UCL, David Miller, Big Issues, Little Issues

Paul Klee, O! these rumours! (1939), tempera and oil on jute, 75,5 x 55 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen near Basel

Concern about antisemitism in British academia is currently focussed on two principal issues: the decision of its Academic Board to position UCL as an international beacon of antisemitism denial and promotion, and David Miller’s ongoing bizarre antisemitic ranting.

The significance of the decision at UCL lies primarily in the fact that the body representing the academics at this institution has responded to a year-long campaign against the IHRA definition of antisemitism by demanding that the institution rescind its adoption of the IHRA definition. The world’s universities are full of academics who regularly criticize the IHRA definition in public statements, sign petitions to this end and do what they can to prevent their institutions from adopting it. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that they have mounted a sustained campaign to try and force their institution to go back on the decision to adopt it. By way of an analogy (which is as imperfect as all analogies are): the post-war consensus in Germany has been that people can think and say whatever they like about Jews in private as long as they keep their peace when the country’s official or semi-official representatives distance themselves from antisemitism, however disingenuously, in public. The decision of the Academic Board is equivalent to the bulk of the German population telling their representatives that they will no longer tolerate their publicly displayed opposition to antisemitism. The seriousness of this development can hardly be overstated.

David Miller reminds me of the Young Hegelian professor Bruno Bauer (a significant and innovative antisemite, incidentally) who could barely find words to express his outrage at the fact that the church would not tolerate his holding a chair in theology just because he was trying to convert his students to atheism.

David Miller reminds me of the Young Hegelian professor Bruno Bauer (a significant and innovative antisemite, incidentally) who could barely find words to express his outrage at the fact that the church would not tolerate his holding a chair in theology just because he was trying to convert his students to atheism. The suggestion that an academic might be sacked for the opinions they express should indeed send chills down the spine of any self-respecting academic. Yet the assumption that this is the issue at stake in Miller’s case reflects an extraordinary ignorance regarding antisemitism that it is very hard, when displayed by anyone who was not born yesterday, not to consider wilful. To quote Sartre yet again, “I refuse to characterize as opinion a doctrine that is aimed directly at particular persons and that seeks to suppress their rights or to exterminate them. … Antisemitism does not fall within the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion.” There is an added irony here in that it is, in most cases, the very same people who want each and every one of us to be constantly aware of a myriad of acts that might be perceived of as constituting microaggressions by the members of various groups who also insist that only exponential ultra-macroaggressions might conceivably qualify as the faintest whiff of antisemitism.

Just as an aside, I would note that I have always assumed that the tasks of university teachers not only in the arts, humanities and social sciences but also in fields such as medical ethics and the foundations of the hard sciences, is not to tell students how things are but how they might be understood. I dare say there may be academics who would rather have their students agree with them, even if they cannot explain why. Personally, I have always rated students who can explain why they disagree with me much more highly. No student of mine will ever have been in any doubt about my own stance, but I’d like to think that they would confirm that my emphasis always lay on presenting various modes of thinking about specific topics and conflicting arguments and not simply what I might consider the “right solution”. By all accounts, few students would say this about Miller, which, apart from being a raving antisemite, also makes him a really bad lecturer.

If it is true that some signatories of the first antisemites’ charter put out in Miller’s defence have had second thoughts on reading the actual text of the petition, this would confirm one thing above all: large numbers of academics will readily believe any rumour about the Jews, no matter how grotesque, and start thinking only after the (potentially lethal) deed is done.

Large numbers of academics will readily believe any rumour about the Jews, no matter how grotesque, and start thinking only after the (potentially lethal) deed is done.

Yet what unambiguously crass cases like this threaten to hide, are the manifold experiences of antisemitism to which academics and students are constantly exposed. Let me give you three particularly memorable examples. When John Klier, a widely admired scholar whose extraordinary services to Jewish Studies in the UK were universally acknowledged, died in 2007, I was told that the Jewish Chronicle, on the grounds that John was not Jewish, took some persuading that it should publish an obituary. With the benefit of hindsight, I cannot be certain whether this was actually true. At the time, I trusted the information and, let’s face it, by the standards of the time it was certainly not implausible. One morning, a colleague and I were catching up while we waited for our students to arrive, and I told her what I had heard about the difficulties with the JC. I don’t cut a very good figure in this story because there was really no reason for me mention this to her, truth be told, I was just trying to show off (literally everyone at UCL was genuinely shocked by John’s untimely death and being closely involved with the fallout from it made me look good). I’d not even finished relaying the information to her when I could already infer from her facial expression that I should not have told her. While for me, it was a revealing reflection of the pettiness sometimes displayed by some members of the Jewish community, for my colleague, the anecdote had evidently confirmed any number of prejudices concerning “the Jews”.

As the Academic Director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish–Christian Relations in Cambridge I was forced to organize a joint conference with the Open University in Israel on Christian–Jewish–Muslim Relations on my own because my opposite number in the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Relations refused to cooperate with colleagues from Israel. For my boss, who, in his defence, genuinely cannot grasp that image and substance are not invariably the same thing, the fact that I had told my Israeli colleagues of this problem ultimately weighed more heavily than my colleague’s refusal to cooperate with them. In the event, his deputy was forced to moderate one session at the conference, which she did in a manner that prompted a dear colleague of mine to ask me whether she was from the military.

I was forced to organize a joint conference with the Open University in Israel on Christian–Jewish–Muslim Relations on my own because my opposite number in the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Relations refused to cooperate with colleagues from Israel.

In my final year teaching at UCL, I supervised an MA student from a working-class background who was the first in his family to attend a university, and who, in his dissertation, examined how, in the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, Jewish members of the Communist Party in the UK understood their own Jewishness and how it inflected their attitudes towards (and decisions to leave) the party. The few historians who had previously covered this topic had simply presupposed that Jewish Communists left their Jewishness, such as it may have been, at the door when entering the party. A close reading of what was, for an MA dissertation, an extraordinarily broad primary-source base allowed my student to wipe the floor with the entire previous historiography and show that nothing could be further from the truth.

By my rather conventional standards, this is quite some achievement for an MA dissertation, and I awarded it a high distinction mark. The internal second examiner, by contrast, felt that he was being generous by awarding it a pass mark. When I suggested, we might enlist a colleague from Hebrew & Jewish Studies to moderate the mark, I was told by my colleague that two could play at this game. He would then suggest a fourth examiner who would support his position. Clearly, for him, the actual quality of the dissertation was never a criterion. Eventually, the external examiner awarded the dissertation a distinction mark, yet, by this point, the goal was no longer to award a just mark but to find an acceptable compromise, so my student received only a low distinction mark. Given that he would have needed funding to pursue a PhD, this effectively ended the academic career he had envisaged before he was even given the opportunity to pursue it. Whether my colleague’s determination to mark this dissertation down so dramatically was owed primarily to its findings, its subject or the fact that I had supervised the student is hard to know. Most likely, it was an admixture of all three.

The extent to which academics make experiences of this kind on a daily basis is limited at best by the fact that it takes people who do not conform to the antisemitic consensus to provide a foil for them in the first place.

Now, not even I would expect the Jewish Chronicle, let alone mainstream media to come out with headlines such as “Lecturer at UCL Misinterprets Colleague’s Anecdote” or “Examiners’ Spat at UCL”. And yet, on balance, experiences like this are infinitely more reflective of the extent to which antisemitism is woven into the deep structure of British academic life than Miller’s perpetual ranting. The extent to which academics make experiences of this kind on a daily basis is limited at best by the fact that it takes people who do not conform to the antisemitic consensus to provide a foil for them in the first place.

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