Anti-Zionist professor suffered discrimination for his protected ‘philosophical belief’, tribunal rules – what does it mean for employers?

Hearing finds David Miller was unfairly dismissed for gross misconduct after he made comments about Israel

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A professor who believes Zionism is “inherently racist, imperialist and colonial” was discriminated against because of his philosophical beliefs, a tribunal has ruled.

The Bristol tribunal found that David Miller was dismissed by the University of Bristol for gross misconduct after he said that Jewish students in British universities were being used as “political pawns” by Israel.

The tribunal ruled that “the claimant’s anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief and as a protected characteristic pursuant to section 10 Equality Act 2010”, concluding that Miller was unfairly dismissed.

Anti-Zionism refers to opposition to the creation or protection of a Jewish state in the Middle East, in the form of Israel.

Following the judgment, 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.”

The university commented that it “acknowledges the judgment of the employment tribunal but it is disappointed with its findings”, adding: “The University of Bristol remains committed to fostering a positive working and learning environment that enriches lives and where the essential principles of academic freedom are preserved.”

Tribunal background

Miller started working as a professor of political sociology at the university in September 2018, having by this time worked as an academic for more than 20 years. 

The tribunal report said he “frequently made public statements and expressed his views on a range of issues, a number of which could be viewed as controversial in nature”, and that when he joined the university his views relating to Zionism were well known.

It also said that, before these events, he had not been subject to any disciplinary process by any university.

The claimant told the tribunal that his anti-Zionist beliefs had been fully formed since the late 1990s. He said: “I have at all times since that date believed Zionism to be a settler colonial and ethno-nationalist movement that seeks to assert Jewish hegemony and political control over the land of historic Palestine.”

He went on to say that Zionism is “a form of racism” because “it necessarily calls for the displacement and disenfranchisement of non-Jews in favour of Jews, and it is therefore ideologically bound to lead the practices of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide in pursuit of territorial control and expansion”. 

The tribunal report said that Miller views his anti-Zionism as a “fixed belief” which “is not amenable to change”, adding that Miller was clear in his evidence that his anti-Zionism “is not opposition to or antipathy towards Jews or Judaism”. 

On 19 March 2019, the university received a complaint from the Community Security Trust (CST) regarding a lecture on Islamophobia by Miller the previous month, in which he theorised that “Islamophobia in the United Kingdom was driven in significant part by five ‘pillars’, one of which was said to be the Zionist movement”, the report said.

The CST had received complaints from two Jewish students about the lecture. It stated that it and other UK Jewish organisations had apparently been “blamed” by Miller for causing Islamophobia, which “raises serious diversity and student welfare issues, together with very real concerns about the academic approach of Professor Miller”.

The CST added that the two students “were extremely upset by hearing and seeing what they felt to be an anti-semitic lecture”. 

The university investigated the complaint among others, but did not take any further action.

On 13 February 2021, the claimant spoke at an event called ‘Building the Campaign for Free Speech’, at which he said, according to a report in The Jewish Chronicle: “There is a real question of abuse here – of Jewish students on British campuses being used as political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing.”

This was commented upon on Twitter by a student at the university and news editor of The Bristol Tab, who referred to Miller as “an utterly vile anti-semite”. There were further criticisms over Twitter in the following days by the Bristol JSoc, its president and the Union of Jewish Students.

On 17 February, Miller provided comment to The Jewish Chronicle for an article that was published the next day, as well as for a Bristol Tab article published on 19 February. Then, on 20 February, he published an article in The Electronic Intifada entitled: ‘We must resist Israel’s war on British universities.’ 

Following these events, the university was contacted by a large number of individuals, in many cases demanding that the university take urgent disciplinary action. It also received “a roughly equal” number of letters and emails supporting Miller, according to the tribunal report. 

The claimant was invited to a disciplinary hearing held on 8 September 2021. It was found that Miller had breached various policies and committed acts of gross misconduct, leading to his being dismissed. 

