Last week Bristol University announced that it had terminated the employment of Professor David Miller. It marked the culmination of an investigation that took 200 days though the original complaint against Miller was made in April 2019. While the news came as a relief to Jewish students at Bristol University and the wider Jewish community it was met by many academics with derision and assertions that academic freedom was under attack by Israel.
The comments which eventually ended Miller’s career at Bristol University were made at an event in February during which he referred to Jewish students as “pawns” of the state of Israel and called for “an end to Zionism as a functioning ideology in the world”. Miller asserted that there was an “all-out onslaught by the Israeli government, mainly through the ministry of strategic affairs but also other ministries too, on the left globally” adding “it's not something to do with the Labour party really, the Labour Party is a mere detail of this attempt by the Israelis to impose their will all over the world.”
Once Bristol University announced an investigation into Miller a petition was set up in his defence that was signed by over 460 people, mainly academics. The founder and Director of Bristol University’s Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship Tariq Modood claimed that “I think that the empirical research that David is doing is not antisemitic and is valuable for hunting down evidence that displays the linkages between various organisations and funders in this country, the US and Israel that are not just promoting their own views, of course they have a right to do that, but they’re having the effect of making it difficult for people in this country, including academics, to speak up at conferences etc to speak up for the Palestinian cause without incurring the charge of antisemitism and therefore putting one’s reputation and career at risk”.
Modood also said “the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism with some of its examples mixing up anti-Zionism and anti-Israel with antisemitism is most relevant”.
When the news broke that Miller had been sacked veteran journalist John Pilger tweeted that “Bristol has shockingly colluded in another Israeli-run witch hunt.” And called on his followers to “Speak out!” The head of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Ben Jamal tweeted that “The sacking of Professor David Miller is a disturbing moment coming in the context of a well documented effort by Israel and its allies to stifle advocacy for Palestine and conflate antizionism with antisemitism”. This sentiment was echoed by Heather Mendick, a former academic who served on Corbyn’s staff with responsibility for engaging with the Jewish community. Professor Ray Bush at the University of Leeds lamented on Twitter that the “Zionist lobby” will be “delighted”.
The idea of a global campaign organised by Israel that engages Zionist or Jewish organisations and individuals differs from the notorious antisemitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion only in that the Elders are replaced by Israel in Miller’s telling of the tale. Miller’s claims that Israel, a country that was at the time politically paralysed and unable to elect a government for itself was able to mount an international campaign against “the left” may sound ludicrous to some but his claims fell on fertile ground in the world of academia.
Stories about Jews being in control of governments, manipulating events taking place around the world and manipulating circumstances to their own advantage are as old as antisemitism itself. Despite the original Protocols of the Elders of Zion being discredited, age old ideas of Jews and power still abound in the form of tropes about the Rothschilds, George Soros and other wealthy Jewish philanthropists. Somewhere along the line Miller moulded the conspiracy theories about Jews into conspiracy theories about Zionists. David Miller speaks about Zionists doing all manner of things from controlling the Labour Party to arranging interfaith events where friends made chicken soup which he described as a “trojan horse” and even things as ill defined as waging war on “the left”. His words are lapped up by a willing audience.
There’s a second element to this antisemitism. By insisting that he is the victim of an orchestrated Israeli campaign Miller denies Jewish students their due and denies Jews their agency. Led by the President of the Jewish Society, Edward Isaacs, Jewish students on campus recognised antisemitism when they saw it. Assertions such as that made by Professor Bush about the “Zionist lobby” take away the fact that Jewish students at Bristol University, together with the Union of Jewish Students took on Bristol University, bringing down the wrath of various conspiracy mongering websites in the process, and they succeeded. Maybe it is easier for Miller to tell himself that he was brought down by the might of the global Israeli power network rather than a bunch of students.
Jewish students at Bristol knew they would suffer abuse as a result and they did it anyway. They shone a light on a clear case of discrimination against them, they refused to back down in the face of personal attacks and obfuscations and they won. Any real socialist would be supportive of the successful struggle that Jewish students and their representative union have just waged against a less than helpful university bureaucracy and a powerful professor who seemed to hold all the cards, yet hardly any solidarity for Jewish students has been forthcoming. The hard left doesn’t like winners. It doesn’t back them either.
If the hard but successful slog against Miller has taught us anything it’s that there is a lot of work to do to increase the understanding of antisemitism in the academy and that a PhD is poor protection against falling for antisemitic conspiracies. But what the Bristol Jewish Society has proven is that this is a fight worth fighting and a fight that can be won.
Marc Goldberg is head of investigations at the Community Security Trust