Uphold free speech, fight antisemitism

Submitted by AWL on 2 March, 2021 - 7:02 Author: Cathy Nugent
David Miller

David Miller


The government’s new attempt to police freedom of speech and academic freedom on University campuses — e.g. to withhold registration if a University is deemed not be complying — should be opposed. Universities already have a statutory duty to uphold free speech (in the 1986 Education Act). The new push is a demagogic attempt to push back against “wokeness”, linked to reactionary attempts to promote historical pride in such things as colonialism and slavery.

However, there are real pressures against free speech and the right to organise on campuses. There have been many free-speech-suppressing moves in recent decades, including bureaucratic gate-keeping of student-organised meetings and surveillance under the government’s anti-terrorist Prevent initiative.

Student unions and campus trade unions need to be much more militant in defending freedom of speech and organisation for all, other than clear-cut fascists. Often student unions go along with the administrative barring of abhorrent speakers from campus, rather than the better option of militantly protesting against and ideologically challenging such speakers.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also “requested” universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. The next issue of Solidarity will cover that issue. This article deals with the recent case of Bristol sociology professor David Miller and how that highlights dilemmas involved with academic freedom.

Jewish students at Bristol first complained two years ago about how Miller’s lecture material claimed parts of Zionism were responsible for Islamophobia in the world. They accused him of antisemitism.

The complaint appears to have been stonewalled by Bristol’s university bureaucracy. It would not have wanted to undermine academic freedom, or get into the complications associated with confronting a senior academic. Since then, Miller has said much more. Bristol Jewish Society and the Union of Jewish Students are calling for him to be sacked.

We recognise the dismay and anger at Miller, but we do not support the call for him to be sacked.

Miller is a left antisemite. His views are not rooted in prejudice based on “racial”-biological characteristics assumed to be held by Jews, but in an “absolute anti-Zionism”. That is intractable political hostility to all aspects of Zionism (that is, today, Israeli nationalism) and all Zionists. Since most Jews have an affinity with Israel, for the absolute anti-Zionist political hostility extends to most Jews. Miller probably picked up his anti-Zionism from an association with the Socialist Workers Party, but his is an extreme version.

At a Labour Against the Witch-hunt rally on 13 February Miller argued that “Zionism” does not have the right to exist, because it, and the imperialist policies of the Israeli state, are committing genocide against the Palestinians. Note how “Zionism” is reified here — material political and diplomatic actions by Israeli governments are attributed to the agency of “Zionism”. Reification is at the heart of conspiracy-theory thinking, and that often brings left antisemitism into alignment with “traditional” antisemitism.

But bigoted views are best combatted by a general freedom of speech which enables critics to reply and refute, not by setting up some higher authority to police ideas.

Miller’s view is more nationalistic and tunnel-visioned than large sections of the Palestinian national movement itself, but it is rooted in Palestinian nationalism. If Miller were sacked it could, potentially, have damaging implications for the democratic rights of Palestinian academics and students to speak and organise. That would be wrong.

There is also the issue of university staff acting ethically and with a duty of care to their students. Students should not fear recrimination in raising criticisms. They should, as a matter of course, be actively encouraged to “have their say”.

Miller has said the Union of Jewish Students are part of the power plays in the world by Israel or “Zionism”. The proof of this is that the UJS constitution talks about promoting Israel. For many Jewish students that just means promoting their cultural and spiritual affinities; but for Miller UJS are agents of Israeli imperialism. Miller’s word must have helped stir up online abuse received by the President of Bristol J-Soc. He is out of order here.

Miller seems incapable of acknowledging that Jewish students will receive his views as demonisation of Jews or that there is growing antisemitism. This is not something to be brushed aside. Possibly Miller and the academics who signed a letter in support of him have never attempted to understand this point of view, and consequently they see Jewish students’ fear and disgust as dishonest. We should urge and insist, as a matter of human, let along academic, ethical conduct, that these academics listen to the students’ point of view.

The issues are complex. The Israeli Jewish nation has a just claim to self-determination, as do, of course, the Palestinian Arabs. Jewish affinity with Israel and support for Jewish self-determination in Israel are inevitable products of Jewish history. Palestinian national aspirations, likewise, are an inescapable product of continuing oppression. The complexity of these issues can only be confronted through much more debate and educational work, including a right for students to challenge their lecturers.

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