By Alex Callinicos
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Defend David Miller and academic freedom

This article is over 2 years, 4 months old
Issue 2775
University of Bristol from Cabot Tower
University of Bristol from Cabot Tower.

In a serious attack on academic freedom, Bristol University has sacked one of its professors of sociology, David Miller.

Miller, a long-standing left wing activist, works on how the powerful manipulate the mass media. He is also an anti‑Zionist, who opposes Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

As a result of arguments with pro-Israel students, Miller was accused of antisemitism. Bristol University’s statement is vague about the reasons for Miller’s dismissal.

It waffles about the university’s “duty of care to all students and the wider university community”. But it does admit that a senior lawyer who investigated the case found that Miller was not guilty of “unlawful speech”.

According to Miller himself, the finding more specifically cleared him of antisemitism.

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Why then was he sacked? I guess that the university wanted to get of Miller, probably as a result of government pressure.

When it couldn’t pin antisemitism on him, it used the hurt his remarks may have caused some students to dismiss him. This manoeuvre is typical of the senior management of contemporary universities, who operate like the bosses of businesses.

The statement affirms Bristol’s commitment to academic freedom but this is clearly a lie. Freedom of speech is impossible if you punish people for offending others.

Galileo Galilei offended the Pope and his cardinals when he said the Earth went around the sun, but this doesn’t mean the Inquisition was justified in forcing him to recant.

Defending Miller doesn’t mean one has to agree with everything he says. He has accused Bristol university of caving into “pressure from the Israel lobby,” which “lobbies for a hostile foreign state”.

But in what sense is Israel hostile to the British state? Was it hostile, for example, when it attacked Egypt in 1956, in cahoots with Britain and France, who wanted a pretext to regain control of the Suez Canal?

This relates to a larger point. Yes, there is an Israel lobby in Britain, just as there is in most Western states. But the alignment between these states and Israel isn’t a product of the lobby’s influence, but a convergence of interests between them.

The Suez conspiracy came less than ten years after the Zionist movement waged an armed struggle against Britain, the colonial power in Palestine. Western imperialism supports Israel because it helps keep the Middle East under the West’s thumb.

Noam Chomsky has long dismissed the influence of the Israel lobby saying, “I don’t think it competes with US geopolitical planning.

“If these interests ever come into conflict, the geopolitical planners win. We see that on issue after issue.”

Similarly, supporters of Israel have been very active in making false accusations of antisemitism against the anti‑Zionist left—above all, Jeremy Corbyn. But this campaign was hugely amplified by the likes of the Daily Mail, which supported the fascist Blackshirts’ antisemitic marches in the 1930s.

For the ruling class, branding large swathes of the left as antisemitic is useful for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel. But disagreeing with Miller about the significance of the Israel lobby is far less important than the need for solidarity with him now.

It’s a basic liberal precept that toleration matters precisely when one doesn’t agree with the views under attack. But we live at a time when liberal institutions such as universities don’t respect their principles.

Miller is a casualty in the “culture war” that Boris Johnson is determined to wage. His target isn’t just the anti-racist movement and the anti-imperialist left, but scholars who have been exposing the crimes against humanity committed by the British ruling class.

This war will probably escalate. Johnson’s ridiculous appointment of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary is a warning. And Labour under Keir Starmer, desperate to win back working-class voters it patronises as reactionary, will be no constraint. This is why it is so vital to defend Miller.

If he goes down, venal, cowardly university managements everywhere will give way to government pressure to silence critical scholars and activists.

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