Downing Street to host crisis meeting with university leaders over campus antisemitism

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Downing Street to host crisis meeting with university leaders over campus antisemitism

Education secretary Gillian Keegan will call for 'robust action' by university chiefs, with UJS leader also due to speak at the meeting at No 10

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Graffitti on Hillel House Leeds University
Graffitti on Hillel House Leeds University

Rishi Sunak has told a meeting of his cabinet that there had been an “unacceptable rise” in antisemitism on UK campuses, ahead of a meeting with university vice-chancellors at Downing Street.

A spokesperson said the prime minister believes that the increase in anti-Jewish racism has created a “hostile atmosphere” for Jewish students, and that the current pro-Palestinian protests taking place at UK universities have “a potential to lead to that too”.

They added: “It important, the prime minister would argue, that a vocal and aggressive minority must not be allowed to intimidate other students or academics.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan will address university leaders at Thursday’s meeting, which is being held at No 10, having previously set out the government’s expectation that universities “crackdown on antisemitic abuse.”

Keegan told Jewish News:”Antisemitic abuse and intimidation must not be tolerated on university campuses, and we will not stand by as Jewish students suffer. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to our universities, but it must not be used to harass and intimidate or cause significant disruption to students’ learning.”

The education secretary, Michael Gove and the communities secretary Tom Tugendhat the security minister, are also expected to attend.

It is understood up to 20 university vice-chancellors are expected at the meeting. Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust will also be present.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has revealed plans to visit Auschwitz for the first time in 2024

The government wishes to see university authorities taking “robust action” over this type of behaviour to ensure students feel safe on campus. It will also listen to university leaders responses to the rise in antisemitism.

Downing Street also confirmed that the Union of Jewish Students leader Edward Isaacs would attend the talks and give examples of the intimidation they are facing on campuses, particularly after the 7 October Hamas attacks.

Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Students, who will attend the meeting, said: “We welcome the prime minister-led vice-chancellor roundtable on campus antisemitism this week and we look forward to presenting.

“Vice-chancellors must have moral clarity in their leadership to ensure that campuses are welcoming and inclusive spaces to Jewish students. Any commitments made must be followed by swift and decisive action.”

The government is also preparing to release new guidance on tackling antisemitism at universities and colleges.

The spokesperson did not rule out the prospect of the police becoming involved if necessary to crackdown on extremist conduct at “highly disruptive’ protests on campuses.

2K8YR5X Rishi Sunak makes a speech outside 10 Downing Street, London, after meeting King Charles III and accepting his invitation to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Picture date: Tuesday October 25, 2022.

The PM’s aide said he had told his top team that “obviously our university campuses should be places of rigorous debate” but they should also be tolerant places where students from all communities, and “particularly Jewish students at this time should be treated with respect.”

Asked about the view of the current pro-Palestinian demos at universities in this country, Sunak’s spokesperson said the government would “support the right to free speech” but that the “right to free speech does not mean the right to harass people or incite violence.”

“We expect university leaders to take robust action over that kind of behaviour, and that will be the subject of conversations at No. 10 later this week. We wish to ensure a zero tolerance approach is adopted on this type of behaviour on all campuses.”

Sunak’s spokesperson said the fact that both the PM and foreign secretary Lord Cameron had demanded Israel’s military action in Gaza was proportionate showed that cracking down on antisemitism did not mean stifling criticism of the Jewish state.

This was different, said the aide, to people acting in a violent and discriminatory towards Jewish students based on their race and faith.

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