Sunak urges university leaders to protect Jewish students on campus

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will tell university leaders on Thursday to do more to combat anti-Semitism on university campuses, in a sign of growing dissatisfaction within the government over the recent growth of encampments set up by students protesting against the war in Gaza .

Vice-chancellors of some of Britain's top universities have been invited to Downing Street to discuss “the escalation of anti-Semitic abuse against Jewish students in the UK”, Sunak's office said in a statement released ahead of the meeting.

Britain has so far not seen the kind of riots witnessed on American campuses. But small-scale, largely peaceful protest encampments have recently sprung up around several universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester.

“Universities should be places of rigorous debate but also bastions of tolerance and respect for every member of their community,” Sunak said in the statement released by his office ahead of the meeting. “A minority on our campuses are disrupting the lives and studies of their fellow students and, in some cases, propagating outright anti-Semitic harassment and abuse. This must stop.”

The prime minister's office did not mention specific encampments in its statement, but cited concerns from the Jewish Students' Union, which says it represents 9,000 Jewish students in Britain and Ireland. The organization recently stated that “although students have the right to protest, these encampments create a hostile and toxic atmosphere on campus for Jewish students.”

Downing Street also cited data from a charity that aims to protect British Jews from antisemitism, the Community Security Trust, which recorded 182 college-related antisemitic incidents in 2023, triple the number recorded in 2022. Tell Mama, a government-funded group that monitors incidents of Islamophobia and supports victims, said it had also noticed a recent increase in anti-Muslim incidents on campuses.

While British police have so far not intervened significantly to quell student protests, they have been on the front line during large-scale pro-Gaza demonstrations, particularly in London.

Last year, Sunak and the former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, urged police to ban a march, which eventually went ahead. Ms Braverman was later sacked after describing the tens of thousands of people who regularly attended Saturday protests in London in support of the Palestinians as “hate protesters”, “Islamists” and “mobs”, despite the fact that demonstrations had been mostly peaceful. .

On Thursday, the government plans to make clear that universities must take immediate disciplinary action if a student is found to be inciting racial hatred or violence, and must contact the police if they believe a criminal act has been committed, Downing Street said.

The talks will also aim to help shape new official guidelines on combating anti-Semitism on campuses. The Government says the Office for Students, a higher education regulator, could also have the power to impose sanctions if there is clear evidence that universities are not taking sufficient or appropriate action to tackle harassment, including anti-Semitic abuse .

Gavriel Sacks, co-president of the Cambridge University Jewish Society, said in a telephone interview that the group has stepped up its support for students by offering mental health events and movie nights.

Mr. Sacks, 20, said anxiety at Cambridge had increased among some Jewish students in recent months, and especially in the past week, after an encampment was established on Monday.

But the encampment and the protests themselves were “mostly peaceful,” he said, and while people had reason to be anxious, he said he still felt safe and secure on campus.

“We don't want to overdo it or make people more anxious,” he said.

Mr Sacks said he had been told about some anti-Semitic comments made towards people identifiable as Jews at the demonstrations. Two Jewish students who were going to morning prayers Tuesday were called “pigs,” he said.

“We believe he represents the minority,” he said of the anti-Semitic rhetoric. However, she said, there were concerns.

However, groups representing Jewish students at Cambridge and other campuses were also among those who supported the pro-Palestinian encampments. The SOAS Jewish Society at SOAS University of London, for example, said on social media that it stood “shoulder to shoulder” with classmates who set up an encampment on Monday.

“We will not stand by while the media cynically uses false concern for Jewish safety to demonize our cause,” the group said.

Professor Deborah Prentice, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, said in a statement that the university was “fully committed to free speech within the law and the right to protest”. She added that the university's priority remains “the safety of our staff and students. We will not tolerate anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other form of racial or religious hatred in our community.”

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