21 May 2024

Our universities are failing to tackle student antisemitism


Earlier this month, university leaders from around the country were summoned to Downing Street to discuss the recent explosion of antisemitism on UK campuses, which has been so extreme that the Community Security Trust (CST) labelled it a ‘watershed moment for antisemitism in the UK’.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from the government that this newest revival of the world’s oldest hatred will not be tolerated, many of the solutions being proposed lack real teeth. If policymakers really want to make an impact on campus antisemitism, they should start naming and shaming those universities which are doing the least to address the crisis.

In the months following Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on October 7 and the start of Israel’s costly war in Gaza, the UK has seen a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents — with an estimated 589% increase in reported cases. British universities have not escaped this trend, with widespread reports of Jewish students being harassed and intimidated by protestors.

Just this month, a Jewish chaplain at Leeds University was forced into hiding after facing a litany of antisemitic slurs and death threats. At the University of Birmingham, a group of protestors repeatedly chanted ‘Death to Zionists’ at a rally, leading Jewish student groups to say it had become an ‘unsafe’ environment for them.

There has also been a fivefold increase in antisemitic incidents at the UK’s elite Russell Group universities, with five times as many cases reported in the months following October 7th than in the entire year leading up to the attack.

Despite this, the progress of many universities in updating their policies has been glacial, and some have been accused of wilful negligence in their duty to safeguard Jewish students. Lord Carlile, a terrorism legislation expert, recently said ‘antisemitism is being ignored by some universities… and there is clear inconsistency of approach’.

In February, then Higher Education Minister Robert Halfon announced he would be appointing an ‘expert adviser on antisemitism in higher education’ to help tackle the crisis. This new antisemitism tsar will have direct oversight over all procedures for dealing with campus antisemitism, and will be able to grant a ‘seal of quality’ to those colleges which have done the most to address it.

This is a positive step. However, in the absence of any real punitive powers, the role is merely symbolic. Indeed, if we want the sector to take an expert adviser seriously, we’ll need to give them a lever to impose a tangible cost on universities which fail to meet standards expected of them.

This need not be a material cost. For universities, long-term reputational damage can be just as painful as immediate financial losses. For example, rather than praising colleges which are doing particularly well, the expert adviser could single out those institutions that are failing in their duty of care to protect Jewish students.

One way to do this would be to employ a similar grading system as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the US. Last month, the ADL ranked 85 American universities on their policies for tackling anti-Jewish hate along a traditional A-F grading scale. Worryingly, Harvard and 12 other elite schools earned an ‘F’ grade – and only 2 achieved the full ‘A’.

Their criteria included whether the university has an active Jewish community, whether the administration has adopted the IHRA’s official definition of antisemitism, and whether proactive action has been taken to punish instances of abuse. Collating this information into a Campus Antisemitism Report Card, the ADL assigns a letter grade for each college.

Adopting a similar system in UK Higher Education would have many benefits. It would help identify those organisations which have a problem with antisemitism at an institutional level, whilst providing prospective Jewish students with valuable data on the universities they are thinking of applying to.

This letter grade could even be listed alongside other key information about a university at the point of application, perhaps by folding it into the ‘student life’ section of their UCAS profiles. The possible drag on admissions has the potential to hit ‘F’ grade schools where it hurts.

Finally, keeping this grade subject to regular review by the expert adviser would leave a permanent window open for universities to improve their score, thus incentivising them to continually review their own mechanisms for dealing with complaints.

Such a system would ensure a degree of accountability and oversight that is currently lacking, and could help move the dial on a growing crisis. When it comes to tackling campus antisemitism, a mark of shame may be more effective than a badge of honour.

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Sam Chandler is a public affairs professional and political commentator with Young Voices UK. @SamAdamChandler​

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.