David Miller was a professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol in the UK, but he was fired following a campaign by the Israel lobby over his criticism of Israel. No complaint was ever made to the University by a student of Professor Miller’s. A Queens Counsel (QC) cleared him of accusations of anti-Semitism, however, the university still decided to fire him because it was claimed that his comments ‘annoyed’ or ‘upset’ a small number of pro-Israel students, none of which he had ever taught. Politics Today spoke to Miller about what happened with him and academic freedom in the UK in the context of the Palestine/Israel issue.
Q. Could you please introduce yourself and, academic background and your area of expertise and research to our readership?
My name is David Miller. Until four weeks ago, I was a professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol, in the UK, and I’ve been involved as a sociologist in academic jobs, since the late 1980s. My first research project for my PhD back in the early 1990s was on the conflict in the north of Ireland, in particular, the question of propaganda in the conflict in the north of Ireland, and as a result of doing that work, I became very interested especially in state organizations and their involvement in propaganda.
I was particularly interested in propaganda and propaganda of state organizations, especially the army, the police, but also for the Foreign Office of the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office, and as a result I’ve had an abiding interest in propaganda and public relations activities.
My career since then, I’ve come again and again to the question of conflict and propaganda. That’s what partly is taking me towards the question of Palestine, of Zionism, but also, I’ve been interested in propaganda more widely in society. So, I got interested in corporate public relations and spin. But partly as a result of that, I got interested in lobbying and the exertion of direct power on decision making, as opposed to the indirect exertion of power through propaganda and media. So that also has been something I’ve drawn on in my research in the last 10 years or so on Zionism.
I’ve become very interested in Zionism as a political philosophy and as an actually existing social movement, and I’ve become interested in studying that directly in the way that not that many peole have been doing. Also, I have been interested in Zionism in the context of the question of Islamophobia, racism against Muslims and the wider context of anti-Arab racism and anti-Palestinian racism. I’ve connected the two of those issues together, and that’s one of the things which has proven, I think, controversial, about my activities.
Q. I would like to learn more about your version of events of what happened that pushed the University of Bristol to fire you from the University.
I arrived at University of Bristol in September 2018. And around six months later, I was giving a lecture on Islamophobia on one of my modules. What appears to have happened is that two of my students in the class contacted the Community Security Trust (CST), which is a pro-Israel organization, that claims that it is only an organization set up to combat anti-Semitism. Of course, the problem with it is that it fails to, or finds it difficult, or deliberately doesn’t want to, distinguish between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. Of course, those are two separate things.
The CST complained to the University of Bristol, the University rejected their complaint because they weren’t students. The students themselves were able to complain anonymously if they wanted to, but they didn’t want to. So, the CST went to an organization that it is very closely connected to the Union of Jewish Students, which is a British national organization, the umbrella group for all Jewish student societies across the whole of the UK. And they put in a complaint together with the local society, the Bristol Jewish Society, that complained about some of my statements over the previous six years, including only one which I’ve made since I have been in post at the University of Bristol.
The Union of Jewish Students is not just an organization which represents Jews, nor does it represent all Jews on campus. It’s constitutionally a pro-Israel organization. It is not, it doesn’t represent, for example, anti-Zionist or non-Zionist Jews. And in fact, many of them may find it very difficult to be part of such an organization. So, the UJS put in a complaint to the University.
The Union of Jewish Students is not just an organization which represents Jews, nor does it represent all Jews on campus. It’s constitutionally a pro-Israel organization.
The University thought that the complaint should be accepted because one of the people who signed the letter was a current student at the University of Bristol. She was not my student, and had never been to any of my lectures, but was the president of the local JSoc. The University accepted the complaint. Later they rejected it because it was determined that there was no evidence in any of the things I’ve said or in my teaching of anti-Semitism.
The complaint was ridiculous, essentially. But the students’ society appealed that decision. The University then suggested to the students that the appeal process might be paused, while the university decided whether it was going to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of anti-Semitism, and the student agreed to pause the complaint. She then led the campaign on campus for the introduction of the IHRA, which was then introduced in December 2019.
The complaint was then reactivated under the new rules, in a complete breach of natural justice. But even under the new rules, after they appointed a Queen’s Counsel (QC) to investigate me, for most of the year of 2020, it was determined that I have not been in any way anti-Semitic, not a single thing I had said was in any way anti-Semitic and the complaint was entirely rejected.
But the university would not publish that finding, or the report. It was confidential. I wasn’t allowed to mention that I had been entirely cleared of complaints of anti-Semitism. But the student societies were still complaining that the University of Bristol had done nothing because the university had not said that I’ve been found to have no case to answer at all. Then what happened was that the university was considering the possibility of publishing a version of the report, but eventually decided not to.
None of the complaints was the result of students making a complaint through the university formal complaints process.
I then gave a talk on the 13th of February this year, in which I referred to the complaints taken by the JSoc and the Union of Jewish Students, where I said: “I’ve been attacked and complained about by the head of the JSoc, and the President of Union of Jewish Students.” Now, that was a statement, which was factual, which was also in the public domain. They – both of the complainants, the president of the national organization, and the president of the local organization, publicly stated that they were behind the complaints. So, although I didn’t name them, it was already a matter of public record, that they made the complaint. So, I was simply reporting what happened to me and that was part of what then made the university to investigate me.
So, they investigated me for that, for my statement at that meeting, for a couple of other statements I made to the press, and for an article that I wrote, in the Electronic Intifada. None of the complaints was the result of students making a complaint through the university formal complaints process. And none of the complaints was about anything I’ve done on campus, or anything to do with teaching. It’s all to do with the statements I made off campus outside of my teaching.
