Anti-Zionism is not ‘worthy of respect’
David Miller must have the right to speak freely, but there is still something unsettling about his tribunal victory.
Three years ago, the University of Bristol sacked sociology professor David Miller, following comments he made about Israel and his university’s Jewish Society. Jewish students said they felt ‘intimidated’ by Miller and his apparent view that they were part of a global Zionist ‘enemy’.
This week, an employment tribunal ruled that Miller’s dismissal was unfair. According to the court, his ‘anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief’ that should be considered ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. This means his views are protected under the Equality Act 2010.
When Miller was originally fired, I argued on spiked that even someone like him deserves academic freedom. It’s a point I stand by. His obsessive, conspiratorial fantasy that ‘Zionism’ is responsible for the evils of the world may be deeply objectionable. But it was still wrong for Bristol to fire him. As I put it at the time, ‘academic freedom is a foundational principle in university life – it is far better to challenge Miller’s abhorrent views than to suppress them’.
But there is something about the language of the ruling that I find unsettling. After all, strictly speaking, it is not based on upholding Miller’s right to free speech. It’s based on Judge Rohan Pirani’s unprecedented claim that anti-Zionist views, including Miller’s obsessive hatred for Israel, are ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’ and therefore protected under the Equality Act.
This aspect of the Equality Act has been at the centre of various free-speech battles of late. It has enabled many gender-critical feminists – most famously, Maya Forstater – to assert their right to criticise trans ideology and its impact on women’s rights. The trouble is, this aspect of the law is not about upholding free speech for all, it is about deciding which views are and aren’t permitted. It is about which views fit within the Overton window. Unlike the US First Amendment, which takes a content-neutral approach to protecting speech, the UK’s Equality Act effectively allows the state to decide what is and isn’t ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’.
That the courts have judged anti-Zionism to be ‘respectable’, then, is disturbing. After all, anti-Zionism doesn’t just express an opposition to an ideology – like ‘anti-Communism’ does – it also expresses hatred for a nation. Namely, Israel. The tribunal has effectively dressed up a bigoted hatred of Israel as a considered philosophical position, as a perfectly normal belief.
It is unlikely that the court would have come to this view before the 7 October pogrom. Yet, in the shadow of the Israel-Hamas war, not only have anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic sentiments become increasingly prevalent, they have also been normalised and legitimised.
This was something Miller’s lawyer, Zillur Rahman, clearly recognised. After the verdict was delivered, he said that when Miller ‘expressed his beliefs about Zionism, which led to him being dismissed, they weren’t that widely known’. But since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, people have ‘woken’ up to the supposed fact ‘that Zionism is inherently racist and must be opposed’.
Here we can see how Miller’s victory has provided a platform for anti-Israeli propaganda. Miller has every right to spout his conspiratorial nonsense. But we shouldn’t be expected to treat it as a respectable philosophical position. We must challenge and protest against this bigotry before it becomes fully institutionalised.
Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.
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