Alex Callinicos’s defence in Socialist Worker of David Miller, the academic recently sacked from his job at the University of Bristol, poses the matter as one of “academic freedom”, in which not only academic freedom, but Miller himself, must be “defended”.
Callinicos is right that there are questions of academic freedom involved. There have long been demands that Miller should be sacked for his views on Israel and Zionism — and, from some, that he should be sacked for his views on Syria, as he is a prominent apologist for Assad regime and has promoted denialist conspiracy theories about that regime’s involvement in chemical weapons attacks.
Whilst I share many of the criticisms of Miller’s politics made by those raising such demands, those demands do pose questions of academic freedom and freedom of speech: is it reasonable, particularly for the labour-movement, class-struggle left, to appeal to the authority of someone’s employer to dismiss them from employment because you find certain of their views abhorrent? How abhorrent does a view have to be before it becomes a sackable offence, and who decides?
The exact “charge”, and justification for dismissal, in David Miller’s case have not been made public. Bristol University’s statement says it is a matter of Miller not meeting “standards of behaviour” (rather than his views).
There are additional factors in the situation which mean approaching it only in terms of “academic freedom” substantially misses the point. Even if we do decide to oppose the dismissal on knowing more about the charges, there is no requirement to “defend David Miller”, as Callinicos insists.
Callinicos has a few words of mild criticism for some of what Miller has to say about the “Israel lobby”. He writes: “[Miller] 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.”
If this is a critique of Miller’s approach, it is a critique based on quantity, not quality. Callinicos’s argument is essentially that Miller goes a little too far, and exaggerates the real power of Israel and its “lobby”. But, as Callinicos puts it: “Disagreeing with Miller about the significance of the Israel lobby is far less important than the need for solidarity with him now.”
The problem with Miller’s perspective is not that he overstates the extent of a real phenomenon, but rather that it is a conspiracist fantasy. The “Israel lobby” and “Zionism” which Miller purports to critique simply do not exist in the forms he claims. As the sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris put it recently: “David Miller is not an ‘anti-Zionist’. What he opposes is not ‘Zionism’, it is a product of his own invention.”
A diagram produced by Miller, purporting to show the operation of the “Israel lobby”, encapsulates the problems with his politics. It includes entries for most major mainstream Jewish communal bodies, including the Board of Deputies, which is described as a “key Israel lobby group”.
Numerous prominent Jewish individuals were also included, with linking labels such as “donor”, “affiliate” and “within”, with “the Israeli government” and its “quasi-state institutions” sitting atop the whole web. Miller has even argued that interfaith activities that brought Jews and Muslims together to make chicken soup represent an effort to promote Israeli power and “normalise Zionism”.
As Keith Kahn-Harris wrote in response, this approach “constructs a kind of ‘flatland’; a world in which networks of power and influence are so intricately connected that they form a seamless system.” Miller sees the lobbying activity of pro-Israel groups not as a mundane expression of the lobbying, interest-promotion, and soft-power building that international cultural and political milieus attached to nearly every state on earth conduct, but as a project for world domination. Moreover, he erases entirely the historical reasons behind Jewish affinity (surely understandable, whatever we on the left conclude for ourselves) with Israel and Zionism, and why so many Jews see them as products of Jewish experiences of oppression.
Callinicos sees Miller as “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.”
Whether any of those categories (“anti-racist”, “anti-imperialist”, “exposing the crimes committed by the British ruling class”) can be said to meaningfully and consistently apply to Miller, when so much of his writing appears to be predicated on wild conspiracy theories, is highly debatable. Callinicos clearly sees Miller’s views a legitimate part of left-wing discourse: perhaps a little extreme, perhaps a little overstated, but fundamentally embodying some “anti-racist”, “anti-imperialist”, and left-wing content.
Some of Miller’s even more uncritical, hagiographical defenders paint him as some kind of martyr to the cause of Palestinian freedom, as if his conspiracy-theory mongering has helped that cause advance a single inch. The cause of Palestinian self-determination and the Palestinian people’s struggle for national liberation, let alone the wider cause of “anti-racist”, “anti-imperialist”, and left-wing politics, are harmed, not served, by conspiracist misanalyses that do not simply overstate the extent of Israel’s power, but utterly misidentify what that power consists of, and totally misunderstand what concepts like “Zionism” and “imperialism” are.
Moreover, it should strain credulity to paint a British apologist for the Assad regime — a regime which has, in recent years, bombed Palestinian refugee camps and killed many more Palestinians than the Israeli regime — as an unimpeachable fighter for Palestinian liberation.
Socialist Worker has historically seen “anti-Zionism” as an inherently progressive category in and of itself, almost regardless of the alternative in the name of which Zionism is being opposed. In the 1970s and 80s, the paper supported drives to ban campus Jewish Societies on the grounds that their “Zionism” made them “racists” who should be denied a platform. That source, then, was hardly likely to reflect on the further complexities present in this case.
Miller describes “Zionism”, which he implies is monolithic and singular, as an “enemy of the left” and an “enemy of peace”. It must be “ended”. This perspective reifies — that is, makes concrete something which is abstract — something he calls “Zionism”, and transmutes it into a singular, monolithic agency which enacts a drive for domination. By claiming that almost every institution in Jewish life — including the student Jewish Society on the Bristol campus — is directly networked into that singular agency, he renders the vast majority of Jews alive either dupes or conscious agents of Zionism’s project for global domination.
Zionist Jewish students — or even non or anti-Zionist Jewish students, who may nonetheless be connected to Zionist institutions such as synagogue federations or other Jewish communal organisations — are, therefore, in Miller’s worldview, not simply people with whom he might politically disagree, but “enemies” of the left and of “peace”, whose political project must be “ended”.
This does raise some doubt whether Miller will or will not have discharged towards Jewish students the duty of care any teacher has towards their students.
Zionism is not, and has never been, a singular monolith. It is a contested concept, different conceptions of which form some part of the historically-developed identity of the majority of Jews alive. A left which aspires to be more than “anti-Zionist” — that is, to befor a consistently-democratic, egalitarian, internationalist alternative to Zionism, and to all nationalisms — can only advance that alternative by sensitivity to the origins of nationalist consciousness amongst historically oppressed peoples, and working through the tensions and contradictions within it.
I err on the side of opposition to Miller’s dismissal, given the precedent it could set for “political” sackings. But Miller’s conspiracy-theorist reification of a singular “flatland” totally misanalyses Zionism, profoundly miseducates about the real nature of systems of power and transmission of ideology, and designates the majority of the world’s Jews as something close to mortal political enemies. This latter perspective not only forecloses on the possibility of breaking Jewish people from particularist and nationalist consciousness, but risks fuelling wider antisemitism — i.e., not merely the left-antisemitic “anti-imperialism of fools”, but a racist antisemitism in which Jews are designated as a racialised Other.
These approaches cannot be a foundation for a genuinely emancipatory politics, and the left should confront and critique — not “defend” — them.