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Into the flatlands with Professor David Miller

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featured Professor David Miller

One of the defining features of antisemitism, particularly in its modern incarnations, is that it counsels both liberation and despair. To open one’s eyes to the perniciousness of the Jew is to free oneself from the poisonous illusions through which the Jew dominates the world. Yet at the same time, Jewish power is so overwhelming that even the most concerted action against the Jew is always destined to never quite succeed.

The now rightly-notorious Professor David Miller of Bristol University does not see himself as an antisemite and does not speak of ‘the Jew’.  Yet his ‘analysis’ of Zionism and Israel’s influence on the UK and the world, reproduces that sense of simultaneous liberation and despair that is deeply embedded in modern antisemitic thinking.

Miller has dedicated his career to the understanding of power in modern society. This is an essential project and one that is central to the discipline of sociology in which he is situated. The problem is that his work constructs a kind of ‘flatland’; a world in which networks of power and influence are so intricately connected that they form a seamless system. Each node that he exposes in this system, each connection that is traced between it and other nodes, is functionally identical to others. What we end up with is a process of progressively revealing a system so overwhelming that the only rational response to its exposure must be despair shot through with liberation.

Take Miller’s well known slide from his presentation on how British Jewish/Zionist/Israel lobby institutions are interconnected (reproduced above). While the nodes on this network are differentiated by type (‘Israel institution’, ‘Key UK individuals’ etc) and while the nature of the interconnections are identified (‘donor’, ‘president’ etc),  these annotations do not in fact tell us anything meaningful, because there isn’t any meaningful distinction to be made – and that’s the point. That, for example, Mick Davis and Vivian Wineman have been fiercely criticised from the right of the Jewish community for their dovish views on Israel is of no import. That the Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation are coalitions constantly riven by tension and dispute is not worth remarking on. Zionism/Israel forms a seamless whole.

Miller is certainly a committed researcher. The projects he runs are festooned with overwhelming amounts of detail. Yet that detail’s only purpose is to add to the complexity of the map of his flatland, to make the networks it depicts even more terrifying to behold. In doing so, he leaves out anything that is awkward and that would complicated the picture.
Take the Powerbase wiki that he runs. It contains a vast number of entries on its Israel Lobby pages. I chose one relatively short page at random, the entry for Rabbi Sydney Brichto. Here’s most of it:

Rabbi Sidney Brichto (Born Philadelphia, July 21, 1936. Died London, January 16, 2009, aged 72) was, according to an obituary in The Times: ‘one of British Jewry’s leading spokesmen for Progressive Judaism and most passionate supporters of Israel.’

‘He believed’, reported The Times that it was ‘the duty of diaspora Jews to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish state and that those who blamed it for the lack of Middle East peace only aided the enemies who sought to destroy it.’

In 1984 Brichto co-founded the Israel-Diaspora Trust. One of its projects ‘was an exchange programme between senior UK and Israeli judges.’

A regular broadcaster and a ‘prolific writer of books and journalism, he translated and commented on the Bible, wrote his memoirs and contributed to the JC. From 1992-2002’.

It’s not in and of itself inaccurate. What it does do though, is miss out anything that would help the reader understand the place of Brichto in the British Jewish community. There is no mention of his years of hard work attempting to heal the divides between British orthodox and progressive denominations. There is no mention of his complicated place within the Liberal Judaism (or even an entry on Powerbase on Liberal Judaism) whose relationship with Israel has often been ambivalent. Above all, there is no sense that, like most British Jews, Sydney Brichto had to find ways to balance a commitment to his ideals with the inescapable reality that not everyone shared them.

In short, as the Brichto entry shows, every bit of the British Jewish community that has any kind of relationship with Israel and Zionism is all the same. There is no politics, no conflict, no tension. The right and the left all inhabit the same flatland.

Of course, in some ways Miller’s flatland is accurate in that there is unprecedented agreement among Jews on what he himself represents. Even Jewish anti-Zionist groups like Jewdas have criticised him, albeit in guarded terms. Miller doesn’t seem to have as much inclination to play the good Jew-bad Jew game as many on the left do. His problem is that even the slightest contact with Zionism and Israel poisons all those who touch it even slightly.

There are multiple lessons for Jews here. One is that the strategy of some on the Jewish left and right to play the good Jew for selective antisemites only works up to a point. Miller’s map of the Zionist flatland grows remorselessly over time. The only way to avoid getting ensnared into it is by renouncing any connection to those who are on the map. Jewdas’s mild satire of Miller led to sections of the British left writing them off as irredeemably poisoned. Those who share Miller’s methodology of guilt by association will always end up progressively writing off whole chunks of humanity until only a small hardcore of enlightened ones is left. 

While Miller may be a particularly adept exponent of the politics of the flatland, it is not exclusive to him, to the left or to antisemites. We have to acknowledge that the flatland holds its attractions to those of any political disposition. Its mixture of liberation and despair are tempting: You no longer have to grapple with the intricacies of who people are; you are released from the burdens of developing a finely-calibrated politics. All is one; all is either enemy or friend.

I suspect that the internet and social media have made the flatland more attractive. It is easy to trace associations, to find meaning in the liking of a tweet or the acceptance of a friend request. Like David Miller we are all tempted to see ‘research’ as the piling up evidence of contacts, rather than an investigation of the nature of those contacts. We can know everything and still know nothing. The alternative is hard: To understand relationships as relationships. There are no shortcuts here. 

David Miller’s position at Bristol is untenable, aside from his antisemitism, his work makes a mockery of the discipline of sociology of which he claims to be a part. The project of sociology cannot hide from the complexity of individual identity and commitments. Nor can sociology treat power reductively and monolithically. For Miller, all is already known, all is clear; the only thing left is to identify the inhabitants of the flatland.

While calls for Miller’s sacking may or may not bear fruit, all of us can offer him a deeper rebuke by refusing the politics of the flatland. Whatever our political commitments are, all of us can sometimes fall into the trap of seeing part of the world as an undifferentiated, threatening network. We risk becoming David Miller when we see people as cyphers for something else, when we cannot recognise their complexity and individuality.

In this way, fighting antisemitism is part of a wider project of shunning the flatland.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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Barnaby Marder
Barnaby Marder
5 months ago

a brilliant article Keith. It explains so patiently and well what is wrong with Miller’s view of the Jewish community.

Andrew Apostolou
Andrew Apostolou
5 months ago

Wonderful article that provides a compelling argument explaining Miller’s nonsense. The old saying applies, nonsense is nonsense, but as Keith Kahn-Harris shows, the study of nonsense is science.

Bullfrog
Bullfrog
5 months ago

Well written .. thank you. It exposes Miller’s failing as a sociologist. His myopic association of everything Israel and Jewish in one basket without knowing, or even trying to unravel the factions and politics within these groups is hugely ignorant and dangerous.

Last edited 5 months ago by Bullfrog
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4 months ago

[…] K. (2021). ‘Into the flatlands with Professor David Miller’, [online] JewThink. Available at: https://www.jewthink.org/2021/02/22/into-the-flatlands-with-professor-david-miller/ [Accessed 24 Feb. […]

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1 month ago

[…] 2013 under the title of “the British Zionist scene”. As the sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris has pointed out, this map was a meaningless mass of names and arrows with no real academic or analytical value. […]

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30 days ago

[…] material in class, according to a source at the University of Bristol, even though some of it was out of date, as the sociologist and Birkbeck College lecturer Keith Kahn-Harris has […]

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