As Rogers and Hammerstein almost asked, how do you solve a problem like David Miller? A professor of sociology at the University of Bristol, Miller has become the focus of angry controversy. According to his critics, he spreads hateful, antisemitic ideas. His defenders on the left and within the Palestine solidarity movement invoke academic freedom and laud him as a doughty comrade.
The stakes are high. Antisemitism remains a persistent form of racism which we are bound to combat. Yet we relinquish academic freedom at our peril. Reconciling these competing imperatives has been difficult.
Bristol University’s response to protests from Jewish students appears complacent and maladroit. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, adopted by the University in 2019 and which Jewish communal bodies and the government’s antisemitism adviser, Lord Mann, hoped would provide a valuable weapon with which to fight campus antisemitism, has been notably ineffective in this case.
How, then, do you solve a problem like David Miller? How can we stand against racism and, at the same time, protect academic freedom? And, in doing so, how can we build a basis for more effective action in the future?
David Miller writes about conspiracy. Some academics analyze conspiracy theories and explain how they become a force in the world. Miller is not among them. He doesn’t scrutinize conspiracies, he builds them. He is a homegrown exponent of what the great American historian, Richard Hoftstadter, called "the paranoid style."
For the last 150 years, with steadfast and sometimes deadly regularity, conspiracy theorists have pointed to Jews as the malign force driving the modern world. Miller stands in this tradition. He sees a world governed by multiple conspiracies but repeatedly he turns to Zionism, Israel, and Jews.
In 2013 Miller co-authored a paper which speculated that Zionist donors had suborned Labour’s foreign policy under Tony Blair’s leadership. There was no evidence to support this suggestion, he conceded, but this didn’t inhibit his conjecture.
- Why does a U.K. academic spewing antisemitic conspiracies attract eager apologists on the U.S. left?
- Nearly 200 U.S. and U.K. scholars back British lecturer who called Jewish students ‘pawns’ of Israel
- Bari Weiss and Ben Shapiro's strange defense of antisemitism
- No, 'Saturday Night Live' isn't inciting the mass murder of Jews
In 2019 his lecture on the causes of Islamophobia, which attributed blame to parts of the Zionist movement, resulted in complaints of antisemitism from students and the Community Security Trust, a Jewish communal organisation.
And then things really got out of hand. At meetings convened by Labour Against the Witch-Hunt, an organisation united in its belief that Labour’s antisemitism problem has been nothing but a smear, Miller broke out in full flood. Zionism is not only the source of injustice for Palestinians but "the enemy of world peace" and "has no place in any society."
Incredibly, according to Miller, Zionist power is so overbearing that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby, the party's General Secretary under Corbyn, did its bidding.
One place where Miller wants to defeat Zionism is on his own campus. The university’s Jewish Society, he points out, through a series of affiliations, is "formally" a member of the Zionist movement. In saying this, Miller aims to discredit their complaints against him, as if Zionists complaining about antisemitism are necessarily acting in bad faith.
But Miller does more than this. In the context of his other remarks, we can see that he identifies members of the university J-Soc as people whose political attachments have no place in any society and, by implication, as enemies of world peace.
It is disappointing that nearly 200 academics, some of whom I know and whose work I respect, and a handful of leftist organizations have rallied to defend this vicious idiocy. I only hope that they did so without fully knowing or understanding Miller’s opinions.
Miller asserts he is standing up for the right to criticize Israel and the ideology on which the state is founded and to express solidarity with Palestinians. The truth is that he, and by extension his supporters, have needlessly and tragically entwined the campaign for justice for Palestinians with antisemitism.
Miller provides a textbook illustration of what happens when anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism. Instead of finding Jews in league with the devil, Miller discovers Zionists are inordinately powerful, the fount of evil on a global scale and a force so malign that the only remedy will be to eliminate them or, at the very least, their voice.
Tropes such as these, drawn from a reservoir of narratives and stereotypes, are the forms antisemitism takes. But the essence of modern antisemitism concerns equal rights not tropes.
This has been the case since at least 1879 when the first self-proclaimed antisemites arrived on the scene. They called for German Jews to be stripped of their civil equality. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the antisemites took power. First, they deprived Jews of their rights as citizens and, finally, they took their right to life.
Miller is just a university professor. He doesn’t present Jews with the mortal threat they have faced in living memory. All the same, he does menace their rights. He questions the right of Jews to identify and organise as a minority in the way they choose. You can be a Jew, he says, but you can’t be a Zionist.
Whatever we think Zionism is, and however we evaluate it, this is unacceptable. Miller and his supporters are ready to sound the alarm when Muslims and other minorities are shackled in this way. For Miller, Jews are the exceptional case: unless they repudiate Zionism they must stay shtum. You don’t have to be a Zionist to see that this is an attack on the rights of Jews.
How, then, can we protect ourselves from antisemitism without harming academic freedom? It’s not straightforward, as the sorry tale of the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, illustrates. Last October Williamson decided it would be a good idea to impose the IHRA working definition of antisemitism on universities. Then, last month he came out as an evangelist for free speech, creating a confusingly mixed message.
It may be possible to align Williamson’s crusade against "cancel culture" with his desire to regulate antisemitic speech and behavior by administrative fiat, but the Secretary of State has not even tried to do so.
Academic freedom in the UK is guaranteed by the 1986 Education Act and the Human Rights Act of 1998. Academics have intellectual independence and are free to express their views and determine the content of courses without any interference and irrespective of student protests. Miller has a right to broadcast his opinions in lectures, classes, and in academic papers and wherever else he chooses without placing his job at risk.
Academic freedom is an essential component for a free society and David Miller is part of the price we pay for that: demographers who promote white identity politics are another. Accepting this with a heavy heart brings a duty to reveal Miller for what he is: a conspiracy theorist whose fantasies extend to antisemitism.
But this is not the end of the matter. Miller has a right to express his opinions, but he does not have a right to harass Jewish students. The law on academic freedom is not the only one that binds British universities. They are all committed to promoting equality, diversity and the dignity of students and staff. They operate under the 2010 Equality Act and have a barrage of policies and procedures designed to address discrimination and harassment.
On the face of it, Miller’s recent remarks provide a clear case of harassment. If they don’t amount to "unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment" and violate the dignity of Jewish students, it is hard to know what could reach that bar.
The universalist principles that underpin equality law not only provide the best means to combat David Miller and others like him, they are also the basis on which Jews and other minorities can act in solidarity.
The tragedy of the Miller case is that it exposes and deepens a fissure between the Jewish minority, and those parts of the left who proclaim that anti-racism is one of their cardinal principles, but fail to recognize or take a stand against antisemitism.
This happens at a time when two important studies have demonstrated the depth and extent of racism in universities. Solidarity is more important than ever. And so also is the recognition you don’t have to agree with someone’s politics to understand that they, too, are victims of racism.
David Feldman is Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London where he is also a Professor of History