Exclusive: Death threats to rabbi trigger crackdown on universities

Minister Robert Halfon reveals plan to create ‘seal of quality’ for universities on dealing with Jew-hate


Leeds chaplain Rabbi Deutsch with his wife and two children, who have gone into hiding

The government is taking action to stop universities “appeasing” antisemites in response to a tidal wave of hatred being faced by Jewish students across the country, the JC can reveal.

In an exclusive interview, higher education minister Robert Halfon has said that the government now plans to introduce a “seal of quality” awarded only to universities that adhere to “the highest standards in dealing with antisemitism”. In addition, there will be a new government post of Expert Adviser on Antisemitism in Higher Education.

It comes as the JC has uncovered shocking new levels of aggression towards Jewish students, including death and rape threats that have forced them to meet under police protection.

Last week, two days before it emerged that Leeds University’s Jewish chaplain had gone into hiding on police advice, pro-Palestinian protesters at Birmingham University were heard to call for Zionists to “burn”.

One Jewish student at Brunel University, who did not wish to be named, said a Palestinian woman told her: “I’m an extremist, I’m proud of it, I don’t think your people should be alive.”

Halfon said he had listened to recordings of the threats faced by the Leeds rabbi that made him “weep”, and hit out at universities for “at best the turning of a blind eye to antisemitism, and at worst appeasing it”.

The new post being created by the government will be filled by a senior academic “who commands respect in both universities and the Jewish community” and who would liaise between university chiefs and the government, Halfon said.

There will also be official government guidelines setting out what was required, and how policies against antisemitism should be enforced.

It comes as Jewish security group CST reports that antisemitism in the UK in 2023 was the worst on record, including an unprecedented 266 physical assaults.

Halfon pledged that overall, the new measures would mean that breaches of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of antisemitism would not be tolerated. While the IHRA declaration was “important and well-intentioned, it needs teeth,” he said.

Unfortunately, he went on, the measures were necessary because some universities had not been responding adequately to antisemitic incidents: “There’s been at best the turning of a blind eye to antisemitism, and at worst appeasing it, and perhaps also not knowing how to deal with it. That’s not acceptable.

“It’s distressed me that I’ve had to have meetings with a number of vice chancellors and ask them to take action, whether it be over a hall of residence which Jewish students use and have to walk past posters saying Israel is committing genocide, whether it’s demonstrations with protesters saying ‘Zionists off campus’, or whether it’s the awful intimidation of Jewish chaplains.

“I shouldn’t have to be calling vice chancellors and they should be dealing with these issues, being pro-active. While some universities are doing the right thing, it’s not all of them.”

Halfon said that on the wall of his office was a poster of Sophie Scholl, the non-Jewish student who organised the White Rose movement that distributed leaflets at German universities against antisemitism, and was eventually murdered by the Nazis, along with her brother.

“My question to universities is, where are the Sophie Scholls? The vice chancellors should be the Sophie Scholls, and I am really worried that some universities are not safe for Jewish students.”

Among the universities he singled out for criticism was Leeds, where last week antisemitic graffiti was daubed on Hillel House, which is used by Jewish students, and the family of the Jewish chaplain Rabbi Zechariah Deutsch was forced into hiding after receiving death threats.

After he intervened, Halfon said, Leeds appeared to have recognised it needed to enact “significant change”.

The Leeds incident was “watershed moment”, he said, adding that since last Thursday he had received more than 2,000 emails and messages.

“They’ve been writing to me and to vice chancellors at universities where there have been serious incidents,” Halfon told the JC. “I think the Jewish students and their families have tolerated this for a long time, but after the tidal wave of the last few days, there’s now a peaceful, moral uprising, and they’re saying, up with this we will not put.

“I’m glad to have all the messages, and I hope they continue. Change has got to come from government, but also from within, and I salute the Jewish students, the Union of Jewish Students and the Jewish chaplaincy service. We are lucky to have incredible organisations that are kind, that are moderate, but will not stand for this.”

Halfon said he met with Rabbi Deutsch, his wife and two children  on Sunday. “They are incredible people”, Halfon said, “and it makes me weep even now when I think what they’ve gone through. I’ve listened to the recordings of the intimidation and the threats, and I wouldn’t want readers of the JC to listen to those recordings because they are so horrific.

“But they’re the most lovely people, kind, with smiles on their faces, and they want to stay, which I think is an amazing thing, because they think they have a moral duty to support and protect and give pastoral care to Jewish students.”

After news of the threats first broke, Halfon said, he convened a meeting last Friday with government officials and the Leeds interim vice-chancellor, Hai Sui Yu. “I just said, ‘this is not acceptable’. But I feel that with some of these universities, they’re like rabbits caught in the headlights.”

Halfon said the new “seal of quality” would require universities to show they had trained staff on antisemitism and how to deal with it, that they communicated effectively with Jewish students and “above all, show that there are robust and effective complaints processes in place”.

As for the new guidelines, they would be issued after consultation with organisations including the police, the CST, the Jewish Chaplaincy Service and the Union of Jewish Students. Meanwhile, the official watchdog, the Office for Students, would be asked to log cases of antisemitism and harassment and monitor how they were dealt with.

Halfon said he could not comment on the recent employment tribunal ruling that said David Miller, the Bristol professor sacked for alleged antisemitism, had been unfairly dismissed because his anti-Zionist views were a “protected characteristic” under equalities law. But he added: “There are very serious discussions taking place at the highest levels of government about the result of the tribunal.”

Halfon said he hoped he had not sounded “downcast” in his JC interview.

“The glass is half full, not half empty,” he concluded. “We are going to deal with this. We are going to stamp it out.”

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