Melanie Goldberg explores the consequences of Bristol University Professor David Miller’s antisemitic comments for Jewish students across the UK.
Bristol University Professor David Miller has recently come under fire from Jewish students and Jewish communal organisations for incendiary comments made during an online conference. This isn’t the first time that the UofG alumnus has been scrutinised for antisemitism; Miller has also received backlash for a book refuting the scale of antisemitism in the Labour party. The book was co-authored by UofG Sociology Professor and research director of the Glasgow Media Group, Greg Philo, and has been discredited by Channel 4 FactCheck. David Miller’s connections to the University are relevant but not crucial: he should be condemned solely on the charge of targeting Jewish students.
Bristol University Jewish Society and the Union of Jewish Students published statements condemning Miller’s comments, only for Miller to respond with more antisemitic vitriol, again accusing them both of being part of an overarching “Zionist” conspiracy. The choice of Electronic Intifada to publish Miller’s response was no coincidence: the online newspaper has often strayed into antisemitism. His article staked claims that the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Community Security Trust are merely Israel lobby groups and then subsequently stated that “Israel’s lobby in Britain has trained its guns on me”, effectively claiming that the Jews are out to get him. His article further alludes to “Israel and apologists” and implies that the Union of Jewish Students is part of a global Zionist-Israeli government. He also refers to Jewish journalist and broadcaster Emma Barnett as “Zionist”, implying that this is her primary identifier, despite Barnett never having publicly said so.
The most problematic aspect of his article is the reference to a debate often held by non-Jews as to whether Jews in Europe are considered White. The vehemence to exclude Jews from this discourse is antisemitic in itself. Jews in Europe were murdered precisely because they were not considered White. Their proximity to Whiteness did not save them from near destruction, and it is only very recently that the world’s Jewish population has again reached pre-WWII levels. To White supremacists, Jews are not White. In every society, Jews have always been considered the “other”, somehow a separate “race” altogether. The ethnic cleansing and systematic oppression of Jews continues to persist in countries such as Yemen and China. Jews do not fit neatly into rigid definitions of race and racism, and no matter our proximity to Whiteness, ultimately it will not protect us. Moreover, this rhetoric is dangerous as it implies that Jews are somehow inherently privileged and the ultimate oppressors: that we are simultaneously inferior and superior.
Professor Miller has openly associated with and defended public figures who have been recognised as antisemitic by vast numbers of Jews. In 2018, Miller came to the defence of disgraced former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, who had attracted controversy due to comments he made claiming that Hitler was a Zionist. This not only trivialises the Holocaust by implying all Hitler wanted to do was create a state for the Jews so they could live in peace, but also implies that the Jews were somehow working with Hitler. Ken Loach is another controversial figure who has been defended by Miller. Loach was booked to give a talk at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, which came under scrutiny from the Oxford Jewish Society regarding previous comments that challenged the veracity of the Holocaust. He has also been adamant in denying the existence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, despite the EHRC investigation, claiming it to be part of a wider conspiracy to depose Corbyn.
At its crux, these views are nothing to do with the actions of the Israeli government, but are representative of the inherent nature of antisemitism and how deeply ingrained antisemitic tropes are in our society. Antisemitism constantly mutates in order to remain camouflaged. Not at any point have there been claims that anti-Zionism is antisemitic, but Miller’s reasoning behind these views and the way in which he employed the term definitely was. What is clear to Jews is that employing blatant antisemitic tropes but substituting “Jew” for “Zionist”, is still antisemitic. Miller’s accusation that Keir Starmer has been accepting “Zionist money” has nothing to do with Zionism, and everything to do with Jews. This claim alludes to a millennia old trope that Jews are greedy and money-obsessed. This is not even a debate over the actions of the Israeli government, which many Jews and Jewish groups manage to critique without venturing into antisemitism. Na’amod is a grassroots organisation run by British Jews who seek to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories and have condemned Miller’s incendiary language, actively critiquing the Israeli government without resorting to antisemitism.
Jewish students at Bristol and elsewhere in the UK are tired of their concerns over antisemitism being discounted. Whilst academic freedom is a core tenet that should be upheld by universities, freedom of speech is not equal to freedom to espouse inconsequential hatred. Miller’s comments have had the potential to cause both emotional and physical harm to Jews across the UK by inciting and empowering bigots. Calling for disciplinary action does not threaten his right to promote his views but makes a statement that this platform does not welcome them. Miller is free to write books, articles and speak at events as much as his heart desires. However, Jewish students at Bristol and across the UK believe that a university is not the appropriate setting for such inflammatory views. Jewish students have as much right to not feel threatened and to be able to complete their degrees to the same standard as everyone else.
There have been many who have come out in support of David Miller, despite his comments and views being widely condemned as antisemitic. An open letter signed by 200 academics also includes names of professors from Glasgow. Upon request for comment from one of the professors who signed the letter, I was then personally targeted by them on Twitter. They published a tweet in which they copied and pasted the email I had sent and referred to me as “the Lobby” and again in another tweet as “a member of the student lobby”. This professor has already received a formal warning from the University due to an antisemitic poster put up outside of their office, which depicted a blood libel themed cartoon. I presume that my apparent new job title was concocted based on my very Jewish last name, because of course a Jewish student and sometimes journalist must be part of the elusive Zionist Lobby.
A habit of many defenders of antisemitism is to tokenise Jewish voices to fit their narrative. Jews are not a homogenous group and are unique individuals who inevitably have different opinions. Although I personally do not agree with them, Jewish academics such as Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and Justin Schlosberg are more than entitled to support David Miller. This should in no way discount the Jews that have voiced opposing views. Jewish Voice for Labour and Jewish Voice for Peace may support him, as is their right, but that should not negate UJS, the Jewish Labour Movement, and individual university Jewish societies, who are genuinely fearful of the impact of David Miller’s actions.