Prominent British pundits David Miller and Chris Williamson have parlayed accusations of antisemitism into media careers on Tehran’s top English-language propaganda channel.
“In this episode of Palestine Declassified, we’ll trace the national origins of Zionist leaders,” former British Labour MP Chris Williamson declared in August at the top of the news commentary program he hosts on Iran’s state-sponsored Press TV. “Arguably, Zionism and Ukrainian nationalism share certain… affinities,” co-host Marwa Osman continued, “which perhaps helps to contextualize the Zionist regime’s ongoing support for the Zelensky regime.” Later in the episode, producer of and frequent contributor to Palestine Declassified, former Bristol University professor David Miller claimed, “The Odessa area in Ukraine was a settler-colony where Jews came from other parts of the continent and settled there and then later many of them moved to Palestine and became part of the occupation of Palestine.” A few minutes later, Williamson admits, “No doubt we’ll be accused of indulging in antisemitism again.” Pro-Kremlin and anti-Zionist themes are both routine on Press TV, which serves as the primary vector for Tehran-sponsored English-language disinformation. But Miller, Williamson, and Osman have begun weaving these themes together in novel ways, and theirs is the fastest growing program in the Iranian English-language disinformation universe.
The notion of Miller and Williamson producing a show on an Iranian regime-backed news channel would have been outlandish only five years ago, when Williamson was serving as a shadow minister for the UK Labour Party, and Miller was a sociology professor at the University of Bath, and later the University of Bristol. Both men began to draw serious controversy as they started to dabble in conspiracy theories about the civil war in Syria, the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of all, the role of Jews in British public life. These controversies ultimately led to Williamson’s warning and ultimate suspension from the UK Labour Party in 2019, and Miller’s dismissal from the University of Bristol in 2021. Both men began to embrace conspiracy theories more openly once released from the restraint of professional expectations.
Press TV began airing Palestine Declassified in January of this year. Though the show’s Twitter account has only 1,946 followers, its hosts, Miller, Williamson, and Osman have 10,900, 97,200, and 31,700, respectively. Williamson, in particular, has generated more engagement on Twitter this year (according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard) than any regime-linked accounts other than those of Press TV, Fars News, Tasnim News, and the Ayatollah Khamenei’s own accounts. Even though the show nominally focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of the most engaged with content shared by these hosts is, at best, tangentially related to the Levant. Williamson’s most engaged with tweets are about British politics, and particularly what he perceives as exaggerated allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Of Osman’s two most retweeted tweets this year, one accused NATO of using Kosovo to undermine Serbia, and the other expressed her “stricken heart” and condolences for Alexander Dugin, the notorious Russian ultranationalist, over the death of his daughter in a car bombing in August. Miller gets the least engagement of the three, but his highest-traffic tweets, like Williamson’s, allege “Zionist” conspiracies undermining British politics.
Opposition to the Jewish state has long served as a centerpiece of Iranian foreign policy. Iran’s funding of anti-Israel terrorist groups, particularly Hezbollah, but also Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, serves to give them a foothold in the Arab world, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank. Israel is also central to Iranian propaganda, both internal and external. Internally, Iran blames Israel (and sometimes the United States) for nearly everything that goes wrong, including any anti-regime activity like popular protests, as well as nearly any instance of sabotage, assassination, or terrorism. Externally, Iran uses its role as a stalwart opponent of Israel to bring other anti-Zionists into its rhetorical fold and onto its side in geopolitics.
Given this context, along with Tehran’s strong support for Moscow in its war with Ukraine, Miller, Osman, and Williamson’s odd claim that Ukraine and Israel are both Zionist projects begins to make perverse sense. They have an audience of English-speaking viewers united chiefly in their opposition to Israel, and by eliding Israel with Ukraine (two of very few countries in world history to have ever had Jewish heads of state), they can push their viewers to view that state as illegitimate as well. Later in the same August episode, a voiceover explains that “the Sephardim are Arab Jews…with as little connection to Palestine as the Ashkenazim,” while “Ashkenazi Jews come mostly from Eastern Europe, with origins in the Caucuses, Turkey, and Iran.” In short, their contention is that Jews are indigenous to neither Israel nor Ukraine, as implied by the absurd and antisemitic claim that Odessa was a “settler-colony.”
Delegitimizing Ukraine by associating it with Israel was not limited to a single episode of Palestine Declassified. In a March episode, after being asked by Williamson to reconcile the notion of Ukraine being populated by Nazis with its having a Jewish president, Miller referred to “a strong confluence…between Zionist ideas and Ukrainian nationalist ideas. These are far-right ideas which depend on an ethno-conception of the state.” Miller went on to add that “Zelensky himself, yes he’s Jewish, he’s also strongly oriented towards Israel, but that in itself is a sign of being oriented really towards the far-right.” This alleged “orientation” and “confluence” is particularly absurd given that Israel has actually been very reluctant to directly aid Ukraine in its fight against Russia, despite the fact that it has a vibrant arms industry and one of the most effective missile defense systems in the world. The argument is also a recapitulation of the familiar antisemitic “Holocaust inversion” trope that “the Jews are the real Nazis.” The trope is made more explicit later in the episode when the guest, British rapper Lowkey, argues that early Zionists made common cause with Hitler because, “The antisemites of Europe will be the best friends of the Zionist movement because they will provide the Zionist movement with the human material through which state will be built.” Such arguments are commonplace in some anti-Zionist circles but reimagining them to apply to Ukrainian nationalism allows Palestine Declassified’s contributors to steer its viewers towards a pro-Kremlin, anti-Ukraine, anti-NATO position.
This effort by Williamson, Miller, and Osman to steer critics of Israel towards an uncritically pro-Russia position continues apace. In early October, Osman retweeted a video of a Jewish Ukrainian soldier standing next to a smoldering Russian tank, asking of the soldier, “Which one is the native land of this Zionist? Is it Ukraine currently harboring neo-Nazis or is it Zionist Israel which looted Palestinian land and killed its natives?” The triple subtexts are clear: all Jews are Zionists; wherever they can be found, Jews do not belong; any political power wielded by Jews is inherently illegitimate. This is part and parcel of anti-Zionist claims that Israel and Israeli culture aren’t real, but also of Putinist claims that the Ukrainian national identity is similarly invented.
Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are both, unfortunately, popular frames for understanding world events, and likely disproportionately so among those with broadly anti-US, anti-NATO, and anti-Ukraine orientations. This makes them useful tools for authoritarians to recruit new adherents to their preferred worldview. Iran has long used both in defense of its own malignant role in global affairs, but Palestine Declassified is at the cutting edge of using antizionism and antisemitism to promote a pro-Russian worldview, at least in the anglophone information ecosystem. That two of the pioneers of this technique should be British citizens of some modest renown is a reminder of the value that authoritarian regimes place on having “validators” in democratic countries who can launder propaganda to make it more appealing to their desired audiences. In Miller and Williamson, Tehran has found validators who will not only launder their disinformation but build and expand on it in new and destructive ways.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.