Toxic cocktail of antisemitism and anti-Zionism - opinion

Antisemitism on campus is one of the greatest perils facing the Jewish world.

 Gideon Falter (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gideon Falter
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The minds of tomorrow’s leaders are being forged at universities around the world. Yet those students are being fed a diet of antisemitism on many Western campuses.

This is one of the greatest perils facing the Jewish world.

It is not only extremist student activists who are poisoning the minds of their peers. The most dangerous incitement sometimes comes from academics. The imprimatur of a professor can appear to bestow legitimacy on antisemitic groups, individuals or ideas.

I cannot think of a better example of this toxic cocktail than Prof. David Miller of the University of Bristol, who was fired earlier this month – a rare instance of a British academic being dismissed following repeated antisemitic comments.

Miller is obsessed with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, and his classes have alarmed Jewish students. In a course titled “Harms of the Powerful,” for example, Miller accused the “Zionist movement” of a hatred of Muslims, promoted in the United Kingdom by a sophisticated Jewish conspiracy.

He has also claimed that the new leader of the Labour Party is “in receipt of money from the Zionist movement,” whilst Miller himself spends his time in the company of high-profile figures expelled from Labour in relation to antisemitism, describing allegations of anti-Jewish racism against them as a “witch hunt.”

Previous complaints to the University against Miller fell on deaf ears.

In a Zoom call in February, however, Miller crossed the line once again, describing the “Zionist Movement” as “the enemy of world peace.” He added that Jewish students, by virtue of being Zionist, “encourage Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism” and that those associated with Zionism, including Jewish students on his own campus, “must be directly targeted.”

Miller’s employer, the University of Bristol, came under increasing pressure from a Jewish community united in disgust and frustrated by the institution’s drawn-out investigation with no apparent end in sight. Jewish voices were joined by hundreds of prominent academics and politicians.

As the Jewish community and its allies showed righteous outrage, Bristol failed to act. For too long, this has been how university administrations have reacted to antisemitism on campus.

At Campaign Against Antisemitism, we were determined that this time would be different. Our organization has long pioneered innovative legal solutions, and we started to prepare the ground for a potential legal challenge.

We immediately assembled some of the legal team that worked on our landmark referral of the Labour Party to the Equality and Human Rights Commission — Asserson Law Offices and barrister Derek Spitz — also bringing in specialist employment barrister Benjamin Gray. The circumstances were similar to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn: brazen antisemitism and an institution that believed it could not be forced to act.

A small group of Jewish students had the courage to step forward. 

Put yourself in their position: You are at university to study and have the time of your life, and suddenly you encounter someone like Miller and are faced with the question of whether to sue your own institution just to uphold your rights.

Together with our legal team, we identified a potential claim against the University for creating a hostile environment for Jewish students through its continuing failure to hold Miller accountable, and for itself breaching the diversity and inclusion terms of its contract with students.

Following pre-action correspondence in the spring, legal proceedings were launched over the summer. The University thus knew that whatever its internal investigation might find, the facts were going to be placed before a court.

Just a month later, Miller was fired.

The case was the latest step by our organization to defend the rights of individual Jewish students. We believe that universities and student unions must be robustly held to account when they fail to defend Jewish students or allow lecturers to discriminate against or harass them.

The heroes here are the students who stepped forward. As a Jewish community, we have a duty to show them that when they stand on principle, they will not stand alone. We must rally around our students and be prepared to give our solidarity the force of legal action.

That is why Miller’s downfall is the most important lesson he has ever taught.

Gideon Falter is CEO of Campaign Against Antisemitism.

This op-ed is published in partnership with a coalition of organizations that fight antisemitism across the world. Read the previous op-ed by Sarah N. Stern.