Professor David Miller said: ‘Bristol’s JSoc, like all JSocs, operates under the auspices of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), an Israel lobby group. The UJS is constitutionally bound to promoting Israel and campaigns to silence critics of Zionism or the State of Israel on British campuses.’
What does this mean for academic freedom?
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS), alongside other Israel advocacy groups such as the Community Security Trust (CST), is involved in political lobbying campaigns targeting academics. These two groups have been attempting to censor Professor Miller at the University of Bristol since early 2019. This has serious implications for academic freedom and teaching about Israel, Zionism, racism and Islamophobia. Very rarely do groups engaged in advocacy for foreign states try to have academics at British universities sacked, and we should not allow them to set such a precedent by hounding Professor Miller. The complaints against Professor Miller have been brought by Israel lobby groups, not by his students.
This is a case with global significance and implications. The campaign against Professor Miller is inspired by similar tactics that have been used against Joseph Massad, Steven Salaita, Cornel West, Marc Lamont Hill and Norman Finkelstein due to their work or statements on Palestine or Zionism. Israel lobby groups are bringing these methods from the US to the UK. These tactics threaten our campus culture, academic freedom, student rights and, when coupled with a simultaneous campaign targeting political parties and public institutions, they also threaten democracy.
What is the UJS?
The UJS supports and guides the activities of 65 university Jewish societies (JSocs) on campuses across the UK and Ireland, including their political activities. The UJS does not only conduct political activity. Rather, it seeks to embed Zionism and Israel advocacy within the broader culture of Jewish student life. The UJS’s position as a political organisation that performs cultural and other functions gives it cover to wrongly suggest that its Israel advocacy (including campaigns targeting academics) represents all Jewish students.
Many Jewish students, especially those who are not politically active or active in their JSocs, may not be aware of the full extent of the UJS’s formal relationships with organisations in the Zionist movement that are directly responsible for the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians, or the way in which the State of Israel seeks to influence and exploit students for its political gain.
Jewish students should have avenues to engage in religious and cultural activities on campus, or seek pastoral care, unfettered by organisations claiming to speak in their name that: promote settler-colonialism; are directly funded by those leading the ethnic cleansing of Palestine; and target academics or students for censorship over their views on Zionism.
How does the UJS engage in Israel advocacy?
The UJS states in its constitution that ‘engagement with Israel’ is one of its ‘core values’ and that another of its objectives is inspiring Jewish students to make an ‘enduring commitment’ to Israel. It boasts of its role as an ‘incubator for future leaders’, including Israel lobbyists at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).
The UJS is deeply implicated in pro-Israel campus activity. In addition to encouraging students to hold events that promote Zionism and the State of Israel, the UJS gives Jewish students annual awards for: arranging visits to their universities by Israeli diplomats; establishing ‘Israel societies’ on campus; and co-ordinating with other Israel lobby groups such as StandWithUs UK.
Financial records show StandWithUs UK is funded by StandWithUs in the US, which, according to the former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, Israel uses to ‘amplify our power’ and ‘for leverage’. The UJS jointly holds events with the Israeli Embassy in London, giving figures like former Netanyahu spokesman and Israeli ambassador Mark Regev the opportunity to propagandise to students.
The UJS promotes the ‘Birthright’ propaganda programme, designed to indoctrinate Jewish students from around the world to support Zionism during all-expenses-paid trips to Israel. A Jewish Harvard student who participated in the programme wrote:
‘Birthright’s idea of engaging with Israel means supporting an illegal and oppressive military occupation, claiming citizenship to a state that deports African immigrants, glorifying “the Jewish mind,” and decrying all Arabs collectively for their hateful terrorist tactics. … Birthright is firmly entrenched in right-wing rhetoric, from racism to militarism.’
The UJS is a constituent member of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), which campaigns to ‘strengthen the ties of Jewish students worldwide with Israel’ and has produced a hasbara (propaganda) handbook for Zionist student activists to equip them with talking points that dehumanise Palestinians and defend illegal settlements. The WUJS, in turn, operates under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). The WZO has organised and coalesced senior Zionist movement leaders since the late 1890s, and its Congress is the highest decision-making authority in that movement.
