Academic freedom and the harassment of David Miller

Free Speech on Israel have written to Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor of

David Miller
David Miller

the University of Bristol.  We sought to bring the considerable threat to academic freedom from acceding to the campaign to dismiss Professor David Miller to his attention

Free Speech on Israel

Professor Hugh Brady
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Bristol
Beacon House
Queens Road
Bristol, BS8 1QU, UK

9 March 2021

By email only

Dear Professor Brady,

Re: Academic freedom and the harassment and victimisation of Professor David Miller

We are extremely concerned at the current campaign, demanding that the University of Bristol dismiss Professor David Miller from his post.

The campaign against Professor Miller has recently intensified with the letter signed by over 100 parliamentarians to the university.[1] In such circumstances, the pressures on the university are very great; however, it is precisely in these conditions that the principle of academic freedom is put to the most severe test.

The stakes are high. If the campaign against Professor Miller were to be successful, the consequences for academic freedom would be felt at universities across the UK, for academics, students, student societies and communities.

Professor Miller has been charged with antisemitism. Antisemitism is a scourge. It is evident as a rising phenomenon on the far right across Europe and North America. It is real and should be opposed and challenged wherever it appears and from whatever quarter.

However, Professor Miller is being vilified and attacked for his views and criticisms of Zionism. It is dangerously false to conflate criticism of the state of Israel, or opposition to Zionism as a political ideology, with the real threat of antisemitism.

We recognise there are students at Bristol and a wider audience, who are hurt and offended by David Miller’s statements. Nevertheless, these statements do not, in our view, constitute hate speech nor is there evidence to suggest antisemitic motivation. Thus, whilst we understand some have taken offence, this does not constitute a good or sufficient reason for anyone to be disciplined for expressing them.

There is a longstanding tradition of political, historical and scholarly critique of Zionism and of the founding of the state of Israel. For Palestinian academics and students, the freedom to express such critique is not only a question of academic freedom but of their right to define the systemic roots of their own oppression. That freedom of expression and debate also has a wider significance. The current government is similarly hostile to the concern of black and ethnic minority communities that the curriculum should reflect the structural roots of racism in Britain.

Whether one is in agreement or not with Professor Miller’s formulations and arguments, this cannot be grounds for suppression of discussion, debate, scholarly study or free expression on Zionism as a political ideology, Palestine and Israel. This would have severe implications for academic research and study, not only for Middle East studies but for academic study in general. Professor Miller himself is noted for his academic work, particularly on Islamophobia and government policy on countering extremism.[2]

Of course, any critique is subject to challenge. Any academic should expect their methodology and conclusions to be contested, including by their peers and students. This too is an indispensable condition of academic freedom. It is also important such discussion takes place in an atmosphere where students feel they can contest and articulate their own views. The current campaign against Professor Miller, would enshrine the reverse principle; it is part of a wider campaign to silence scholarly and political debate. The accusation of antisemitism against Professor Miller is false and arguably defamatory.

We have consistently warned, alongside prominent Jewish academics, that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, threatens academic freedom and free speech.[3] We have often been assured that the working definition has no such implication. The current campaign against Professor Miller, in which the IHRA working definition has been repeatedly cited, is a chilling vindication of our own warnings and those of many others. We attach a copy of our declaration on what is and what is not antisemitic misconduct which we believe provides a more robust basis for adjudicating these issues.

We ask you to resist the demands to dismiss Professor Miller. To concede will open the gate to further attacks on academic freedom, to free speech on Palestine and fuel the climate of hostility towards inclusion of radical approaches to the history and experience of oppressed minorities in Britain that defy the accepted orthodoxy of the current government and Department for Education.

Mike Cushman
Chair, Free Speech on Israel
chair@fsoi.org.uk

cc:
Professor Simon Tormey, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences and Law
Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro VC (Student Experience)
Professor Tansy Jessop, Pro VC (Education)
Professor Judith Squires, Provost
Mr Jack Boyer, Chair, Board of Trustees
Dr Moira Hamlin, Vice-Chair, Board of Trustees
Ms Jane Bridgwater, Director of Legal Services

 

 

[1] https://twitter.com/APPGAA/status/1367474397200732171

[2] For example, What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State, David Miller, Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills (eds), Pluto Press, 2017. http://bit.ly/3uX8DPK

[3] Letter from British academics and Israeli citizens, Vashti, 4 February, 2021. http://bit.ly/3qnTzH3

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