against Dr Sizer was given by Marie van der Zyl and Jonathan Arkush, respectively the current and past Presidents of the Board of Deputies. Dr Sizer gave evidence on his own account, as did various witnesses on his behalf.

The specific complaint was that between 2005 and August 2018, Dr Sizer’s “conduct was unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders… in that he provoked and offended the Jewish community and/or engaged in antisemitic activity”. 

The complaint was based on eleven separate allegations. Whilst Dr Sizer admitted the factual basis of each one, he contested what was implied about his conduct. The allegations are listed below, along with a summary of the Tribunal’s decision regarding each one. Numbers in square brackets refer to numbered paragraphs of the verdict.

The eleven allegations

Allegation (A): Participating in a conference run by the Islamic Human Rights Commission entitled “Towards a New Liberation Theology” in 2005 [120-123]

The Tribunal accepted that this had provoked and offended members of the Jewish community. However, it did not consider that it was “conduct unbecoming for an ordained minister”, nor that it constituted antisemitic activity.

Allegation (B): Meeting Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, a senior commander of Hezbollah forces in about summer 2006 [124-126]

The Tribunal accepted that this had provoked and offended members of the Jewish community. It also found that it was “unacceptable for an ordained minister to make an unauthorised visit to a senior commander of the military wing of Hezbollah, other than in some official capacity”. It therefore held that it constituted “conduct unbecoming and inappropriate for an ordained minister”, but not antisemitic activity.

Allegation (C): Speaking at a conference in Indonesia in May 2008 alongside Fred Tobin, a Holocaust Denier [127 – 128]

This was held to have offended members of the Jewish community: the Tribunal said that it was “an example of where he did not take into account his role as a public representative of the Church, and showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community”. However, it did not consider his participation in the conference to be either “conduct unbecoming” or “antisemitic activity”. 

Allegation (D): In June 2008, promoting Michael Hoffman, a Holocaust denier and anti-Semitic
conspiracy theorist [129-131]

This allegation arose out of Dr Sizer sharing, by an email circulation list, an article about Israeli Messianic Jews, which included an Afterword by the aforementioned Michael Hoffman. However, the Tribunal could not ascertain whether this had been added before or after Dr Sizer had shared the original article. It therefore held that this action constituted neither “conduct unbecoming” nor “antisemitic activity”.

Allegation (E): Citing Holocaust deniers and far-right figures, in particular Dale Crowley in about
January 2009 [132-133]

The late Dale Crowley, who had links to the American far right and the world of Holocaust denial, had been used by Dr Sizer as a source of information about the number of Christian Zionists in the USA. Dr Sizer maintained that Crowley was a respected Christian commentator. The Tribunal accepted that members of the Jewish community were offended by Dr Sizer’s references to Crowley. However, in the absence of evidence that Dr Sizer knew of Crowley’s antisemitic and far right views, it considered that those references constituted neither “conduct unbecoming” nor “antisemitic activity”.

Allegation (F): In September 2010, he posted a link to an article entitled “The Mother of All
Coincidences” [which speculated on Israeli involvement in 9/11] [134-135]

The Tribunal accepted that members of the Jewish community were offended by Dr Sizer posting this article on his website. It held that Dr Sizer, “as an ordained minister, should not have been giving the oxygen of publicity to such an article”. It concluded (one member dissenting) that this conduct “was unbecoming and inappropriate”. However, it did not consider that sharing the article constituted antisemitic activity. The reasoning here is thin, though the Tribunal did note that, unlike the article mentioned in allegation (H) below, it did not specifically refer to Jews or blame American Jews for 9/11.

Allegation (G): Accompanying and defending an Islamic Movement leader Raed Salah in June 2011 [136-137]

In July 2011, the Arab-Israeli Islamist Raed Salah evaded a ban on entering Britain. He was later arrested. (Salah had previously delivered a notorious sermon in East Jerusalem in which he claimed that Jews used children’s blood to make matzah—a clear re-articulation of the medieval blood  libel.) Dr Sizer had taken the initiative to visit him twice – when he was under house arrest, and on his release from detention. 

The Tribunal accepted that the Jewish community was offended, and considered that Dr Sizer’s conduct “demonstrated the Respondent’s lack of awareness of being a public representative of the Church and a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community”. However, based on the evidence before it, the Tribunal could not be certain that Dr Sizer knew of Salah’s background at the relevant time. It therefore held that his visits to Salah were neither “conduct unbecoming”, nor did they constitute “antisemitic activity”.