Following his dismissal, Miller went on to post further comments on social media. The tribunal heard that “even if he were still employed by the university, he would still be posting along the lines that he had been”. 

One post made on Twitter in August 2023 said that “Judeophobia barely exists these days” and that “Jews are not discriminated against” and are instead “overrepresented”, among other comments.

He went on to say his initial posts had been “misunderstood by many people” and sought to differentiate between “discrimination” and “hate crime”.

Tribunal comments

The tribunal concluded that Miller’s anti-Zionist beliefs had “played a significant role in his life for many years” and were “genuinely held”. 

It also said: “We conclude that the claimant’s account as to the nature of Zionism is at least coherent and cogent. The claimant is an academic with expertise in Zionism and the Zionist movement. He referred to numerous academic works in his evidence which support his view of the nature of Zionism.”

It therefore found that Miller’s anti-Zionism amounted to a protected philosophical belief as defined by section 10 of the Equality Act. 

The tribunal went on to say: “On careful analysis of the dismissal letter, the witness statement and cross examination we conclude that what rendered the February 2021 comments misconduct, in Professor Norman’s mind, was that the claimant drew connections between the JSoc and some Jewish students and Zionism and Israel while at the same time expressing the belief that Zionism is a racist, colonial and imperialist ideology that ought to be opposed.”

Therefore, it said: “The claimant’s expression of his anti-Zionist beliefs in the February comments had a material impact on Professor Norman’s decision,” meaning “the university’s reason for dismissing him was therefore the claimant’s belief and the dismissal is accordingly directly discriminatory”.

However, while the tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair and discriminatory, it said that “a disciplinary warning would have been both fair and proportionate”, leading the compensatory award to be reduced by 50 per cent.

Furthermore, the tribunal said: “In our view, the comments made in the August 2023 tweets were of a different order to the February 2021 comments set out above. The claimant does not suggest any sensible or coherent link to his protected beliefs.”

“There is sufficient evidence for us to conclude that there is a realistic chance that the claimant would have been dismissed by the university after these further actions,” it said, concluding that there is a 30 per cent chance the claimant would have been fairly dismissed two months after the August 2023 tweets.

Miller was successful in claiming for wrongful dismissal because of the respondent’s failure to pay notice.

Lawyer’s comments

Ian Jones, director and principal solicitor at Spencer Shaw, told People Management: “The case does not determine that anti-Zionism will always be a protected characteristic. It is the nature of the belief that is important.”

He said the Equality Act 2010 says that philosophical beliefs are protected. However, Jones added: “A belief must be genuinely held; must be a belief – not an opinion; must be about a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; and must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

“It also must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.”

Therefore, he explained, the case “does not create a precedent”, adding: “Anybody wishing to rely on belief as a protected characteristic will need to show that their beliefs also satisfy the tests.”

What can employers learn?

Jones said the case was a “valuable reminder” for employers, showing that “even if they find the views unpalatable, potentially inflammatory and difficult, they must carefully consider and apply the law properly before responding”.

Kate Palmer, employment services director at Peninsula, told People Management: “[The case is] a useful reminder that while everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion difficulties can arise when demonstrations of religion or belief conflict with others. It can be a difficult balancing act for employers.

“Employers should make sure they have an equal opportunities policy in place. This should set out the organisation’s stance on inclusivity and what kind of behaviour is expected. 

“It should recognise that people hold different beliefs that the employer is not trying to restrain but explain that certain standards of behaviour are expected.

“Equality, diversity and inclusivity training should also regularly be delivered to bring that policy to life.

“This training should also be extended to management, so their decisions and behaviour are inclusive and they know how to deal with any conflict within their teams.”

Katy Foster, senior HR consultant at Cream HR, said: “The tribunal’s role was not to determine if his belief is valid, only that it constituted a genuine belief under section 10 of the Equality Act. 

“Throughout the case, several parties have sought to ensure that anti-Zionism is separated from anti-semitism and hatred towards Jews, which is firmly unacceptable. Employers should be mindful of this when tackling similar issues and should take care to separate the two views.”