The Zionist Congress meets every five years to shape the policies of Israel’s four National Institutions, which are responsible for funding ongoing settlement by Zionists in Palestine and advancing the State of Israel’s strategic priorities. Two of those National Institutions – the Jewish Agency for Israel and the UK branch of Keren Hayesod – work closely with the UJS. Keren Hayesod explains that it was established as ‘the fundraising arm of the Zionist movement’ and that today it ‘helps further the national priorities of the State of Israel’. Keren Hayesod’s UK branch, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, claims to be one of the ‘core funders and supporters of UJS’.
‘The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital [sic], in the life of the nation’.
This is a claim to a Greater Israel beyond the territories that the State of Israel occupies today and to Jerusalem as the capital of a Zionist state even though its status is disputed under international law. Such claims are commonly found among expansionist, eliminationist currents of the Zionist movement. The Progam also mentions: ‘Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism’; encouraging aliyah (settlement of Palestine by Zionists, drawn from the Hebrew term for ‘ascending’); and ‘strengthening Israel’.
As revealed in Al Jazeera’s 2017 documentary, The Lobby, the State of Israel supplies funds to the UJS. This suggests a joint enterprise underpinned by a shared ideology. The financial relationship between the State of Israel and the UJS (and other recipients of Israel’s largesse in its lobby) can be perceived as one between principal and recipient. Such relationships are not unique to the Zionist movement and are commonly seen in the influence strategies employed by corporate actors and other sophisticated state lobbies. Professor Miller’s work on the Zionist movement and the Israel lobby places such financial flows in this context.
Professor Miller’s warning on the relationship between the State of Israel and the UJS was not that the UJS is entirely subordinate to a hostile foreign state but that the UJS operates in an institutional structure in which there is little leeway or political desire for it to move away from the governing structures of the Zionist movement. This includes the leadership of the UJS – its current chief executive was executive director of the Zionist Federation (the umbrella body for Zionist organisations in the UK) and worked for the Israeli Embassy in London.
So Professor Miller was not saying that all Jewish student societies – or even all Jewish students – are being directly controlled by Israel?
Professor Miller has never said that. This is a deliberate distortion of his comments, which merges two separate issues that he raised: (i) the pro-Israel advocacy of the UJS and (ii) the wider international campaign by the State of Israel to silence its critics.
Professor Miller did not say that all Jewish students participate in Israel advocacy, and it is important to remember that not all Jewish students are members of their respective university JSocs. That principle holds more widely – many Zionists are not Jewish, and many Jews are either not Zionist or actively anti-Zionist. In fact, it is the State of Israel and its advocates that conflate the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Zionist’ in a bid to claim that Zionism is essential to both Judaism and Jewish identity. This is a harmful tactic that seeks to flatten, homogenise and monopolise Jewish opinion. To conflate the two terms racialises Jews, presenting them as a political monolith.
Instead, Professor Miller raised the question of serious potential harm if the UJS dominates Jewish student life while it is engaged in extremely partisan campaigning for Israel and its state ideology, Zionism, which is responsible for the dispossession of the Palestinian people both historically and today.
When examining a social movement engaged in an influence campaign, one has to begin by describing: the main features of its institutional arrangements; the relationship between those institutional arrangements and how the social movement works in practice; how it is funded and what bearing, if any, this has on its output and activities. Professor Miller’s academic work on lobby groups assesses all those factors together and looks at the ideological origins and motivations of various actors within state lobbies, as well as the commercial motivations of corporate lobbies, and the overlap between these (corporate and state) motivations and methods. The lobbying watchdog Professor Miller founded, Spinwatch, has studied the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, tobacco and fracking lobbies, as well as those of states that promote Islamophobia, such as Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In assessing the UJS’s attempts to embed Israel advocacy into the campus life of Jewish students, as well as its formal relationships with, and position in, the broader Zionist movement, it is clear that the State of Israel seeks to leverage its relationship with the UJS in order to use JSoc members as ‘brand ambassadors’. It is not a question of ‘control’ but of a political movement running an influence campaign. Such campaigns are not always successful, including in this case – some Jewish students see the State of Israel’s attempts to exert influence over Jewish student life as cynical and harmful to them, whereas others see such efforts as counterproductive.
