Sunak warns university chiefs to protect Jewish students as pro-Palestine protests grow across UK campuses

8 May 2024, 23:14 | Updated: 9 May 2024, 00:30

Pro-Palestinian protests have been growing across campuses in the UK
Pro-Palestinian protests have been growing across campuses in the UK. Picture: Getty
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Rishi Sunak is urging university chiefs to "crack down" on anti-Semitic abuse on campus as pro-Palestine protests grow across the country.

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It comes amid fears that the growing number of pro-Palestine protests on university campuses could disrupt the life of Jewish students.

"Universities should be places of rigorous debate but also bastions of tolerance and respect for every member of their community," the Prime Minister said.

"A vocal minority on our campuses are disrupting the lives and studies of their fellow students and, in some cases, propagating outright harassment and antisemitic abuse. That has to stop."

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty
University Protests Spread Across UK In Solidarity With Palestine
University Protests Spread Across UK In Solidarity With Palestine. Picture: Getty

University leaders are being urged to take immediate disciplinary action if any student is found to have incited racial hatred or violence, and to contact the police if they believe a crime has been committed.

Pro-Palestine encampments have been set up by students at more than a dozen universities across the UK against the war in Gaza, including Cambridge and Oxford.

Read More: UK government 'deeply concerned and need to see credible military plans' after Israeli offensive on Rafah crossing

Read More: Labour MP Kate Osamor has whip restored after being suspended for Gaza comments

Mr Sunak, along with the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, will call for a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitic abuse at universities.

Ahead of the meeting, Ms Keegan said: "I have made it absolutely clear that universities must crack down on antisemitic abuse and ensure that protests do not unduly disrupt university life."

She said she hoped it would help ensure that there are steps in place to protect Jewish students.

University students Gaza protests at SOAS
University students Gaza protests at SOAS. Picture: Alamy

In the autumn statement in November, the Chancellor announced that £7 million of extra support would be committed to tackle antisemitism in schools and universities.

Of this, £500,000 will be dedicated to supporting the work of the University Jewish Chaplaincy, which helps students deal with incidents of antisemitism and intimidation.

A number of student protests have been held across the UK over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

On Wednesday, an Edinburgh University student taking part in a hunger strike in protest against the war in Gaza said it was a "last resort" after other methods of protest failed.

The student is one of five people currently on hunger strike in the city, with more members of the university's Justice for Palestine Society due to join in the coming days.

Edinburgh University principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, urged the students on hunger strike not to risk their health.

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) has criticised encampment protests for creating a "hostile and toxic atmosphere" on campus for Jewish students.

On Tuesday, Edward Isaacs, president of the UJS, said "university inaction" against hateful language from protests "only serves to alienate Jewish students from campus".

Representatives from the UJS will also attend the meeting on Thursday to share experiences.

It is hoped the meeting with vice-chancellors will help to inform upcoming government guidance on combating antisemitism on campus.

The Office for Students (OfS) has committed to publishing the response to its consultation on a new condition of registration, which could give OfS the power to impose sanctions where there is clear evidence that universities are failing to take action to tackle harassment, including antisemitic abuse.

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