Q. What was the content of these statements and the article you wrote for the Electronic Intifada?
I said things about being attacked and complained about. I also referred to Zionism as a racist ideology that should be ended; It has always been a racist ideology. The difficulty in this case was that students were potentially in danger, there was a question of students being put in danger by being used as pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime, the State of Israel. I went on to talk in my Electronic Intifada article about campaigns originating from the State of Israel, which had been targeting, in the UK for example, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, academics and others who dare to criticize either the actions of the State of Israel or indeed the whole concept of the ideology of Zionism.
The investigation started six months ago, and the QC determined that none of my statements, were anti-Semitism.
So, the investigation started six months ago, and the QC determined that none of my statements, were anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, they decided to fire me on the grounds that some students were upset with what I had said; that somehow, my words have been spoken in a manner which was not correct. I am still not entirely clear what that meant.
Q. So, the university said that your statements were not anti-Semitic, but it still fired you because some students were upset. Did the university say this to you?
Q. Considering this, how do you see academic freedom at UK campuses, when it comes to Palestine and Israel?
Well, it’s a very difficult area. I mean, my case is not the first, there were attacks in the UK in previous times against other academicians. There have been previous cases of people being attacked and actions taken against them. And at present, there are a large number of complaints throughout the UK, which probably people don’t really know about, at universities such as Glasgow,Warwick, Leeds, Birmingham. There are a lot of different complaints from especially the local affiliates of the Union of Jewish Students who make complaints about comments about Israel-Palestine.
These are always, almost always, against pro-Palestine people, or people on the left. There’s no actual fascists or actual anti-Semites being criticized in these cases. This is an attack on academic freedom. Like it was an attack on the leadership of the Labour Party. It’s a strategy which the Government of Israel has been developing for some years, in particular, through the Global Forum for Countering Antisemitism where they want to target the left, and they want to target Muslims. So, they want to try and intervene in the possibility that Muslims might work together with people on the left to show solidarity for Palestine, and that’s why they want to attack people like that, because they threaten the interests of the Israeli state.
Q. There are accusations of anti-Semitism against you, but you have also received support from the local community, including from Jewish students, tell us about this.
Well, this is a strategic use of anti-Semitism allegations. This strategy has been developed by the Israeli state, through the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism since the year 2000. The adoption of the IHRA definition, is part of that strategy which blurs together anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. But they don’t just need that because it doesn’t go far enough. They have to be able to criticize anybody who criticizes Israel’s policies, or indeed, the ideology of Zionism itself. That’s what they’re doing. They have this definition, which helps them as well, and they use it as a weapon, to bludgeon anyone who opposes them, but they also have invested significant amounts of organizational capacity and money in a myriad of local pro-Israel groups up and down the country.
Some of them are long standing and go back to the foundations of the Zionist movement. However, many of these groups have been created in the last eight or nine years, especially since 2014 when the Israeli 51-day attack on Gaza took place, where many more pro-Israel organizations were founded in this country than previously. The reason for this is not because there’s an upswing of support for Israel, it’s just the opposite.
There is increasing hostility towards Israel, amongst the public, but there’s been also investment of money and in organizational capacity to set up new organizations, the function of which is to troll, to bludgeon, to complain, to make up stuff, to dredge up facts or seeming facts from the past, and to use these to target people in local councils and schools and trade unions and the universities, to remove a whole cadre of people who will stand up for Palestinians. They are very concerned about the fact that public opinion opposes them. So nevertheless, public opinion and support for Israel starts to fade away, as a result of intensify their efforts, there’s more and more heat and light about this alleged crisis of anti-Semitism, something which was entirely invented.
Q. Some might think that, since the public opinion in the West, including in the UK, is turning in favor of the Palestinians, the opposite should happen, that you also have received support from the local community, different groups, different people from different backgrounds and political affiliations that should have supported you. Despite this, the Israeli lobby is still able to deliver its version of the story and have the upper hand or the final say, when it comes to criticism against Israel.
Yes, that’s because this is a strategy of intimidation, and bullying, and public institutions in this country, and many other countries, try and operate on the basis that people are operating in good faith. When they’re faced with an orchestrated campaign of bullying, they don’t know what to do, especially when an orchestrated campaign can present itself as a victim of the situation, especially as a victim of racism. So, the idea here is to present yourself as being a victim of anti-Semitism.
And that makes it very difficult for institutions that have to deal with the question of anti-Semitism and inequalities, because they don’t know how to deal with or they cannot even comprehend in some ways, the possibility that some of these are allegations in bad faith. Of course, they are. This is a strategy dreamt up in Israel, and deployed in France and in Germany, and in the UK and elsewhere.
VIDEO: Zionism, Israel & The Firing Of UK University of Bristol Sociologist David Miller
Q. There have been complaints against academicians, students, different universities in the UK, because of their views on Israel. How do you see the future of academicians who are supportive of Palestinian rights, students who are supportive of human rights, in light of what happened with you? What happened with you was unprecedented in many different ways. How do you see the future of academic debate of Palestine and Israel?
They’ve had a victory. And they’ve had other victories too, and this is frightening people and intimidating them. The price of that is that more and more people see through that strategy and more and more people will come to understand this strategy and will drift the other way towards the Palestinians. Israel is in a crisis of declining support amongst the public in general, it has a declining support amongst the Jewish community too, which is moving towards the Palestinians, perhaps not as fast as some would like it, but it is moving towards the Palestinians, and they have declining support in their own movement.
If you look at the membership figures of the Zionist movement in the UK, or the U.S. and other places 20 years ago, they are declining really quite rapidly. They recognize that, and that’s why they put all this money into these new fake grassroots groups, which are called ‘friends of Israel’. They have to try and shore that up because they recognize that their membership base is declining and ready to collapse. It will be a sudden thing and we’re approaching that time. I wish it was going to come sooner than it might be, but it will be coming soon.