What does this mean for students?
The UJS’s alignment with the goals of the WZO has real-world consequences on campus.
The UJS promotes to Jewish students the harmful, wrong and potentially racist idea that ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitic’. It also portrays pro-Palestine students – especially those involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, many of whom are Palestinian, Arab and/or Muslim – as seeking to ‘eliminate Jewish self-determination’. Taken together with its other Israel advocacy, promotion of Birthright, its funding by the State of Israel and its formal status in the Zionist movement, this raises very serious questions about the sort of environment the UJS’s campus activities create for Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students, who are often the targets of its pro-Israel, anti-BDS political activity.
Professor Miller also raised the important issue of the potential impact of the UJS’s political activities on Jewish students who wish to learn about Zionist history and Palestine, or who are committed anti-Zionists and are therefore unwelcome in their JSocs as a result of the UJS’s political influence. The Support David Miller campaign has heard from students, alumni and academics who have related their experiences of, and serious concerns about, harassment, intimidation and marginalisation by extreme pro-Israel groups on campus. Many of those we have heard from who have suffered such intimidation are Jewish.
Professor Miller also warned of a broader censorship campaign targeting public institutions. What was he referring to?
A chilling and co-ordinated campaign of censorship, aimed at academics who teach or speak about Israel, is underway on UK campuses – at Bristol, Warwick and elsewhere. This campaign also targets students who are involved in pro-Palestine activism. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has intensified recently, as a result of (i) political parties capitulating to demands set by Israel advocacy groups and (ii) ongoing efforts by such organisations (including the UJS and the CST) to lobby universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.
This censorship campaign in the UK is importing tactics that have long been used by Israel lobby organisations on US campuses, like Campus Watch and Canary Mission. Campus Watch is a project of the Middle East Forum, the same organisation that bankrolled PR and legal actions on behalf of far-right Islamophobe Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson), former leader of the English Defence League. Both Campus Watch and Canary Mission create blacklists of Arab and Muslim students, academics and those deemed anti-Zionist in an effort to have them sacked or to harm their employment prospects. Academics and students alike are concerned that such tactics are now being used in the UK, especially to shut down teaching about Islamophobia. Pro-Israel activists off-campus are already using these intimidation tactics to target critics of Israel with what many people consider to be politically motivated allegations of antisemitism, using a ‘UK University Antisemitism Map’.
There are also on-campus groups in the UK working to silence criticism of Israel, including through lawfare. A prominent example was the Fraser v UCU case brought in 2012 by the director of Academic Friends of Israel, Ronnie Fraser. Fraser and his fellow campaigners were attempting to have Zionism recognised as a protected characteristic in law, which would have the practical effect of criminalising anti-Zionism. But the judgment affirmed that Zionism is ‘not intrinsically a part of Jewishness’. The judge slammed pro-Israel campaigners for their ‘impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means’. This effort to censor and criminalise criticism of Zionism and the State of Israel failed. The judgment was clear: ‘Lessons should be learnt from this sorry saga. It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated’. Lessons should be learnt, too, by universities, which are liable for serious legal consequences if they attempt to enforce the political will of external lobby groups.
Fraser was represented by Anthony Julius, who has served as a legal adviser to Binyamin Netanyahu and has recently taken a prominent role in the campaign to advance the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism at University College London (UCL), where he holds a chair in the Law Faculty. Julius is former chairman of The Jewish Chronicle and deputy chairman of the London law firm Mishcon de Reya, which is known to have represented the Israeli Embassy in London and pro-Israel campaign groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement (known until 2004 as Po’ale Zion, or Workers of Zion). The Jewish Labour Movement and The Jewish Chronicle (after Julius resigned from its board) were at the forefront of efforts to present the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn as being plagued by an ‘antisemitism crisis’.
