Sunak says university leaders have moral duty to protect Jewish students from intimidation

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Sunak says university leaders have moral duty to protect Jewish students from intimidation

University vice-chancellors have 'personal responsibility' for keeping Jewish students safe, says the prime minister

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Sunak shared this news during a barnstorming and passionate speech to the annual CST dinner on Wednesday night
Sunak shared this news during a barnstorming and passionate speech to the annual CST dinner on Wednesday night

Rishi Sunak has university leaders have a “moral duty” to protect Jewish students from intimidation and harassment on campuses ahead of a meeting at No.10 Downing Street.

Speaking in advance of Thursday’s summit, attended by the Union of Jewish Students, the Community Security Trust, ministers and around 10 university vice-chancellors, the prime minister referenced the growing number of pro-Palestinian protests at campuses in the UK, and fears that they could end up mirroring the violent protests in the United States.

He said:”There can be no appeasement or pandering to absurd demands from protesters.

“Nor can we put up with a kind of passive tolerance of words and actions that go against what we stand for as a country.

“We are a nation of compassionate, tolerant people who will always protect and defend our common values of decency and respect. That means zero tolerance of antisemitism and indeed any form of hatred, prejudice or discrimination.”

He added:”Universities should be places of rigorous debate but also bastions of tolerance and respect for every member of their community.

“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. ”

Sunak said university leaders needed to take “personal responsibility” for keeping students safe, and referenced claims by Jewish students that some had been “targeted, threatened and assaulted simply for being Jewish”, along with examples of protesters singing “genocidal chants”.

Vice Chancellors from around 20 universities attended the meeting, along with education secretary Gillian Keegan, UJS president Edward Isaacs and Dave Rich of the CST, along with other ministers, including Michael Gove.

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

But the government’s own adviser on antisemitism Lord Mann was not at the meeting, and neither were the National Union of Students, who have been sidelined by the government over complaints about their failure to tackle antisemitism

Ministers said universities must take immediate disciplinary action if any student is found to be inciting racial hatred or violence – and contact the police where they believe a criminal act has been committed.

Writing for The Times, Sunak said students should be able to express their “very human angst” at the suffering in Gaza, but that free speech could never be used as an excuse for harassment, intimidation or the incitement of violence.

The Education Secretary wrote to Vice Chancellors on Sunday setting out government expectations in respect of the support being provided to Jewish students.

Keegan said ahead of the meeting:”I have made it absolutely clear that universities must crack down on antisemitism and ensure that protests do not unduly disrupt university life.

“I am looking forward to welcoming vice chancellors to No10 today to make sure together we have clear steps in place to protect Jewish students on campus.”

Meanwhile, 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 sufficient or appropriate action to tackle harassment, including antisemitic abuse.

In the last Autumn Statement, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced £7 million of extra support to tackle antisemitic abuse in educational settings. £500,000 of this will now be dedicated to supporting the work of the University Jewish Chaplaincy, boosting support for Jewish students on campus.

The University Jewish Chaplaincy helps students deal with incidents of antisemitism and intimidation and currently supports over 8,500 students at over 100 universities in 13 regions.

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) have criticised the “toxic environment” faced by Jewish students across the country. According to the CST there was an increase of 203% in university-related antisemitic incidents between 2022 and 2023.

But Jewish News understands that some universities are concerned about being dragged into the row, pointing out that statistics show there were little or no instances of antisemitism at their institutions.

Another leading university is expected to point out that multiple complaints by a single individual has made the situation on their campus seem significantly worse.

Other experts point to statistics emerging from America showing the vast majority of people involved with violent disturbances were outsiders linked to extremist political groups, rather than students.

There are also claims that US campus protests are significantly different than the often less violent ones staged in this country.

Questions have also been asked about why the government has announced this high profile meeting at a time when most students are preparing for, or working on exams.

A source close to the NUS also accused the Prime Minister of “trying to play politics” and that the student body was “clear in its fight against antisemitism.”

“That mission is why NUS has worked so hard to fight this prejudice and will never stop.”

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