Was professor David Miller fired by Bristol University because he dared to criticise Israel? Going by some leading headlines last week, that would certainly appear to be the case. The BBC News website stated that Miller was ‘sacked over Israel comments’ before going on to offer a more nuanced discussion of the case against him.
According to The National, the paper that supports an independent Scotland, Miller was an academic dismissed because he had ‘faced criticism over comments about Israel’ and there was near identical language in fellow Scottish paper The Daily Record. The Evening Standard covered the Miller story by describing him as an ‘academic who faced criticism over comments about Israel’. Other headlines in left-wing publications offered more of the same.
Such lazy and misinformed journalism suggests that Miller was dismissed for comments made about Israel, Zionism or the Israel lobby, tapping into the very conspiracism he was promoting about the nefarious tentacles of the Israel lobby in academic life. Anyone reading this might be led to believe that a British academic can no longer criticise the Jewish state without facing down a hostile campaign by its supporters.
In reality, Miller was fired because of comments he had made about Bristol’s Jewish student body, ones that threatened those students’ well-being and which were therefore grossly unprofessional.
He claimed that the Bristol Jewish Society, which was operating ‘under the auspices of the Union of Jewish Students’, was ‘constitutionally bound to (promote) Israel’ and to ‘silence critics of Zionism or the State of Israel on British campuses’.
In the first instance, this was an extraordinary case of diversity denial. Jewish undergraduate students were pictured as part of a sinister plot to promote ‘Israeli colonialism’.
The university’s Jewish Society was, in effect, an agent for a foreign power, a paid-up member of the ‘Israel first’ club with an agenda to promote an ‘alien’ ideology. He characterised Jews according to a warped ideological lens of power, conspiracy theory and identity politics, one where Jews and Jewish institutions were part of a noxious industry of Islamophobia and anti-Arab politics that potentially threatened Bristol’s Muslim students.
Hence his comment that Zionist campaigning rendered ‘Arab and Muslim students, particularly unsafe’ because Zionism was ‘an endemically anti-Arab and Islamophobic ideology’. Not only were Jews seen as a cog in a dangerous Zionist ideology but as active agents of racism, bigotry and oppression.
Miller signalled to Muslim and Arab students that their Jewish counterparts constituted a dangerous threat to their academic freedom and well-being.
This attempt to pit one student body against another, to drive a wedge between them at a time of heightened online hatred, is extraordinarily irresponsible and dangerous.
It is why Bristol University was justified in declaring that Miller “did not meet the standards of behaviour” expected of its staff.
Of course, in one sense there is a connection with Israel, but it is not the one suggested in the headlines.
Miller was not criticising Israel; he was perpetuating grotesque untruths about the Jewish state and its founding ideology, both by claiming that its lobby was shutting down debate on Islamophobia and racism and that Zionism was endemically racist itself.
The idea that ‘the Israel lobby’ silences debate and censors academics is an updated version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with its lurid obsessions about Jewish power and control.
This conspiracy feeds into wider ones about Jews who actively support Zionism or who merely identify with the Jewish community. For if such students are promoting a racist ideology, it becomes easier to single them out as a threat to campus.
When racist lies about Israel are promoted, it is bound to create a hostile environment for Jewish students and to render their campus spaces ‘unsafe’.
That is why attacking antisemitism cannot be effective without taking on those who spread malign ideas about Zionism and Israel.
It is a vital lesson that academics and journalists would do well to remember.