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23 March 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:53am

Why “academic freedom” is no defence of the Bristol University professor David Miller

Miller’s conflicts with Jewish students flow from the same analysis of “Zionist” power that he teaches in class.

The University of Bristol is investigating one of its own professors, David Miller, for comments he made about Jewish students that attracted widespread protest, including from hundreds of other academics and from parliamentarians. Many of Miller’s critics have defended his academic freedom while condemning his depiction of Bristol’s Jewish Society as local agents of a foreign power trying to subvert British freedoms. This is a convenient distinction that sidesteps a crucial fact: Miller’s conflicts with Jewish students flow from the same analysis of “Zionist” power that he teaches in class. They are inseparable in a way that tests the limits of both academic freedom and a university’s duty of care towards its students.

Professor Miller has said that there is “an all-out onslaught by the Israeli government” to “impose their will all over the world”, and that all university Jewish societies (including Bristol’s), plus the Union of Jewish Students, are “directed by Israel” as part of this effort. More broadly, he says that Bristol Jewish Society belongs to a “Zionist movement” that he has characterised as “the enemy of the left, the enemy of world peace, and they must be directly targeted”. Miller says the goal is to “defeat the ideology of Zionism in practice” and “to end Zionism… as a functioning ideology of the world”. While many consider Miller’s comments to be so inflammatory as to endanger Jewish students, he claims it is university Jewish societies that render Muslim and Arab students unsafe.

At the heart of all this is Miller’s belief that Islamophobia is generated and encouraged by “parts of the Zionist movement”, and that it is “fundamental to Zionism to encourage Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism”. In February 2019 he taught this theory to undergraduates at Bristol using a PowerPoint slide with a network map of Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel organisations and individuals that he had first drawn up in 2013 under the title of “the British Zionist scene”. As the sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris has pointed out, this map was a meaningless mass of names and arrows with no real academic or analytical value. Even worse, by the time Miller taught it to students in 2019, most of the individuals named on the map had either left their posts or died. Jewish students in Miller’s lecture complained and the slide has come to represent, for Miller’s critics, the anti-Semitic nature of his work.

Bristol University was familiar with this aspect of Miller’s research, and even with this specific image, when it hired him in 2018, because Miller had used this same PowerPoint slide in a talk at an academic seminar held by the university’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship three years earlier. Speaking to an audience of Bristol academics, Miller described it as showing “the transnational Zionist movement”, which he said connected Israeli state institutions and UK Jewish organisations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. “It’s important to see this as a transnational affair”, he told his academic audience, which is not limited to supporting Israel but is also a “social movement” that engages in “domestic politics”, including “ultra-Zionist funders” who are “active in Islamophobia”; while the Israeli government, he claimed, “is directly involved in trying to sabotage and undermine the role of Muslims in public life”.

Miller calls himself “an investigative researcher interested in concentrations of power in society”, and his Spinwatch website describes these networks as using “spin and deception” to “distort public debate and undermine democracy.” His work claims to uncover something hidden and malign, and his purpose is not to describe in a neutral sense but to expose and weaken his targets. The picture of a transnational Jewish or “Zionist” network using finance and lobbying to subvert public life that Miller paints is in keeping with his view of how power operates, but the way it echoes certain facets of anti-Semitic conspiracism should have set off alarm bells for anyone attending that 2015 seminar. This is who Bristol hired; as well as investigating Miller’s comments, the university would benefit from investigating its own recruitment process.

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This is not the only example of how Miller’s approach to analysing power is sometimes reminiscent of conspiracy theories. In 2011 he co-authored a booklet called The Cold War on British Muslims that claimed to reveal “for the first time the network of individuals and foundations that are bankrolling the cold war on British Muslims”, made up of “wealthy businessmen and financiers, and conservative and pro-Israel trusts and foundations” with “extremist political agendas”. Miller’s evidence for the involvement of “pro-Israel trusts and foundations” in these “networks of money or power” seeking to “marginalise British Muslims” came down to a handful of donors who had given money to two think tanks that Miller deemed to be Islamophobic. However, it is unclear what evidence he had that they gave their money specifically to fund research on Muslim-related issues, or that their involvement in Jewish or Zionist activities was what motivated them to donate this money, or that they formed a coordinated “network” that acted together. Some of them hadn’t even given any money to the two think tanks in question, but had simply received money from others that did.

This pattern is not limited to Miller’s research into Zionism but also extends to Syria, where Miller is one of the leading academic advocates of the theory that some chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians by the Assad regime were either hoaxes or “false flag” operations by rebels. One paper co-authored by Miller claimed that 35 people found dead at the scene of a chemical attack in Douma in April 2018 were not killed by the Syrian armed forces, but probably murdered by “people dressed as White Helmets and endorsed by the leadership of that organization” to provide gruesome props for what Miller has called a “managed massacre”. He has also written that it is “unlikely” the Russian state would have tried to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 and that “other actors” may have been responsible.

Ultimately, Bristol University needs to decide whether the protection of academic freedom extends to Miller, irrespective of whether he uses evidence-based research to uncover hidden networks of power, or peddles baseless conspiracy theories about his own students. The catch is that they cannot stand by Miller’s teaching while also protecting Jewish students from suspicion and discrimination, because his political assaults on Jewish students are rooted in his research.

Dr Dave Rich is director of policy at the Community Security Trust and author of “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism” (Biteback, 2016 and 2018)

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