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Prime Minister to meet university leaders following campus protests

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Legend, More than 100 people in Cambridge protested against the war in Gaza this week

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Campus protests against the Israel-Gaza war “cannot target individuals” or disrupt learning, the education secretary said.

Gillian Keegan told BBC News the government defends the right to free speech, but “it must be done in a respectful way.”

She joined the Prime Minister and leaders of 17 universities on Thursday to discuss the fight against anti-Semitism.

Universities say they take anti-Semitism on campus “incredibly seriously.”

Police were called to Newcastle University on Wednesday after escalating protests left some students unable to access counseling services.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program ahead of the Downing Street meeting, Ms Keegan said the aim was to support vice-chancellors in defending free speech, but also to protect students .

“It’s not an easy thing to do, we understand that,” she said.

“We need to show leadership, we need to de-escalate the situation and we need to share the best practices that we have seen from some vice-chancellors.”

Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), told the BBC that the government had “reassured” Jewish students at the meeting and offered to help universities in their efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

But he added: “While the commitments were important, it’s what comes next that will really matter for Jewish students.” »

He said vice-chancellors must take “decisive action”, including using the definition of anti-Semitism given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The definition, in part, describes it as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

There must be “clear communication” with Jewish societies, Mr Isaacs added – and “red lines must be drawn” in relation to the protests, which the UJS said were creating a “hostile and toxic atmosphere for Jewish students.

“Supporting the genocide”

Protests at Newcastle University intensified on Wednesday, with a rally blocking access to its King’s Gate building.

One student, Gemma, who is not protesting and asked that her last name be withheld, told BBC News that protesters had blocked the entrance to the building, which houses student support services such as counseling , financial aid and visa assistance, thus preventing students from attending. appointment.

“I am convinced that students at local universities should not be affected by this protest,” she said.

“It’s often difficult for students to find the courage to come to a (counseling) session, so putting barriers in the way of these services saddens me. »

Gemma added that she had “also faced shouting through megaphones that we were all enabling or supporting genocide”.

“Disrupting learning”

Newcastle University said some services had moved online and students would be contacted to reschedule missed appointments.

“We continue to work with police and our security to ensure the safety and security of our campus,” he said in a statement.

“Student protesters have been reminded of our guidance that allows them to exercise their right to protest in a way that respects our university and our community.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned on Wednesday that the protests were disrupting learning on university campuses and, in some cases, “spreading real anti-Semitic harassment and abuse”.

The encampments that have appeared on around fifteen British university campuses in recent days and weeks are much smaller than those in the United States.

Student activists want their universities to divest from Israel in response to its military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Divestment means selling shares in Israeli companies or otherwise abandoning financial ties.

Israel launched a campaign to destroy Hamas in response to the group’s attack on southern Israel on October 7, in which about 1,200 people were killed and another 252 taken hostage, according to Israeli counts.

Since then, more than 34,780 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Issy, who is protesting outside Leeds University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course we are opposed to anti-Semitism and we are opposed to all forms of oppression. »

Lancaster University students, the latest to see tents pop up, described their encampment as “a liberated space”, with events and collective meals.

“Everyone is welcome to join us,” the students said in a statement.

Universities UK, which represents more than 140 universities, published guidance for universities on tackling antisemitism in 2021.

“Very alert”

Its president, University of St Andrews principal and vice-chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, said universities were taking the recent rise in antisemitism on campus “incredibly seriously”.

She said the Prime Minister and vice-chancellors had agreed “concrete steps” to ensure universities knew how to draw “important lines”.

“There are behaviors that are acceptable when people are protesting…and behaviors that are not acceptable because they are against the law,” she said. “Some things can be tricky.”

Asked whether universities should clean up encampments, Dame Sally said vice-chancellors would monitor who was involved in the protests – noting that not everyone was a student – and that “we should not automatically assume that universities will immediately say ‘you need to move’. of our lands’.

But she added: “Where it is clearly demonstrated that the encampments interfere with the proper functioning of the university and with the rights of students and staff to go about their business – to take exams, to present their diplomas, to graduate – then universities may need to take action.”

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