In addition to lawfare, Israel advocacy groups like the CST have been attempting to censor anti-Zionist views for even longer by other means, such as by reportedly passing secret blacklists of Jewish anti-Zionists to the UK government.
What the Israel lobby has not been able to achieve through the courts, it is now trying to foist upon universities through manufactured media hysteria and pressure on the UK government. This is a political tactic to advance the aims of the State of Israel – it should not be treated with credulity, but with contempt.
Where does Islamophobia come into this?
The UJS and the CST have been at the forefront of efforts to censor Professor Miller for two years following a lecture he gave on Islamophobia at the University of Bristol. Professor Miller is one of Europe’s leading experts on Islamophobia. The CST appeared to be worried by Professor Miller sharing his research on how parts of the Zionist movement promote Islamophobia. He had taught well-known and uncontroversial facts about a range of pro-Israel thinktanks, lobby groups and public relations organisations which have targeted Muslims and Muslim civil society organisations. The CST first complained to the University of Bristol in 2019, demanding that Professor Miller’s teaching on Islamophobia be censored to suit the CST’s political views, and the UJS followed with its own complaint.
Anti-Islamophobia campaigners have warned about the CST’s efforts to ‘delegitimise Muslim opposition to Israel’ and argued that the CST’s ‘writings serve to demonise Islam and depict its adherents as being an intolerant and violent other’. The CST’s Director of Policy, Dave Rich, is among those criticised by anti-Islamophobia campaigners for these reasons. He is one of the authors of a letter soliciting support from academics and professionals to condemn Professor Miller, threatening his employment status at the University of Bristol. Also involved in the campus campaign against Professor Miller is John Levy – an advisory board member of Academic Friends of Israel and director of the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East, a charity which campaigns against BDS.
Efforts to shut down Professor Miller’s teaching on Islamophobia should be seen in a broader international context. The French government is promoting the Red-Green Alliance conspiracy theory, suggesting that Muslims and socialists are in cahoots to ‘Islamise’ society. It is using this conspiracy theory to shut down mosques and Muslim charities, as well as to stoke racism. Austrian anti-Islamophobia campaigners are being targeted under the same premise, using a conspiracy theory about a secret Muslim Brotherhood plot. This has led to a dawn raid at gunpoint on the home of one of Professor Miller’s Muslim colleagues by Austrian special forces because of his teaching about Islamophobia. The conspiracy theory being used to conduct this continental persecution campaign against Muslims has been developed, promoted and funded to a great extent by hate preachers and donors motivated by Zionist ideology. Among the ideologues is Gisèle Littman (Bat Ye’or), who popularised the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theory that inspired the Utøya Massacre and the Christchurch Mosque Massacre.
Any account of contemporary Islamophobia, especially in the English-speaking world, that does not take into account the ideological and financial investment that parts of the Zionist movement have made in promoting anti-Muslim hatred, is incomplete. The State of Israel relies on narratives about ‘Palestinian terrorism’, ‘Islamism’ and the ‘threat’ posed by Muslim political activism for its continued existence. It is joined in promoting such narratives by autocratic Arab states such as the UAE. To prevent teaching about Islamophobia – and especially the involvement of the Zionist movement within it – has become even more important to Israel and its advocates as they attempt to win back left-wing support for Zionism by framing the ideology as an essential part of Jewish identity.
What specifically is the State of Israel’s role in this censorship campaign?
Professor Miller has referred to two related elements in the strategy used by the State of Israel to target its critics.
The first part of this strategy is centred on what Israeli officials call ‘counter-delegitimisation’. This means Israeli state institutions and third-party advocates around the world targeting supporters of Palestinian human rights and the international BDS campaign. This harassment strategy is led by a small Israeli ministry with a large footprint, called the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. It is part of the Prime Minister’s Office but it also performs diplomatic and intelligence functions, leading to frequent inter-agency disputes.