Allegation (H): Promoting the idea that Israel was behind the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 by posting a link in January 2015 to the article entitled “9-11/Israel did it” that blamed Israel for the attacks [138-141]

The Tribunal described this as “the most serious allegation”. It is worth quoting from the verdict at length: 

The Tribunal finds the article in its tone and content truly shocking. It has not set out extracts from a highly repellent article in this decision. After careful consideration, it finds the [Dr Sizer’s] evidence that he had not read the article in full before he posted the link to be implausible and untrue… despite repeatedly saying that he was contrite, he showed scant evidence of being so… The Tribunal is satisfied that [Dr Sizer] reposted the article in the knowledge that it would provoke and offend the Jewish community… on this occasion [he] crossed the line, and in reposting the article, he was engaging in antisemitic activity… It rejects [his] assertion that the article raised serious issues that required public consideration… The article goes far beyond the criticism of Israel and is virulently antisemitic in its content. It fulfils all the tropes of classic antisemitism. Only a comparatively small number of people referred to in the article are Israelis, the great majority are members of the American Jewish community. It showed… appallingly poor judgment. The content is deeply abhorrent [138-140].

In the light of such strong language, the Tribunal unsurprisingly concluded that Dr Sizer’s conduct “was unbecoming on the grounds that he provoked and offended the Jewish community and that by posting the link on Facebook to the article, he was engaged in antisemitic activity” [141]. 

This was the only allegation which was judged to constitute both “conduct unbecoming” and “antisemitic activity”.

Allegation (I): Attending an event in October 2016 chaired by Baroness Tonge in breach of an agreement with the Bishop of Guildford which required him to refrain from writing or speaking on any theme that related directly or indirectly, to the current situation in the Middle East or its historical backdrop [142-144]

The Tribunal accepted that members of the Jewish community were offended by Dr Sizer’s attendance at this event, saying, “Once again it demonstrated his lack of awareness of his being a public representative of the Church and showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community”. However, it concluded that his attendance alone constituted neither “conduct unbecoming” nor “antisemitic activity” [144].

Allegation (J): In an interview on 30 March 2018 on Australian radio, by defending the link he posted to the article blaming Israel for the 11 September 2011 terrorist attacks [145-147]

The Tribunal listened to this interview and found that it was “of great concern that [Dr Sizer] was not more contrite in his apology for posting the article, and was also disingenuous in his answers”. It accepted that members of the Jewish community were offended by the interview. It concluded, one member dissenting, that this was “conduct unbecoming”. However, it did not consider that it had constituted antisemitic activity. 

It may seem incongruous that the initial posting of the article (allegation (H)) was considered to be antisemitic activity, but a defence of that posting was not. The reason may be that, in respect of the former, the Tribunal found that Dr Sizer knew that posting the article would provoke and offend the Jewish community [140] – whereas it made no such finding in respect of the latter [147].

Allegation (K): Posting an item on his Facebook page in August 2018 in relation to Jeremy Corbyn being a victim of the hidden hands of Zionists [148-149]

On 24 August 2018, the Middle East Eye website had published an article titled “Is Israel’s hand behind the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn?” which observed that attempts to undermine the former Labour Party leader were “part of a wider campaign by the Israeli government to harm Palestinian solidarity activists”. Dr Sizer had posted this article on his Facebook page, commenting that “you would have to be blind as a bat not to see their hands” [80]. Dr Sizer had not resiled from his view “that evidence of Israeli lobbying in British politics is overwhelming, setting out in detail the media organisations that he considered demonstrated lobbying” [148].

The Tribunal accepted that members of the Jewish community were offended by Dr Sizer’s posting of the article and his comment. It expressed “concerns about [his] judgment in posting the article” but did not consider that it constituted either “conduct unbecoming” or “antisemitic activity” [149].

Summary

Overall, then, the Tribunal determined, in respect of allegations (B), (F), (H) and (J) – one member dissenting as to allegations (F) and (J) – that Dr Sizer’s conduct was “unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders, in that he provoked and offended the Jewish community, and in the case of allegation (H), his conduct was also unbecoming in that he engaged in antisemitic activity. It found that the other allegations were not proven [150]. 

