UK PM Sunak tells university bosses to protect Jewish students

Students protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza at Oxford University

By William James and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called on university bosses on Thursday to protect Jewish students from what he said was harassment and antisemitic abuse from a vocal minority at protests on campuses.

Students at some British universities have set up small encampments in protest at Israel's conduct in its war against Hamas, but there has so far not been the same scale of unrest seen at some U.S. colleges.

Sunak invited leaders from some of Britain's best known universities to Downing Street and told them they had to take a zero-tolerance approach to incidents of antisemitism and any other form of discrimination, his spokesperson said.

There was no immediate comment from university officials at the meeting. Sunak in March announced plans to tackle what he called extremist activity in Britain, but some politicians in his party warned him against using the issue in an attempt to gain a political advantage.

The prime minister "called on universities to remain bastions of tolerance where debate takes place with respect for others and where every student feels safe," the spokesperson told reporters after the meeting.

Sunak, attended alongside his education, security and communities ministers, and in the discussion concerns were raised about "non-student agitators" infiltrating campuses, the spokesperson said.

Last year, the Community Security Trust, a charity that advises British Jews on security matters, recorded 182 antisemitic incidents in which the victims or offenders were students or academics, or which involved student unions.

Tell Mama, a group that monitors Islamophobic incidents and supports victims, said it has also seen a rise in anti-Muslim incidents on campuses.

Israel's invasion of Gaza has killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gazan authorities, and triggered a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and famine threatening the enclave's 2.5 million residents.

The war began when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

There are about a dozen student encampments at British universities to protest against the war. The Union of Jewish Students, which represents Jewish students in Britain, warned last week that the encampments were creating a "hostile and toxic atmosphere".

(Reporting by William James and Andrew MacAskillEditing by Mark Potter and Andrew Heavens)