According to Israeli press reports, the Ministry co-ordinates its anti-BDS activities with the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. The Ministry is staffed by ex-intelligence personnel, and it campaigns both overtly and covertly, offering funding ‘to support pro-Israel organisations and activists around the world’. In 2017, the Ministry’s officials briefed journalists that it was moving ‘from defence to offence’ and would ‘adopt a big tent that works with the Left and the Right’. The UK has already felt the force of Israel’s renewed desire to influence left-wing thinking on Zionism, especially in the Labour Party.
The second prong in Israel’s strategy to censor its critics dates back much further than the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and relates to the State’s promotion of ‘the new antisemitism’ – the smear that anti-Zionism is rooted in a hatred of Jews. Both parts of this strategy are explained below.
How does the Ministry of Strategic Affairs influence public opinion abroad?
Despite Ministry personnel attempting to keep much of its activity secret, open-source information shows that it uses front groups and shell companies to bankroll pro-Israel campaigns overseas. Again, the Ministry is not always in ‘control’ of the third-parties with which it contracts, but it does set strategic objectives and seek to shape the activities of Israel advocacy groups. The Ministry’s primary role is as a donor and facilitator for activists who share its ideological outlook and can assist in advancing Israel’s interests.
One of the Ministry’s front groups was established as Kela Shlomo (Solomon’s Sling) and has since been renamed ‘Concert – Together for Israel’. It was described by the minister who oversaw it as a ‘PR commando unit’. It was funded with $35m from the State of Israel and further donations from ‘two U.S. charities that fund settlers and far-right Israeli activists’ as a ‘secretive project to undermine the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] movement’. It has had mixed fortunes, but it is supposed to channel funds to Israel advocates abroad. The Ministry claims to work with Israel’s finance and justice ministries to overcome difficulties relating to its financing of such subversion internationally, especially when it collaborates with non-profit groups or charities abroad.
The Ministry is also involved in setting up ‘situation rooms’ to marshal online troll armies including via its Act.IL app. Act.IL is an astroturf project; like many Israel lobby initiatives, it is used by the State of Israel to present an exaggerated picture of support for Zionism or Israeli policies in Jewish communities internationally. Pro-Israel trolls who download the app are directed to target specific individuals, campaigns and media articles perceived as a threat to the strategic objectives of the State of Israel, or to positively engage with online content that supports Israel. The Ministry’s troll project has recently targeted Professor Miller, calling on Israel’s advocates abroad to mount online attacks against his supporters.
The Ministry has also hosted lavish conferences in Israel to cohere pro-Israel advocacy efforts. British attendees have included Luke Akehurst (We Believe in Israel), Simon Cobbs (Sussex Friends of Israel), Joseph Cohen (Israel Advocacy Movement) and David Collier (Israel Coalition). These are regarded as being some of the most active and vocal proponents of the campaign against pro-Palestine activists and senior figures in the Labour Party, based on what many believe to be politically motivated allegations of antisemitism.
Israel advocates are now turning their attention to universities.
How has Israel been involved in defining antisemitism?
For decades, Israeli officials and diplomats have deployed a strategy of equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism in an attempt to discredit critics and opponents of Israel generally, as well as to prevent Palestinians from legitimately being able to identify the source of their dispossession and continued oppression. Israeli officials call anti-Zionism ‘the new antisemitism’, and over time they have become accustomed to simply substituting the term anti-Zionism with antisemitism. As a result, today, when Israel advocates say ‘antisemitism’, they very often mean anti-Zionism rather than the malicious intolerance or hatred of Jews.
‘The concept contains the radical notion that to warrant the charge of antisemitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on.’
‘Given that the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ is fundamentally incompatible with any definition relying on elements which historians accept make up an antisemitic view, for anyone who agrees with the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ it’s but a short step to conclude that it replaces all previous definitions and then further to argue that no other kind of antisemitism exists.’
Lerman has suggested that ‘the new antisemitism’ dates back at least to the 1970s, and that ‘in the writings of many of the “new antisemitism” theorists and propagandists, as well as in political and communal support for some Jewish communal leaders, columnists and clergy, there is a confrontational and racialised approach towards Muslims and Islam’.
