A war is being waged against academic freedom in Britain

The accusations of anti-Semitism against David Miller aim to silence pro-Palestinian voices on university campuses.

Pro-Palestine protesters gather outside Downing Street in London, UK on September 5, 2019 [File: Reuters/Henry Nicholls]

Over the past few weeks, David Miller, a professor of political sociology at Bristol University in the United Kingdom, has been the subject of a vicious smear campaign, alleging he has made anti-Semitic comments. Individuals and groups such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), the Community Security Trust (CST) and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), are queueing up to tarnish his reputation and demand his sacking.

For over a decade, Miller has done research on the increasing public attacks on the Palestine solidarity movement, as well as the surveillance and securitisation of Muslim communities as a result of the so-called “war on terror”. It is notable that the accusations of “anti-Semitism” levelled at him arise from a lecture he gave on the Zionist movement’s involvement in promoting Islamophobia, a well-known fact among scholars who study the Palestinian question.

The attacks on Miller rely on calculated mischaracterisations of his arguments or political views. One familiar falsehood is the claim that he said the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is a recipient of “Zionist money”. Words matter and emotive misquoting is a key tactic being used against the professor. Miller observed that Starmer’s leadership campaign had been “in receipt of money from the Zionist movement” and specifically from Trevor Chinn, a right-wing Labour donor.

Chinn was close both to the New Labour project and to Prime Minister Boris Johnson while he was mayor of London. Since 1973, Chinn has been chairman and then president of the United Jewish Israel Appeal, described by the Jewish Leadership Council as “the major fund-raising organisation for Israel”.

The attacks against Miller are part of a chilling wave of intimidation sweeping across British universities, targeting critics of Israel. Years of onslaughts by the British government and the Israel lobby on Palestine solidarity movements in UK universities have led us to this point.

One of the main developments which have accelerated this campaign has been the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism by public institutions.

Prominent lawyers, academics, student groups and Palestinian activists have all warned against adopting the IHRA definition, arguing that it conflates anti-Jewish prejudice with the political debate over Israel and Palestine, and thus poses a threat to free speech and academic freedom.

The lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, himself has raised concerns about the definition being used to shut down Palestinian activism on university campuses. Several leading anti-Semitism experts have also argued that it fails to provide an accurate definition of anti-Semitism and may even hinder the efforts to eradicate it.

Nevertheless, amid unprecedented political pressure, many British universities, from Cambridge to Bristol, have moved to adopt the controversial definition.

Last October, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the government may take regulatory action against the remaining higher education institutions that refuse to adopt the definition, and even threatened to “suspend their funding streams” if they do not change their stance by the end of the year.

More recently, Williamson has put forward the idea of creating a “free speech champion” for the education sector, whose task will be to combat no-platforming policies – a move which would further strengthen the government’s ongoing assault on British universities as sites of critique and contestation.

These developments are part of a long process of institutionalising the repression of pro-Palestinian activism. It has stretched across various spheres of public life, including politics.

Between 2015 and 2019, it was reflected in the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in the Labour Party. Many who actually support the Palestinian struggle and did not agree with the accusations of anti-Semitism directed at the former Labour leader, chose to remain silent to avoid the same vitriol. The result was those who spoke up against Israel’s crimes were kicked out of the political arena one by one.

In Labour’s case, an unwillingness to treat the Israeli lobby’s influence on our politics with the scepticism it deserves was decisive. The only brief moment of resistance came in January 2017, after revelations by Al Jazeera that the Israeli embassy was trying to “take down” MPs deemed insufficiently pro-Israel.

Support for Palestine, criticism of Israel and of British policy are also now increasingly regarded as key indicators of “radicalisation” in government programmes, which have also disproportionally targeted Muslim communities in the UK.

We know where this can go. In France, government ministers are cooking up conspiracy theories about “Islamo-Leftism” to demonise Muslims – a policy that has been accompanied by raids and harassment targeting a swathe of prominent Muslim charities and mosques. In Austria, scholars of Islamophobia already face direct intimidation by the authorities and even police raids, after such hysteria has been whipped up about Muslim conspiracies.

In the UK, there have been calls by the neo-conservative right for the government to adopt similar heavy-handed policies.

Meanwhile, the dominant trend among higher education institutions has been to ignore the mounting demands to protect academic freedom. Universities have been unwilling to challenge the government.

Miller is not the only academic in Britain who has faced pressure for speaking against Zionism. Last year, for example, Warwick University Associate Professor Goldie Osuri was dragged through a disciplinary investigation because of her comments on the Israeli lobby’s actions and support for Palestinian resistance.

The University of Warwick, which had not adopted the IHRA definition at the time,  announced in September 2020 that it will not take any action against Osuri on the grounds of “free speech”.

This led to pro-Israel organisations doubling their efforts to pressure the university to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, making further obvious the link between the definition and the criminalisation of pro-Palestinian voices in British academia. The university eventually adopted the definition in October 2020.

If Miller loses his job over his comments on Israel and Zionism, it would represent a key victory for those campaigning to institutionalise the IHRA definition and criminalise Palestinian activism on our campuses and across other institutions. It could also intimidate other academics who speak up for Palestinian rights.

If those in British academia who disagree with the campaign being waged against Miller choose to remain silent out of fear, the same thing will happen in their universities.

It is only through collective resistance, and solidarity with those who are being targeted, that we can protect ourselves, free speech, and academic freedom.

It may only be Miller who is being targeted today, but if we do not act swiftly and decisively, there will be others tomorrow and others still the day after.

Now is the time to speak up, to pass motions of solidarity in local student unions and university college union branches, to issue statements of support through student societies.

The clearer it becomes that Miller is part of a wider movement, committed to protecting free speech and academic freedom, the harder it will be for the University of Bristol to victimise him and the safer dissenting voices will be to articulate a different vision of the world, across higher education and society.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to acknowledge the University of Warwick’s October 2020 decision to adopt the IHRA definition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.