Rishi Sunak criticises ‘extremists’ ahead of on-campus antisemitism talks

Rishi Sunak Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Rishi Sunak has condemned “extremists at the National Union of Students (NUS)” who he says opposed the Union of Jewish Students’ (UJS) support for “the principle of a Jewish state”.

Ahead of a meeting with the UJS and Jewish charity the Community Security Trust (CST) to “listen and learn from their experiences” on Thursday, the Prime Minister warned of “students and academic staff being targeted, threatened, and assaulted simply for being Jewish”.

Writing for The Times, he said: “Only last month, the UJS were themselves subject to a shameful attempt to get their organisation kicked out of the NUS purely because of their support for the principle of a Jewish state.”

He dubbed such opposition to the UJS as the work of “extremists at the NUS”.

Mr Sunak will also host a meeting at Downing Street with vice-chancellors from leading British universities, with talks designed to “keep Jewish students safe” on campus.

Mr Sunak wrote: “I understand the strength of feeling over recent events in Israel and Gaza. 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.

“We will always protect freedom of speech and the right to protest — and our universities are a natural place for that expression, precisely because they are institutions of learning and exploration where challenging ideas are debated rigorously.

“But just as importantly, 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.”

Mr Sunak’s comments come in the wake of calls from the Education Secretary, who has said universities must “crack down” on antisemitic abuse on campuses and ensure protests do not disrupt university life.

Ministers will call on university leaders to take immediate disciplinary action if any student is found to be inciting racial hatred or violence and to contact the police if a criminal act 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.

Vice-chancellors from some of the leading universities in the UK will meet at Number 10 on Thursday to discuss action to address the rise in antisemitic abuse on campuses and disruption to students’ learning.

Mr Sunak, 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.

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.

Students at UCL in London protest against the war in Gaza Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

The 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”.

In 2023, 182 university-related antisemitic incidents were recorded by the CST compared with 60 incidents in 2022 – a rise of 203%.

Mark Gardner, chief executive of the CST, said: “The growth of antisemitism on British campuses is appalling and an affront to the fundamental principles and values of university life.

“Everyone has the right to protest, but they do not have the right to disrupt other students’ learning, harass and threaten Jewish students, or spread hatred of Israel with calls for ‘resistance’ and other extremist language.

“University authorities need to set out clear boundaries for the timing, location and content of these protests and ensure there are consequences for anyone who breaks them.”

A spokesman for the UJS said: “Government and university leaders must acknowledge the surge in antisemitic incidents since October 7, UJS’s increased support efforts, and the resilience of Jewish students.

“Universities must act decisively to combat hate on campus. UJS stands ready to work with all stakeholders to tackle this urgent issue.”

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.