The early 1970s did see a rise in the uses of ‘the new antisemitism’ as a political tool by Israeli officials, who were using it alongside the Red-Green Alliance conspiracy theory to suggest that the New Left and Muslims (or sometimes Arabs) posed a generalised threat to Jews.
Israel’s foreign minister Abba Eban said in a 1972 speech (published by the American Jewish Congress the following year), for example: ‘One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new antisemitism’.
But despite this escalation in the 1970s, both the anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia at the heart of ‘the new antisemitism’ stretch back much further. Zionist organisations in the US, such as the Anti-Defamation League, were surveilling Arab-American civil rights groups – and reporting their legitimate activities to the FBI – under the same conceptual premises that underpin ‘the new antisemitism’ as early as 1946, before the State of Israel existed.
In On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, Lerman argues that the Israeli government line expressed in the 1970s gradually superseded the previously more diverse views among Jewish communal organisations on how to monitor, record and analyse antisemitism, as well as the purpose of such monitoring.
‘What started organically, therefore, morphed into a planned campaign to create a coalition of mostly Jewish activist academics, pro-Israel and national representative bodies in the Jewish Diaspora, and the aforementioned major American Jewish organisations to take the discussions in an increasingly political and ideological direction, linking anti-Zionism and antisemitism ever more closely.’
‘A key player in and growing influence on this campaign was the Israeli government, pursuing a new policy since the late 1980s, through its then-recently-established Monitoring Forum on Anti-Semitism. The policy aimed at establishing Israeli hegemony over the monitoring and combating of antisemitism by Jewish groups worldwide. This was coordinated and mostly implemented by Mossad representatives working out of Israeli embassies. The policy served to bind Diaspora communities more closely to Israel, their self-appointed “defender against external threats”; to promote Zionist immigration by using highly problematic data on antisemitic manifestations to stress the fragility of Diaspora Jewish communities; and to portray Israel as equally in the firing line of antisemitic attack by increasingly linking criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism.’
‘I had close personal experience of the role the Mossad played in establishing Israeli hegemony over the monitoring and combating of antisemitism. While I was director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs (IJA) and its successor, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in the 1990s, I founded and was principal editor of the annual Antisemitism World Report, the first objective, independent, country-by-country survey of antisemitism worldwide. The London Mossad representative dealing with antisemitism made it clear to me that they were very unhappy about our independent operation and then tried to pressure us into either ceasing publication or merging our report with one that the then-new Project for the Study of Antisemitism at Tel Aviv University, headed by Professor Dina Porat and part-financed by the Mossad, was beginning to produce. I vigorously resisted the pressure, as I recalled in my book, The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: “I tried to persuade the Israelis to allow us to operate without interference, but was given short shrift by the Mossad representative at the Israeli embassy in London and by the Israel ambassador [Moshe Raviv] himself,” with whom I had met, together with the chairman of the IJA, to discuss the matter in 1994.’
‘Notwithstanding, we continued to produce our report and continued to come under pressure from the Mossad. A year or two later, I made a further effort to persuade them to end their attempts to undermine our work—which they were having some success in doing as certain Jewish antisemitism monitoring bodies in other countries succumbed to Mossad demands that they cease to provide us with information about developments in their countries.’
Lerman’s description of the tactics used by the State of Israel against British Jews who refuse to take its line – even if they do not identify as anti-Zionist – is instructive. Co-ordinated intimidation was essential to the nationwide harassment campaign directed at pro-Palestine Labour Party members during the Corbyn leadership. This campaign included direct, personal threats made towards prominent Jewish anti-Zionists by Israel advocates. Many victims have been too afraid to speak publicly about these threats.
Such a campaign is very likely to be replicated at British universities if manufactured antisemitism smears are not fought early and vigorously.
Professor Miller is a test case for a broader campus campaign to enforce on academics, students and university administrators alike a definition of antisemitism which will only serve the purpose of attacking anti-Zionists. Just as the Israel lobby turned the Labour Party into a weapon against its own members, it seeks to force universities into serving as a weapon against their own staff.
How has ‘the new antisemitism’ come to replace meaningful definitions of antisemitism?
