A sociology professor has won a discrimination claim against the University of Bristol over his anti-Zionist philosophical beliefs.
The Bristol employment tribunal ruled yesterday that David Miller, professor of political sociology, was unfairly and wrongfully dismissed and that he was discriminated against for his belief that Zionism is “inherently racist, imperialist and colonial”.
In February 2019, Prof Miller delivered a lecture in which he said Zionism was a driving factor in promoting Islamophobia, as part of a wider course named “Harms of the Powerful”. Pro-Zionist and Israeli groups alleged that his views were anti-Semitic and called for him to be removed from his position at the University of Bristol.
The university commissioned an independent investigation by a KC which found that none of his comments were anti-Semitic, but rather engaged the principles of academic freedom and fell within the freedom of expression protections of the European Convention of Human Rights.
An earlier investigation conducted by the university also found that Miller’s comments were not anti-Semitic, but the university did not make any public statement that he had been vindicated, despite requests by Miller.
During a lecture at a free speech event in February 2021, Miller described restrictions surrounding the right to criticise the state of Israel as having “potentially deleterious effects on free speech, such as instigating a culture of fear or self-silencing on teaching or research or classroom discussion of contentious topics”.
He spoke about his own experiences of being attacked for his views by the Bristol Jewish Society and the Union of Jewish Students, emphasising the risks to freedom of speech and academic debate. After the event, he spoke to several journalists about the issue.
Miller became the subject of a vicious smear campaign, which alleged he had endangered students and made anti-Semitic comments.
A second barrister-led independent investigation again found his comments were not anti-Semitic. However, a separate internal investigation into alleged breaches of the university’s codes of conduct and policies found that Miller’s comments regarding his experiences of certain students and student societies, and subsequent comments made by him in response to a wave of public criticism, constituted gross misconduct. He was dismissed without notice in October 2021.
Rahman Lowe, the law firm acting for Miller, said his case has drawn attention to the challenges faced by academics and individuals advocating for justice in Palestine. It also underscores the issue of weaponising anti-Semitism to stifle discussions on Zionism.
It is believed yesterday’s judgment is the first time that anti-Zionist beliefs have been found to be protected in the workplace.
Zillur Rahman, partner at Rahman Lowe, said: “This is a landmark case and marks a pivotal moment in the history of our country for those who believe in upholding the rights of Palestinians. The timing of this judgment will be welcomed by many who at present are facing persecution in their workplaces for speaking out against the crimes of the Israeli state.”
He added that Miller had been vindicated. “His courage in fighting against the vicious campaign that was waged against him by Zionists within and outside the university now sees him as a trailblazer for others that will follow,” he said.
“What is interesting about this case is that when David expressed his beliefs about Zionism which led to him being dismissed, they weren’t that widely known. However, the genocide Israel is committing at present has woken the world up to the very belief David holds and was manifesting, which is that Zionism is inherently racist and must be opposed.”
He said that Miller would seek maximum compensation for the “losses he has suffered, and the hurt caused by the discrimination.”
The University of Bristol maintained that I was sacked because Zionist students were offended by my various remarks, but it was plain from the evidence of its own witnesses that this was untrue, and it was the anti-Zionist nature of my comments which was the decisive factor” – David Miller
However, in his judgment, regional employment judge Rohan Pirani said the basic and compensatory awards for unfair dismissal would be reduced by half because the claimant’s dismissal was “caused or contributed to by his own actions”.
The unanimous judgment of the tribunal was that Miller’s anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief and as a protected characteristic under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.
Miller’s claims of direct discrimination succeeded in relation to the University of Bristol’s decision to dismiss him in October 2021 and the rejection of his subsequent appeal against that decision.
Prof Miller said: “I am extremely pleased that the tribunal has concluded that I was unfairly and wrongfully dismissed by the University of Bristol. I am also very proud that we have managed to establish that anti-Zionist views qualify as a protected belief under the UK Equality Act. This was the most important reason for taking the case and I hope it will become a touchstone precedent in all the future battles that we face with the racist and genocidal ideology of Zionism and the movement to which it is attached.
“The determination that I was sacked for my anti-Zionist views is a huge vindication of my case all the way through this process. The University of Bristol maintained that I was sacked because Zionist students were offended by my various remarks, but it was plain from the evidence of its own witnesses that this was untrue, and it was the anti-Zionist nature of my comments which was the decisive factor.”
The University of Bristol said it was “disappointed” by the tribunal decision. A spokesperson said: “We recognise that these matters have caused deep concern for many and that members of our community hold very different views from one another. We would, therefore, encourage everyone to respond in a responsible and sensitive way in the current climate.”
A statement from the Union of Jewish Students said: “UJS is disappointed by the employment tribunal’s judgment in relation to David Miller. UJS believes this may set a dangerous precedent about what can be lawfully said on campus about Jewish students and the societies at the centre of their social life.
“This will ultimately make Jewish students feel less safe.
“However, despite overall finding in favour of Miller, the tribunal has found that he contributed to his own dismissal and that he was ‘culpable and blameworthy’.”