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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.


2 replies on ““Zionist” and “Jew” aren’t interchangeable words”

John Spencer-Davis says:

I would just like to point out a few problems with this article. By no means all of them: just some of the more egregious ones.

Ms Goldberg asserts that the book ‘Bad News for Labour’ (2019), which she incorrectly states was co-authored by Professor Miller and Professor Greg Philo – it was not – “has been discredited by Channel 4 FactCheck”. This claim is false, as can immediately be seen by following the link Ms Goldberg provides. The fact checking is not of the book, but of two claims by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn which are likely to be based upon data contained within the book, but which he may – the claim is debatable – have misinterpreted, inadvertently or otherwise. The statement offered by Professor Philo – that he “takes the figures for antisemitism cases provided by Jennie Formby in 2019 and extrapolates back to estimate numbers across the whole of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. He says this estimate of 0.3 per cent of Labour members being involved in antisemitism cases is ‘well within what the existing evidence would indicate’” – is presented without comment or analysis by Factcheck. They do not seek to “discredit” it. The second claim by Jeremy Corbyn – that “the public perception…was that one third of all Labour party members were somehow or other under suspicion of antisemitism”, may be misleading, as argued by Factcheck, but that is not the fault of the book, which Factcheck in fact uses to dispute Mr Corbyn’s claim.

Ms Goldberg claims that the publication Electronic Intifada, which published David Miller’s article https://electronicintifada.net/content/we-must-resist-israels-war-british-universities/32391, which she criticises but to which she does not bother to provide a link, “has often strayed into antisemitism”. That may be true, or it may not be: but she does not even attempt to provide any evidence for such a serious charge. She misrepresents David Miller’s article by saying that he “claims that the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Community Security Trust are merely Israel lobby groups”. He does no such thing; he does refer to them as “Israel lobby groups” – offering evidence, which people who read his article can evaluate for themselves – but in no way does he suggest that that is their sole function. A minor point is that Ms Goldberg gets the sequencing of statements in Professor Miller’s article wrong – the Community Security Trust, for example, is not mentioned where she claims it is – but this is all of a piece with the general sloppiness and inaccuracy that her article displays throughout.

I will continue this commentary later.

Professor Greg Philo says:

The article is deeply flawed and shows little knowledge of the work of David Miller. It states that he implies the existence of ‘a global Zionist-Israeli government’. He is actually a specialist in lobbying, propaganda and the use of soft power. His book, ‘A Century of Spin’ contains hundreds of references to the actions of corporate and  state bodies. There is just one to Israel and one to ‘Zionist World Government’ , which is mentioned to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory.
He has written elsewhere, along with many others, about Israel and the recent propaganda war which has developed in the wake of the BDS movement.  For those interested see this account by Nathan Thrall in the Guardian. For this, Thrall interviewed key figures including Yossi Kuperwasser from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, referred to here as Kuper:

‘The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has outsourced much of its anti-BDS activity in foreign countries, helping to establish and finance front groups and partner organisations, in an attempt to minimise the appearance of Israeli interference in the domestic politics of its allies in Europe and the US.

Kuper said that anti-BDS groups were now “sprouting like mushrooms after the rain”. ‘

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/14/bds-boycott-divestment-sanctions-movement-transformed-israeli-palestinian-debate

Academics will certainly argue about the correctness or otherwise of such analysis. But to discuss and research the subject, does not imply a belief in the existence of a Zionist world government.

Finally,  I would add that I have known David Miller since he was a student at this university. He is a committed anti-racist and would definitely not see the words Jewish and Zionist as synonymous.

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