Marie van der Zyl
Marie van der Zyl

Bravo to students who refused to cower to Professor Miller

David Miller (Screenshot from CST's Twitter via Jewish News)
David Miller (Screenshot from CST's Twitter via Jewish News)

In the 1970s and 80s, in the wake of an infamous UN resolution on Zionism, far-left activists attempted to ban Jewish societies from campuses around the country, under the guise of ‘anti-racism’. In a couple of cases, they succeeded.”

But Jewish students and their allies fought back. It was a profound comfort to British Jews then, reeling from near-constant delegitimisation attempts, to know that those representing the future of our community were determined to fight against this prejudice and injustice. And indeed, some of the key voices defending Jewish students and Jewish societies on campus back then are among our most prominent communal figures today.

Unfortunately, it seems as if every generation must re-learn lessons taught just a few decades before. The latest example has come from Bristol, which recently saw the culmination of a protracted battle between those who would deny Jewish students and their organisations any legitimacy, and those willing to challenge this bigotry.

Once again, Jewish student leaders, both in Bristol’s Jewish Society and in the Union of Jewish Students, stood up and refused to back down.

We at the Board, along with other communal organisations such as the Community Security Trust and Jewish Leadership Council, will always do what we can to support and protect Jewish students, but I want to take the opportunity to praise Edward Isaacs, president of Bristol JSoc, and Nina Freedman and James Harris, the present and former presidents of UJS. They have been at the forefront of this fight, ensuring that Bristol University did not shelve a matter it clearly would have preferred to forget.

The university has made the right decision, albeit one which should have been made in six minutes rather than six months. In sacking David Miller, it has finally made clear that there is a limit to what academics can say under the guise of “free speech”.

And for those defending Miller under the guise of “free speech”, it is perfectly clear from his many statements that he would like nothing more than for such Jewish societies to be expunged from campus. If you are going to shelter under the umbrella of free speech, at least develop some consistency.

Those who claim that what Miller said was not ‘unlawful’ are, as ever, missing the point. Many things that are not ‘unlawful’ are nonetheless hideous and fall far short of the standards expected of an educator at a prominent university. In the end, however, Miller’s sacking was not due to teaching bizarre conspiracy theories falsely identifying Jewish communal institutions and individuals as part of an insidious web of anti-Muslim hatred. It was not due to this supposedly doughty fighter against Islamophobia actively promoting conspiracy theories about the mass murder of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime. It was not even due to his belief that interfaith projects such as a synagogue and a mosque joining together to make chicken soup for the needy is a “trojan horse” to “normalise Zionism in the Muslim community”.

It was because he directly targeted the Jewish Society at the university he taught at, alleging that its very existence was in order to “promote Israeli diplomatic objectives in the UK” and subsequently describing Jewish students around the country as “political pawns” of Israel. Jewish students suffered as a result of such attacks; but they stood tall and fought back – and they have been successful in their efforts to hold Miller to account.

Time and again, young Jewish students have shown an extraordinary degree of strength and perseverance when it comes to standing up to bigotry.

They are our community’s future, and we can count ourselves fortunate indeed at the prospect.

About the Author
Marie van der Zyl is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews