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1 July 2021

Revealed: Bristol academic under investigation for alleged anti-Semitism received £400k of public funds

David Miller, a professor who accused Jewish student societies of being “directed by Israel”, received government money to conduct his research.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

David Miller, the University of Bristol professor currently under investigation for comments he made about Jewish students, received over £400,000 of taxpayers’ money in grants to fund his research, the New Statesman can reveal.

Miller has been put under investigation by the university after a number of controversial comments were exposed – including that the “Zionist movement” was “the enemy of world peace”, that members of university Jewish societies were “pawns” of Israel, and that the Israeli government of wanting to “impose [its] will all over the world”.

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a government body that funds academic research and other ventures, awarded Miller and his co-authors £401,552 in funding for research across three years (2013-2016). 

Research released by Miller in this period, seen by the New Statesman, accused Israel “lobby groups” of coercing politicians and the public into a pro-Israel stance (from a paper called “The Israel Lobby and the European Union”, published in 2016), and contained a map of the “British Zionist scene”, which claimed to link the Israeli government and pro-Zionist organisations to the main British political parties (included in a paper called “The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre: Giving peace a chance?”, published in 2013).

In a 2015 openDemocracy article based on some of this research, Miller and his colleagues also included the “Zionist movement” in one of their “five pillars of Islamophobia”.

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In the years since these papers were released, Miller (who did not respond to requests for comment) taught parts of his material in class, according to a source at the University of Bristol, even though some of it was out of date, as the sociologist and Birkbeck College lecturer Keith Kahn-Harris has said.

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Complaints and reports of discomfort among Jewish students in these classes led to a series of comments by Miller regarding Israel and members of student Jewish societies (JSocs) that would ultimately lead to him being investigated.

In February 2021, during an online conference organised by the activist group Labour Against the Witchhunt, Miller directly singled out the then heads of Bristol’s JSoc and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) as having complained about him, later referring to those within Bristol’s JSoc and the UJS as “formally members of the Zionist movement”.

Miller doubled down on his comments a few days later when he told student news site the Bristol Tab that he believed all Jewish university societies, and the UJS, are part of a “campaign of censorship”, which is “directed by the state of Israel” and which makes Arab and anti-Zionist students “particularly unsafe”.

In an earlier online conference in July 2020, also organised by Labour Against the Witchhunt, Miller accused the “Zionist movement” and the Israeli government of being the “enemy of the left, [and] the enemy of world peace”, which must be “directly targeted”.

He also accused Israel of wanting to “impose [its] will all over the world”, the Jewish Chronicle reported.

Miller’s comments and research generated a strong response from students and academics alike – particularly those at Bristol.

“Concern had been mounting for some time among my colleagues and I,” says Dr David Ellis, an associate professor at the university, who is one of hundreds of academics who signed an open letter condemning Miller’s comments.

“We [university staff] didn’t speak out after the first conference [in July 2020], but after the second one [in February 2021], we felt that we really should make some kind of public statement,” Ellis added.

According to Ellis, the signatories of the open letter not only believe many of Miller’s assertions are “factually false”, but that Miller’s accusation that JSocs are part of a “Zionist movement”, which are the “enemy” of the left and of world peace, risks “endangering the personal safety of Jewish students in Bristol and across the UK”.

“In our opinion, these statements also risk undermining community relations between British Jews and others,” Ellis added.

“Thankfully, many other students on campus – if not all – stand with us in solidarity against all forms of hatred and anti-Semitism, and view these comments of hatred as entirely unacceptable,” said Edward Isaacs, the current head of Bristol’s JSoc.

A former campaigns officer for Bristol’s JSoc, Sabrina Miller (no relation to the professor), received abuse on social media after speaking out against Miller.

“It was incredibly overwhelming,” she says. “I’d never dealt with that scale of anti-Semitic abuse before; getting thousands of comments a day, people finding my personal profile on Instagram and telling me to go die… at one point it was a bit too much.”