The use of ‘the new antisemitism’ strategy as a diplomatic weapon was formalised with the creation of the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in 2000 by former Israeli ministers Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Michael Melchior. The Global Forum was then ‘consolidated by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its Department for Combating Antisemitism’ according to the Ministry’s own account of the Global Forum’s history. Its ‘first large International Conference’ took place in 2007, followed by two more in 2008 and 2009.
The Global Forum has been part of Israel’s efforts to: (i) redefine antisemitism so that it becomes less about hatred of Jews as Jews and more about fighting anti-Zionism, and (ii) build the myth of ‘Muslim antisemitism’, thereby allowing pro-Israel groups around the world more latitude to demonise Muslim political movements and a more overt outlet to join with governments in securitising, surveilling and penalising Muslim communities. Among the major themes of the 2009 Global Forum, for example, were: ‘Trends in the Delegitimization of Israel’ and ‘Antisemitism in the Arab and Muslim World’.
The intensification of Israel’s campaign to redefine antisemitism in a way that targeted anti-Zionists, Arabs and Muslims at the turn of the century was resisted by some prominent Jewish campaigners and intellectuals, but the CST and other UK-based Israel advocacy groups reportedly chose to adopt the Israeli position. From 2003–4, the CST worked with other pro-Israel campaign groups in a concerted effort to produce and lobby for a definition of antisemitism that would assist them in censoring, and then attempting to criminalise, anti-Zionism.
Today, it is known as the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. But its invention and evolution as a political weapon were not straightforward. Several Israel advocacy groups were at the centre of this effort, including the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, which was previously called the Project for the Study of Antisemitism – the same organisation Lerman says Israeli officials attempted to pressure him into working with. In the effort to develop a new definition alongside the Stephen Roth Institute were the CST and three US-based organisations: the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith International.
This coalition’s first attempt to impose an Israel-centric definition of antisemitism on a major institution failed in March 2004, when the European Union’s racism watchdog, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), published a report about antisemitism which rejected the Israel-centric approach, nevertheless offering an alternative broad definition of antisemitism that was centred on the process of stereotyping Jews.
This was not enough for the hardliners. Pro-Israel groups began attacking the EUMC before its report was published. In January 2004, Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress, and Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, launched a media offensive against the European Commission, describing it as ‘guilty’ of antisemitism ‘by action and inaction’. They had wanted the EUMC not only to include anti-Zionism as antisemitic but also to single out European Muslims as the major cause of rising antisemitism due to their overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian sentiments, especially in the wake of the Second Intifada.
Dina Porat, who was among those lobbying for an Israel-centric definition and is now chief historian at Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center), has her own account of how the Israeli strategy came to life: ‘The term “new antisemitism” refers to changes that took place at the beginning of the 2000s, regarding the initiators of antisemitism’. She identifies the ‘initiators of antisemitism’ in Europe as ‘more Muslims, with Middle Eastern agendas’. The campaign to define antisemitism in an Israel-centric way has always been steeped in both anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia.
A month after the EUMC report was published, media pressure from the hardline pro-Israel groups paid off. A conference organised by the German government in April 2004 proved to be ‘a milestone’ according to Porat, giving rise to the Berlin Declaration, the first major international definition of antisemitism to incorporate Israel. Following this, Porat notes, the EUMC ‘began cooperating’ with the hardline groups ‘in a coordinated effort’ to create an Israel-centric definition, and the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism came into being in January 2005, recognised as a draft in progress.
The draft was heavily criticised by legal experts for moving towards a criminalisation of pro-Palestine speech or activism. And although the EUMC had left the definition in draft form without formalising it, pro-Israel groups began lobbying other institutions to adopt the definition in a bid to manufacture a sense of irreversible momentum and credibility around it. Institutions such as the US State Department and the UK’s National Union of Students were pressured to ratify the Working Definition.
But the EUMC was succeeded in 2007 by a new organisation, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The FRA clarified in 2013 that the definition credited to its predecessor had never been its own and that the EUMC did not have the standing to approve such definitions.