It proved unnecessary to consider an alternative complaint, that Dr Sizer’s conduct was in breach of Church canon law [151].

Technical details

The penalty will be outlined in a separate verdict. As at the time of writing, no date for this has been announced. 

Dr Sizer has 28 days from the initial verdict in which to apply for permission to appeal – which would stay any penalty. As at the time of writing, he has not indicated any intention in this regard. 

The verdict does not establish a binding precedent for other judicial bodies to follow – whether other tribunals in the Church of England, or “regular” courts in the secular system.

Significance

1. An unwanted accolade for Stephen Sizer:

The Board of Deputies has been in existence since 1760. This was the first time in its history that it had brought such a complaint about an ordained Christian minister of any church denomination [58]. The Tribunal found that “there was a pattern of behaviour on the part of [Dr Sizer] on the eleven occasions between 2005 to 2018 to push the boundaries of acceptable conduct by an ordained minister as far as he could do” [110]. It also stated that his account was on occasions “implausible and untrue”, and it “rejected his evidence” [114]. Given that the Church of England rarely makes strong statements about anything at all, this language – along with the comments on allegation (H) above – is particularly striking.

2. Defining antisemitism:

One of the key issues facing the Tribunal was how antisemitism should be defined in relation to “the relevant time” [101]. The Church of England’s College of Bishops had adopted the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (“(IHRA”), including all of its examples, in September 2018 – but this was one month after the latest of the incidents subject to the complaint. Giving expert evidence on behalf of the Diocese of Winchester and the Board of Deputies, Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, the Bishop of Lichfield and the current chair of the Council of Christians and Jews, argued that its adoption “represented the formalisation of a view of antisemitism which had already been in practical use [by the Church of England] at least as far back as… 2001” [23]. In contrast, Dr Antony Lerman, giving evidence on behalf of Dr Sizer, described IHRA as “not fit for purpose” [37]. 

The Tribunal took the view that the first part of IHRA – “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews” – represented a view of antisemitism which was widely accepted at the time of the matters complained of [106]. The Tribunal also said that, “The examples in the second part of the full IHRA definition may be of assistance, remembering that their adoption postdates the matters that are subject of this complaint” (emphasis added). To all intents and purposes, then, the Tribunal affirmed IHRA, although it refrained (in my view, correctly) from explicitly applying the examples in the second part retrospectively. (Had it done so, more of the allegations might have been found to constitute antisemitic activity – but it would also have made the verdict vulnerable to an appeal.) 

As stated above, a decision of a Church of England Disciplinary Tribunal does not establish a binding judicial precedent – either for secular courts or even for other tribunals within the Church of England itself. Had the Tribunal rejected IHRA, however, this would surely have been significant politically. For those who recognise the value of IHRA, this decision is therefore welcome. 

3. Nature, motives and actions

The Tribunal did not make a clear determination on whether Dr Sizer was “antisemitic by nature” or on whether “motives were antisemitic”. It did however make a clear determination that he had “engaged in antisemitic activity”. The Tribunal was keen to state that it had not found him guilty of having an antisemitic nature or of being motivated by antisemitism. However, this does not amount to an exoneration, for the reason was that Dr Sizer was not accused of things to do with his inner “nature” or “motives” – he was accused of particular antisemitic actions. And of what he was accused, he was found guilty. As David Hirsh has written, “Antisemitism is not simply a matter of what is inside people’s heads… antisemitism is also, and primarily, a matter of what people do and what consequences their actions have.”[1] The Tribunal’s comments about “nature” and “motives” do not amount to an exoneration. Nevertheless some of Stephen Sizer’s supporters have quite misleadingly reported them as such; some, who have not read the judgment, will accept that as true.

4. A welcome result

I write as someone who gave evidence in the Fraser v UCU case, in which an employment tribunal was provided with a detailed explanation of antisemitism, yet still failed to see it.[2] When I first saw reports of the Sizer tribunal in May, I worried that this might happen again. I am delighted that my fears proved unfounded. The Board of Deputies should be commended on its perseverance in finally bringing Stephen Sizer to account, and the eventual outcome should be welcomed. 

James Mendelsohn, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of the West of England

[1] David Hirsh, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 138.
[2] ibid., 182.

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