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Anti-Zionism is now a protected belief in Britain; time for a reckoning for pro-Israel lobbyists?

February 7, 2024 at 3:27 pm

A protestor holds an Israeli flag during a pro-Israel demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy on May 23, 2021 in London, England [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

Zionism is a form of racism; the ideology which underpins the occupation state of Israel calls for the ethnic cleansing and disenfranchisement of non-Jews in favour of Jews. Zionism seeks to transform historic Palestine into Greater Israel; its racist aspirations means that it is ideologically bound to lead to the practices of apartheid and genocide in pursuit of territorial control and expansion of Jewish domination.

All of the above statements are not only true, but now we know that holding such anti-Zionist beliefs are protected in the workplace by UK law thanks to Professor David Miller’s landmark legal victory this week. A Bristol-based Employment Tribunal, one of a group of agencies which the UK government describes as independent arbitrators of disputes over employment law, has ruled that “anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief and as a protected characteristic.”

According to UK law, protected beliefs refer to certain philosophical, religious or political beliefs that are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. They cover beliefs related to religion or philosophical persuasion, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism and agnosticism. Political beliefs are also covered, such as belief in non-violent protest or support for a particular party or ideology. Beliefs around economic theory and animal testing, and beliefs about government policies also have the potential to qualify.

Following Monday’s tribunal decision, anti-Zionism can now be added to the list of protected political beliefs.

Noting the significance of the victory, Miller said that it was unclear whether a belief in the idea that Zionism is a racist, imperialist and colonial ideology could be protected under the Equality Act 2010 as a philosophical belief. This case has proven that anti-Zionist beliefs are indeed protected under the law of the land in the UK.

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The case is not only a vindication of Miller, who successfully sued the University of Bristol for wrongful dismissal, but the verdict has also exonerated those who have been warning for years about the weaponisation of anti-Semitism by the pro-Israel lobby against critics of the apartheid state.

The ordeal to which Miller was subjected has its roots in the decades long campaign by pro-Israel lobbyists to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the anti-Jewish racism which has long been illegal, and rightly so. This goal was achieved by planting anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel at the centre of the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of anti-Semitism. Seven of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism mentioned in the IHRA definition conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism.

Although the campaign to redefine anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism has been decades in the making, it took a pernicious turn in 2014 when the pro-Israel Simon Wiesenthal Centre began to campaign on behalf of the IHRA definition. The latter was formulated in 2004 by anti-Semitism expert Kenneth Stern in collaboration with other academics for the American Jewish Committee, a Jewish advocacy organisation founded at the beginning of the 20th century and based in New York.

According to Stern, the aim in formulating the definition was to assist European organisations when monitoring anti-Semitic incidents, not to restrict political discourse regarding Zionism. At the time of its drafting, there was no intent for the IHRA definition to serve as the basis for a legal or punitive framework designed to suppress anti-Zionist perspectives. Rather, it was developed as a practical tool for cataloguing cases of discrimination and hatred directed against Jewish communities themselves.

While it was adopted by the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in 2005 to monitor anti-Semitism across Europe, the IHRA definition was dropped in 2014 by the centre’s successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency, after facing complaints of misuse.

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The controversial definition’s revival in 2014 coincided with the rise of former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn MP. As leader of the opposition for almost five years, the Corbyn era was paralysed by a fratricidal row over anti-Semitism. The moral panic that ensued upon Corbyn’s election as leader is widely believed to have been caused by the way in which the IHRA definition was being deployed against critics of Israel. Anti-Zionist Jews were among many who were purged by the party under Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, because of their views on Israel.

At the same time, the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism began to have a detrimental impact on academic freedom and freedom of expression. Categorising anti-Zionism under the umbrella of anti-Semitism also had a chilling effect on free speech. Across institutions in the UK and other locales that had adopted the definition, students, professors and staff faced disciplinary action for espousing anti-Zionist views.

Media outlets persisted in publicising rising anti-Semitism rates, fanning public anxiety, while overlooking the fundamental flaws in the definition being utilised to track anti-Jewish prejudice in the first place. Stretching the description of anti-Semitism to cover various types of anti-Zionism fostered a narrative that was disconnected from reality. With this single definition, combatting anti-Semitism turned from fighting hatred into a McCarthyite witch-hunt.

Like many others, Prof. Miller was a victim of this toxic culture. Governments, political parties, employers and universities began to impose speech codes with the clear aim of policing the boundaries of free speech regarding Israel and Zionism. As an expert on the threat to democracy posed by corporate lobbying who exposed, among other things, the role of the global Zionist movement in fuelling anti-Muslim hatred, Miller became an obvious target. He was accused of breaching the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The University of Bristol adopted in full the “working definition” in 2019, three years before firing Miller.

When Zionist organisations filed complaints against him that precipitated Miller’s 2022 sacking, Paddy Ireland, the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law at the University of Bristol, dismissed their claims. According to official court records, Ireland refuted the applicability of the IHRA definition in evaluating Miller’s conduct. He stated that, “Notwithstanding its adoption by a number of bodies, it is a somewhat controversial definition; it is imprecise and can be used to conflate criticism of the policies of the Israeli government and of Zionism with anti-Semitism.”

Ireland went on to state that “It is not clear that the IHRA definition is compatible with the University’s legal obligations under the Education Act and Human Rights Act. For the purposes of dealing with this complaint, therefore, I have used a simpler and, I hope, less controversial definition of anti-Semitism as hostility towards Jews as Jews.”

Although Miller was cleared of any anti-Semitism, he was nevertheless sacked.

The university claimed that he “did not meet the standards of behaviour” expected of university staff. Miller rejected this and in his statement after the tribunal verdict said: “The University of Bristol maintained that I was sacked because Zionist students were offended by my various remarks. However, it was plain from the evidence provided by the university’s own witnesses, that I was sacked because of the anti-Zionist nature of my comments.”

Miller’s victory has sent shockwaves through the pro-Israel lobby in Britain. Already there are calls for some kind of reckoning to take place over the way in which anti-Semitism has been weaponised to purge members from the Labour Party for their avowedly anti-Zionist views. I think we can expect to see legal challenges to be launched on the back of Monday’s landmark tribunal decision.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.