In the face of this defeat, the Global Forum on Combating Antisemitism resolved in 2015 that ‘the Working Definition of Antisemitism should be reintroduced into the international arena with the aim of giving it legal status’. Senior Israel lobbyist Mark Weitzman of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre urged the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) – an association then made up of 31 states, based in the German capital – to adopt the Working Definition. In Bucharest on 26 May 2016, the IHRA announced that it had adopted the Working Definition and its 11 examples.
In October 2016, the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee offered broad support to the IHRA definition but made two important clarifications:
On 12 December 2016, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government ignored the advice of the Home Affairs Select Committee and announced that the definition had been formally adopted by the UK.
The same year, an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs report celebrated both the IHRA and UK government’s adoption of the Working Definition as a ‘significant step that should expand from Britain to the rest of Europe’. The report argued that ‘the main innovation in the Working Definition is that it also includes expressions of antisemitism directed against the State of Israel, when it is perceived as a Jewish collective’. The document notes approvingly that ‘the definition also refers to anti-Zionism … as a form of antisemitism’.
Universities are the latest front for Israel and its advocates in forcing the Israel-centric definition onto major institutions.
But it’s not just the State of Israel weaponising antisemitism. What about its allies and right-wing political movements? Surely they have their own agency?
The strategy to redefine antisemitism primarily as anti-Zionism originated in Israel. Professor Miller has never suggested that other political forces, such as right-wing factions of the Labour Party, were manipulated against their will to weaponise antisemitism to crush socialist, pro-Palestine voices. But the weaponisation of antisemitism is not a strategy they thought up themselves, except to the extent that they were involved in helping to animate and develop it through practical application for their political gain.
As with all lobbies and political actors, both the State of Israel and its lobbies abroad look for intersections of interests to exploit. The ability to manufacture allegations of antisemitism against political adversaries, while shielding allies from accusations of racism, is a way in which Israel’s advocates have proved their utility to political movements and factions. That includes the right-wing of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party – both of which have faced criticism for Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.
Several UK-based pro-Israel groups and campaigners have been instrumental in shaping Israel’s strategy of redefining antisemitism from below, including some that claim to be left-wing. One example is the anti-BDS activist David Hirsh, a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, an organisation renowned on the British Left for its uniquely enthusiastic support for Israel and regime change wars, as well as its popularisation of the term ‘left-wing antisemitism’, which is rooted in the history of ‘the new antisemitism’ strategy.
Hirsh recently co-wrote a UK government report seeking to rebrand anti-war protesters as violent extremists. The report was published as part of a government strategy that conflates the genuine problem of far-right violent extremism with supposed threats posed by left-wing activists and politically active Muslims, respectively demonised as the ‘sectarian far-left’ and ‘Islamists’.
Hirsh has participated in several Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism events and now positions himself as an expert in ‘left-wing antisemitism’. He also co-founded Engage, a one-issue pressure group which appears committed to redefining anti-Zionism as antisemitism while attempting to appeal to left-wing audiences. Its advisory board members have included the founder of the in-house journal of the Israel lobby group BICOM; a prominent contributor to the neoconservative Islamophobic blog, Harry’s Place; and Ronnie Fraser of Academic Friends of Israel, who brought the failed lawfare attempt against the University and College Union (UCU). In evidence at that tribunal (Fraser v UCU), Fraser reportedly asserted that Engage had been secretly funded by two UK-based Israel lobby groups, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. Hirsh, Engage and others involved denied this.
The invention of a ‘left-wing antisemitism’ myth to describe the tradition of anti-Zionism on the British Left is deeply entwined with the State of Israel’s diplomatic objectives and a long-standing political strategy to smear Israel’s critics. Until that myth is recognised as propaganda promoted by ideologically committed Israel advocates in an organised lobby – and until the strategy underlying it is confronted – it will continue to pose a threat to academic freedom and our political culture.
This page contains the considered opinions of the Support David Miller campaign, informed through research that we have conducted. We welcome robust debate about all of the issues discussed on this page and expect that it will inspire critical conversations about the impact of the Zionist movement on freedom of expression and pro-Palestine activism in the United Kingdom.