At one point during her third year, she had to return home from university to recover.

While many have condemned Miller for his comments and academic analysis, a movement has also formed in support, defending his “academic freedom” and right to free speech. A counter-letter has been signed in support of Miller by a number of academics, including renowned Jewish philosopher and academic Noam Chomsky. The statement says “concerted efforts to publicly vilify” Miller create “a culture of self-censorship and fear in the wider academic community”.

Yet Dr Ellis of the University of Bristol believes academic freedom and free speech are no defence, as Miller’s comments may be in breach of the 2010 Equality Act.

“Academic freedom isn’t an absolute and unlimited right. It’s very important, but certain constraints are placed on it: in the UK, for example, by the Equality Act,” says Ellis. “The act places a legal duty on universities and those teaching in universities to foster good relations between people with protected characteristics, and those without – and Jewishness is a protected characteristic,” he said.

“And in our [Miller’s critics] opinion, some of the statements he’s made risk inflaming tensions between Jewish and Muslim students, and some on the hard left.

“The latter would mean he had stepped outside the bounds of academic freedom. And I very strongly suspect he has done that, though I’m no legal expert,” Ellis adds.

When approached by the New Statesman, the UKRI, the public body that awarded Miller over £400,000 in publicly-funded grants, declined to comment.

Does the UKRI have questions to answer over enabling Miller’s research? “It might have been hard to foresee the outputs of the grant,” says Ellis. “Unfortunately, that’s the risk of funding.”

Miller’s case feeds into a wider debate about academic freedom and free speech at universities, with those in England currently the subject of new government plans to “require” them to defend free speech – with fines of up to £500,000 for non-compliant institutions – from a perceived “woke agenda” that is infiltrating student populations.

[see also: Why the UK government’s “war on woke” is failing]

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will introduce new measures requiring universities and colleges in England registered with the regulator, the Office for Students, “to defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’”, according to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson.

But in response to Miller’s case, the government made its stance clear through Conservative peer and whip Stephen Parkinson, who in March of this year condemned Miller’s views as “ill-founded and wholly reprehensible”, adding that the government “wholeheartedly rejects them”.

Parkinson emphasised higher education institutions’ duty to investigate and swiftly address “hate crime” and suggested the University of Bristol “may wish to consider, in particular, [Miller’s] remarks about current students” when trying to balance lawful freedom of speech with “acts of abuse, intimidation, and violence”.

He also rebuked the university, adding: “The University of Bristol could do more to make its condemnation of that conduct clear to current and future students and to show its commitment to creating a welcoming environment for Jewish students.”

Williamson has also spoken out on anti-Semitism more broadly, remarking last October that there are “too many disturbing incidents” of anti-Semitism at universities, and encouraging institutions to uniformly adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

The Department for Education did not respond to a request for comment on Miller’s public funding when approached by the New Statesman. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which provides funding to the UKRI, also declined to comment when approached.

No date has been set for the verdict of the investigation into Miller and his fate remains unclear.

“There’s no good outcome to this situation – I regret that this ever arose,” says Ellis. While he believes Miller should not be fired (as it might further inflame the tensions he would like to see calmed), he believes Miller should not teach material related to Jewish organisations or Zionism, and should be removed from his duties as a personal tutor.

He is also of the opinion that Miller should apologise for and retract his statements about UK JSocs and the UJS.

When contacted for comment by the New Statesman, a spokesperson for the University of Bristol said:

“We recognise that comments made by David Miller… have caused deep concern for some members of our community, and also that people hold very different views on the issues raised.

“Our freedom of speech policy underlines the vital importance of the right of staff and students, as members of a free and democratic society, to speak openly without fear of censorship or limitation, provided that this right is exercised responsibly, within the law, and with respect for others who may have differing views.”

Miller did not agree to an interview when approached by the New Statesman, due to the ongoing investigation.