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Professor wins discrimination tribunal for anti-Zionist beliefs

Employment lawyers said this landmark case recognises anti-Zionist views as a protected belief

A professor at the University of Bristol who was accused of antisemitic comments was discriminated against for anti-Zionist beliefs, a tribunal has ruled.

Helen Watson, head of employment law at Aaron & Partners, said that this case seems to recognise anti-Zionist views as a protected belief. 

She told HR magazine: “The case appears to recognise anti-Zionist views as a protected characteristic 'religion or belief' and no doubt creates some contention among some and support among others.

“While seeking to protect against discriminatory behaviour the university has, on the face of it, been found to be discriminatory in the way in which it dismissed this lecturer for his anti-Zionist views, despite complaints about his conduct and a procedure to discipline and terminate. But each case will turn on specific facts.”

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David Miller, a sociology professor, was originally scrutinised after referring to Zionism as one of five sources of Islamophobia. He showed a diagram linking Jewish charities to Zionist lobbying. At the time, the university dismissed complaints that this resembled the antisemitic trope that Jews wield secretive influence on political affairs.

In February 2021, Miller spoke at an event entitled 'Building the campaign for free speech', criticising Zionist activities and linking Jewish student groups in the UK to political objectives allied with Israel.

The claimant’s speech was commented upon shortly thereafter on Twitter including by the then-head of Bristol JSoc, a Jewish student group.

Following this, the Jewish Chronicle published an article, for which Miller provided comment, entitled ‘“Now ‘end of Zionism’ academic says Bristol JSoc is ‘Israel’s pawn’.” 

The university then received a "significant volume" of correspondence, some urging it to take disciplinary action against Miller, and others in support of Miller.

The situation continued to escalate as the issues were discussed in the House of Commons. Under pressure, the university began an investigation into whether Miller had breached the boundaries of acceptable speech. He was eventually dismissed.

The tribunal found that the university subjected him to discriminatory and unfair misconduct proceedings. It ruled that Miller had experienced discrimination based on his philosophical belief and upheld his claim for wrongful dismissal.

The University of Bristol's representative stated: “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.”

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Watson, from Aaron & Partners, said that the case stresses the importance of clear policies and procedures, and a shared understanding brought about through training and awareness.

She added: “The case identifies the clear need for all organisations to have up-to-date equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion policies and procedures, and comprehensive training on them, adopting a zero-tolerance attitude towards any discriminatory conduct. 

“That's as well as clearly identifying what discriminatory conduct is, and how it will be addressed through the disciplinary process.

“In this day and age, zero tolerance to discriminatory conduct has to form part of everyday employee education and training, and be enforced across the workplace in a correct and legally compliant manner.”