Rishi Sunak tells university leaders to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to antisemitism

The prime minister summoned leaders of Britain’s top universities to Downing Street in a bid to prevent Jew hate on campus


Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan (left) and Edward Isaacs, President of the Union of Jewish Students (right), look on as Britain's Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak speaks during a meeting with vice chancellors (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Jewish student leaders have told university vice-chancellors they must enforce “red lines” on campus anti-Israel protests at an emergency Downing Street summit convened by Rishi Sunak.

The prime minister declared last night that he would take a “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitism and tackle demonstrators singing “genocidal chants”.

Higher education bosses were summoned to Number 10 on Thursday after pro-Palestine encampments spread to campuses across Britain.

Student protestors have demanded that their universities divest from Israel and enforce an academic boycott of the Jewish state.

Speaking to vice-chancellors at the summit, Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Students, said that while the right to protest must be respected, “where there are instances of criminality universities must draw upon their relations with police to ensure students see the consequences of their actions.”

Isaacs claimed: “To call to ‘globalise the intifada’ is not a meaningless political statement.

"It is a direct call to spread the sort of violence seen in Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s which saw random acts of terror against civilians at innocuous locations. Universities have to make this red line clear.”

Some Jewish students have joined the protest encampments but they are not representative, Isaacs claimed.

Universities must prevent “nefarious” non-students from entering campuses to join protests, and resist attempts to remove the Ihra definition of antisemitism. 

Some activists in the UK and America have demanded that their university rescind the definition, which has been adopted by the British government but faced criticism for restricting criticism of Israel.

Calling for “swift and decisive action,” Isaacs claimed that the 2023/2024 academic year had been unprecedented for Jewish students.

While some saw their family members killed on October 7, others faced discrimination and insensitivity in their halls and on campus.

He said: "Antisemitic incidents have levelled off at a rate that is far higher than any previous year. This truly has been the worst antisemitism crisis on campus that we have seen for a generation, and its impacts run deep throughout the Jewish student population.”

Writing for The Times, the prime minister said he had called the VCs to Downing Street because he wanted to ensure students felt safe at university whatever their faith or background.

"Freedom of speech can never become an excuse for a vocal and aggressive minority to intimidate or harass other people,” he wrote. 

"Nor can it provide an excuse for the incitement of violence or the glorification of terrorism. There can be no appeasement or pandering to absurd demands from protesters.”

Keeping Jewish students safe is a “moral duty” for vice-chancellors that requires zero-tolerance of, “any form of hatred, prejudice or discrimination,” Sunak claimed.

"Ultimately, government action is only part of the answer. We need the leaders of our universities to take personal responsibility for protecting Jewish students in their care,” he added. “And that is what I am asking them to do today.”

Inspired by similar actions in America, anti-Israel protest encampments have appeared at Cambridge, University College London and others in the past week.

Organisers of Cambridge for Palestine said their demands of the university include disclosing financial and professional ties to Israel, divestment from such organisations, reinvesting in Palestinian students academies, and protecting “all forced migrants and protesting students.”

Another post said: “As students of the university of Balfour, who initiated the UK’s support for the colonial Zionist project, and of the vast majority of the prime ministers who have since continued it, we feel a particular obligation to stand with Palestinians in ending this historic injustice.”

Speaking to Radio 4, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: "It’s not an easy thing to do, we do understand that.

"We need to show leadership, we need to de-escalate and we need to share the best practice which we’ve seen from some vice-chancellors."

In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor allocated £7 million of extra support to tackle antisemitic abuse in educational settings. It has now been announced that £500,000 of this will be dedicated to supporting the work of the University Jewish Chaplaincy, boosting welfare for Jewish students on campus.

Alongside the Union of Jewish Students, the UJC is one of the bodies which has been helping students deal with an increase in antisemitism and intimidation since October 7. It currently supports over 8,500 students at over 100 universities in 13 regions.

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