Professor David Miller has a strange attitude towards some students at Bristol University, where he teaches sociology. This extends even to some of the students on his own course.
To put it bluntly, he thinks that some of the students on his campus, and in his lectures, are agents for a hostile foreign power. He thinks they act under the command of this foreign state as part of a global strategy – an “all-out onslaught”, as he puts it – by this country “to impose their will all over the world.” In particular, he thinks these students are at the forefront of a “campaign of censorship” and “political surveillance” in support of an ideology that, he says, “has no place in any society.”
Who are these young men and women who pose such a threat to Professor Miller, in between logging on to their zoom lectures and trying to make new friends when they aren’t even allowed out of their student accommodation?
No surprise about who Miller has in his sights: Bristol University Jewish Society and the Union of Jewish Students, both of whom, he claims, are ultimately “directed by the State of Israel”.
This is nothing short of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, and it isn’t the first time Miller has indulged such fantasies. Before arriving at Bristol, Miller made his name with his theory of the “Five Pillars of Islamophobia”, which claimed that anti-Muslim prejudice was encouraged and spread by, amongst others, “parts of the Zionist movement”. To justify this claim, Miller produced reports which aimed to prove that the “wealthy businessmen and financiers” who gave money to organisations he deemed to be Islamophobic, also gave money to pro-Israel and Jewish causes; thereby putting “the financial and political resources of the Israel lobby” in the service of global Islamophobia.
His research was based on cherry-picked data and his conclusions relied more on inference than evidence, but astonishingly this was enough for Bristol University to give him a Professorship and allow him to teach this dangerous nonsense to students. It can’t be stressed enough that Bristol University hired him in full knowledge that this was the nature of his academic work. Since then, the university’s senior management has haughtily dismissed repeated complaints from Jewish students and staff at Bristol, and from UJS and CST, amongst others, and now they have a problem entirely of their own making.
Miller believes his academic freedom is under threat, but it is his spurious accusations that threaten the academic freedom of his Jewish students, to study free from the suspicion and hostility he clearly feels towards them.
Given his latest comments, it is inconceivable that Bristol University can allow Miller to continue teaching while also observing their legal duty of care to those same students. They need to urgently address this problem, and it is positive that they are meeting representatives of Bristol’s Jewish Society to hear their concerns.
However, this case raises issues that go well beyond David Miller. CST’s recent report Campus Antisemitism in Britain showed that campus-related antisemitic incidents have been at unprecedented levels over the past two years, and some of these incidents were perpetrated by academic staff.
Meanwhile, there is strong resistance from some academics around the country to the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, such as at UCL where the Academic Board recently recommended that their institution should reverse their previous adoption of the definition.
Those academic opponents of the IHRA definition often suggest an alternative definition of antisemitism as “hostility towards Jews as Jews”, and complain that talk of antisemitism masked as anti-Zionism is a distraction from “real antisemitism”. It would be helpful to know if those same academics agree that Professor Miller’s language has been antisemitic. So far, there has been almost complete silence from the usual voices in academia who are normally so quick to sign their round-robin letters to the Guardian. Perhaps it is simply the case that, for many of them, protecting Jewish students from antisemitism isn’t such a priority after all.
Dr Dave Rich is Director of Policy at the Community Security Trust and author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism.