The research interests of David Miller, a professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol in the south of England, focus on neo-liberalism, corporate influences on health and science, the counter-jihad movement, Islamophobia — and the Zionist movement.
His academic work has been to dissect and examine campaigns and networks — and in the context of his far-left politics, to join up the dots in the public arena. Last month, he said:
Zionism is and always has been a racist, violent, imperialist ideology, premised on ethnic cleansing. It is an endemically anti-Arab and Islamophobic ideology. It has no place in any society.
Many British Jews believe this comment reflected Professor Miller’s long-held belief in a subterranean Zionist conspiracy to subvert free speech on campus, orchestrated from its centre in Tel Aviv and propagated by the Jewish student society in Bristol.
In a style reminiscent of the anti-Communist campaign during the McCarthyist era in the United States in the 1950s, Professor Miller clearly considers himself highly adept at finding “Zionists under the bed”.
As an academic who understands the meaning and power of words, he seems to be totally oblivious of the fact that his loose talk can be interpreted in the public sphere as an encouragement to propagate anti-Semitic tropes. This belies a lack of awareness of the dark period of European history since the French Revolution and the drip-drip delegitimisation of the Jews.
While there has been a petition of academics, defending Professor Miller’s right to free speech, another petition in circulation was one which spoke about “the Board of Deputies of Zionist Jews” — and more than 2,000 people put their names to it. The petition’s appeal demonstrates the smooth transition from academic subtlety to populist stupidity.
The use of “Zionist” can be a fig-leaf to hide other beliefs. For anti-Semites, it provides cover for their hatred of Jews. For members of Hamas, it serves to avoid the use of the word Israel and is code for “Israeli Jews”.
For many Orthodox Jews, it posits a disdain for the worship of nationalism in place of the Torah. For Jews on the far Left whose Jewishness is not central to their identity, “Zionist” is a term which reminds them of their origins — something best forgotten.
Even so, over 90% of British Jews expressed their identification and attachment to the state of Israel, according to the City University survey of 2015. Who, then, are being addressed by the epithet “Zionist”? Who constitute this Machiavellian “Israel lobby”?
The survey also suggested that a majority of British Jews support a two-state solution, believe that the Palestinians have a right to “a land of their own” and oppose the settlement drive.
The very idea that British Jews are being controlled by Benjamin Netanyahu is therefore patently ridiculous.
It is self-evident from several scientific surveys that they do not share the ideology and the policies of successive Netanyahu governments — and this has proved to be a real bugbear for many on the far Left.
Above all, they fear those Zionists who project a rational approach to the tortuous Israel-Palestine conundrum. In the past, they quietly fumed at the Oslo Accords and felt more at home with the Palestinian rejectionists, opposed to Arafat and the PLO. Today they still make no distinction between progressive nationalists and reactionary Islamists among the Palestinians.
Many in academia who subscribe to the far Left in their approach to Jews and Jewishness are often entrapped in theory and try instead to fit the political reality outside the classroom into neat intellectual compartments.
Zionism was always a non-conformist ideology which did not tick all the acceptable boxes. It was different, but did this make it wrong? Too many have taken the lazy way out by depositing it into categories labelled settler colonialism, racism and apartheid.
David Miller is an adherent of a mindset that arose during the period of decolonisation during the post-war period. In the early 1960s, the Palestinians fitted into this epoch of liberation movements — much more so than the Israelis who were perceived as “white” and “European” and at the beck and call of the colonial powers.
In contrast, the strong support for Zionism by the British Left in 1945, has been airbrushed out of the narrative by today’s far Left. Figures on the Old Left like the revered Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service in the UK, embraced Zionism. They stood with British Jews in fighting local fascists in the 1930s, lived through the years of the Shoah and gloried in the rise of a Hebrew republic in 1948. The transmission of such an important episode in British working-class history never made its way down to Bristol.
One entrenched belief on the far Left is that Jews are solely defined as the followers of a religion — and no more. Indeed, Lenin was quite happy to absorb this simplistic belief and believed that the very idea that the Jews were evolving into “a separate nation” was “politically reactionary”.
For Lenin, the simple solution to the complexity of the Jewish problem was assimilation and disappearance. He never wrote about the advocates of socialist Zionism, Ber Borokhov and Nahman Syrkin, and almost certainly never even knew of their existence.
Trotsky, on the other hand, became sensitised to anti-Semitism when he witnessed the rise of Nazism in the 1930s — and saw no problem in using the term “the Jewish nation”. In 1937, he has a long conversation about the Zionist experiment in Palestine with Beba Idelson, a labour leader — and was profoundly interested.
The very idea that Zionism should possess a Marxist wing or a labour movement is anathema to the far Left. Hence these terms are never mentioned, only “liberal Zionists”. It is easier to characterise the far Right on the Zionist spectrum as representative. The easy way out is to paint Zionists as Trumpists, Tories and Blairites. Professor Miller himself characterises the Zionist movement as “transnational”. Is only the far Left entitled to be internationalist?
There is also a wide gap between the far Left, epitomised by Professor Miller’s verbal forays, and the Jewish Left. The far Left often engages in selective outrage — that not all injustices should be condemned. Jeremy Corbyn was content to repeatedly appear on Iran’s Press TV even though the ayatollahs executed large numbers of socialists in Tehran during the mid-1980s. The willingness of others to appear on Russia Today despite the Novichok poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the Skripals is truly difficult to comprehend.
Many British Jews feel propelled to support human rights internationally — in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Belarus and a plethora of other trouble spots — because of the Jewish historical experience. It raises the salient point of what it means to be a member of the Left today.
Perhaps what ultimately irritates Professor Miller is that Jewish students at Bristol have had the temerity to stand up for themselves — neither quiescent nor quiet. In this, they continue a defiant Jewish tradition of non-conformity and political struggle. They provide hope for the future — not simply for Jews, but for all those who are not afraid to ask questions.
Plus61j 5 March 2021