Bristol University sacks professor accused of antisemitic comments

The University of Bristol has sacked a sociology professor accused of antisemitic comments following a high-profile investigation and after Jewish students said they felt “unsafe and unprotected” on campus.

The university launched the investigation into Prof David Miller’s conduct in March. The case divided the campus between staff and students who accused him of spouting antisemitic tropes in lectures and online, and those who worried that sanctions would stifle sensitive research.

In a statement released on Friday, the university said the decision to terminate his employment with immediate effect was prompted by its duty of care to students and the wider university community.

Bristol said that although a QC found that the comments Miller is alleged to have made “did not constitute unlawful speech”, a disciplinary hearing concluded that he “did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff”.

Miller said the university had “embarrassed itself” with its decision and accused it of bowing to a pressure campaign against him directed by Israel.

Miller, whose research specialises in how power self-perpetuates through lobbying and propaganda, added that he would challenge the decision before the university, and would escalate it to an employment tribunal if unsuccessful.

He added: “It has run a shambolic process that seems to have been vetted by external actors. Israel’s assets in the UK have been emboldened by the university collaborating with them to shut down teaching about Islamophobia. The University of Bristol is no longer safe for Muslim, Arab or Palestinian students.”

The president of Bristol Jewish Society, Edward Isaacs, thanked the university for its decision in a tweet. He wrote: “The fight against antisemitism is vast, but I hope today’s news goes a long way to showing positive change can be made and that we should never settle for anything less than a society free from all forms of hatred.”

Miller’s comments initially whipped up controversy in 2019 when he cited the Zionist movement as one of five sources of Islamophobia in a lecture on the subject, and showed a diagram linking Jewish charities to Zionist lobbying. Complaints were made that this resembled the antisemitic trope that Jews wield secretive influence on political affairs, but they were dismissed by the university on academic freedom grounds.

Since then, comments by him in online lectures describing Israel as “the enemy of world peace” and a statement sent to the student news outlet the Tab that described the Jewish Society as an “Israel lobby group” that had “manufactured hysteria” about his teaching have further inflamed tensions.

The scope of Bristol’s investigation and the exact reasons for its conclusion are confidential, though they are understood not to cover the lecture content.

The investigation resulted in a febrile atmosphere on campus, which one academic characterised as “toxic”. The Conservative MP Robert Halfon said it resembled “1930s Nazi Germany”, citing reports from Jewish students that they felt “unsafe”. He urged the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, to take the unprecedented step of sacking Bristol’s leaders​ and cutting the university’s funding​.

The case garnered the attention of hundreds of academics across the world, who signed rival letters, one of which described Miller’s views on Zionism as a “morally reprehensible” conspiracy theory that jeopardised community relations on campus, while another warned that the investigation was fomenting a “culture of self-censorship and fear”, and urged the university to defend freedom of speech.

Bristol said in its statement that academic freedom was “fundamental” to the university and that it “take[s] any risk to stifle that freedom seriously”.

The statement added: “We recognise that these matters have caused deep concern for people on all sides of the debate, and that members of our community hold very different views from one another.”

Comments are closed.