UK universities told to be vigilant on antisemitism as Gaza protests spread

LONDON — Rishi Sunak told British universities to do more to protect Jewish students from antisemitism amid campus protests over the war in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian protests have taken place at more than a dozen universities across the U.K. including Oxford and Cambridge. Manchester, Sheffield, Warwick, Liverpool and Newcastle have also been hit by protest encampments.

While the U.K. has so far avoided the kinds of clashes between police and protestors seen in the U.S., ministers are pointing to turmoil stateside as a cautionary tale.

The British prime minister held a meeting in Downing Street Thursday with vice chancellors from universities including Cambridge, Leeds and Bristol.

“No one is saying that students should not be able to express the very human angst that many of us feel about the terrible suffering of war,” Sunak wrote in the Times ahead of the meeting.

“Universities have a profound duty to remain bastions of tolerance, where such debate takes place with respect for others — and where every student feels safe and at home, whatever their faith or background.”

Cabinet ministers Gillian Keegan, Michael Gove and Tom Tugendhat were also at the meeting, aimed at shaping upcoming government guidance on challenging antisemitism on campus.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Keegan urged university bosses to show “leadership” and “to de-escalate” tensions on campus over the war in Gaza. She warned that protests must not disrupt learning or be targeted at individuals.

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

University-related antisemitic incidents increased by 203 percent between 2022 and 2023 according to the Community Security Trust, a charity set up to provide security advice to Jewish communal organizations, schools and synagogues.

Demonstrations by U.K. students have followed widespread disruption at American universities. “We have seen how this can escalate very quickly in other countries,” Keegan said.