Universities are being urged to act swiftly to tackle antisemitism on campuses after a series of incidents in recent weeks – including Holocaust denial leaflets, fascist stickers and swastikas etched on and around campuses – which have fuelled anxiety among Jewish students.
Leading academics, student representatives and experts on antisemitism expressed concern at the widespread nature of the incidents, which have affected a number of higher education institutions across the country.
Earlier this week it emerged that a swastika and a “Rights for Whites” sign had been found at halls of residence at Exeter, which the university described after an initial investigation as “an ill-judged, deeply offensive joke”.
There have also been incidents reported at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex and University College London recently, which the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said indicated some level of coordination. It is thought to be part of a wider spike in hate crime targeting Jews and other minority communities.
Responding to the incidents, one leading crossbench peer said attacks on Jewish students in UK universities should be seen as “the canary in the coalmine”.
Ruth Deech, who was the first independent adjudicator for higher education overseeing student complaints, said her parents had been attacked as Jewish students in the years leading up to the second world war and the Holocaust. She urged UK universities to “rise up and condemn” antisemitism.
“In the 1920s and 1930s discrimination against Jews started in German, Austrian and Polish universities, long before the second world war,” Lady Deech said. “Attacks on Jewish students in universities today should be seen as the canary in the coalmine. It starts there and it spreads.”
Josh Nagli, the UJS campaigns director, stressed that Jewish students generally had a positive experience at university, but admitted recent events were concerning. “It seems like some sort of coordinated activity. I would not say it’s something to be seriously concerned about, but there’s a risk of seeing it more and more on different campuses.
“They don’t pose a physical threat to Jewish students but it shows there are people in the vicinity of where Jewish students are living and studying who hold these views on Holocaust denial. Any Jewish student would feel uncomfortable that this sort of literature is being handed out.”
Flyers found in Cambridge, which appeared to express support for Holocaust denier David Irving, referred to the new Hollywood film Denial, based on the landmark legal case in which Irving sued and lost his case against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. A spokesman for the University of Cambridge said the matter had been reported to the police.
In November, Sheffield Hallam University was recommended by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education to pay £3,000 compensation to a student after failing to deal adequately with his complaints about posts on the university’s Palestine Society social media accounts.
And last June, York University law student Zachary Confino was paid £1,000 compensation over antisemitic abuse when he was called a “Jewish prick”, an “Israeli twat” and subjected to an anonymous social media comment that Hitler was “on to something”.
Recent figures from the Community Security Trust (CST), a Jewish charity that monitors antisemitism, show a doubling of reported incidents involving Jewish students and academics, with 41 incidents in 2016 compared with 21 the year before.
David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, condemned the latest far-right incidents at universities. “It’s completely reprehensible and I think that people will find it upsetting and disturbing. But whether it’s dangerous depends on the extent of support there is for it and how quickly effective action is taken against it.
“This is a departure from what we’ve seen in the recent past. The spotlight in the last couple of years has been on the far-left and the left of the Labour party.
“My impression is this is coming from a different place to incidents that arise in the context of criticising Israel. This is straightforward antisemitism and it’s coming from the right.”
Izzy Lenga, a final-year theology student at the University of Birmingham, received a torrent of antisemitic abuse and threats after posting a picture on Twitter of a sticker she and other Jewish students had seen on campus featuring an image of Hitler and the words “Hitler was right”.
“It was horrible, it was terrifying,” she told the Guardian. She received more than 2,000 messages within 24 hours from a variety of far-right fascist groups including National Action, which has since been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the government.
Lenga says her university was very supportive, but she went home from campus shaken by the experience and for a few weeks was too scared to return. “Antisemitism is a hatred that has been around for so long and it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.”
The National Union of Students has just completed a national survey of Jewish students’ experience of university life, details of which will be released later in the spring. Commenting on the incident at Exeter this week, the union’s president, Malia Bouattia, said it was another example of the spike in hate crime students had witnessed in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election.
“This kind of blatant antisemitism should not be tolerated in our universities and colleges, and institutions need to do more to combat it. Students must be at the forefront of tackling racism and fascism in all its forms which is why NUS’s current programme of work exploring hate crime could not be more timely.”
Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions, admitted that universities have a difficult balancing act between protecting students from abuse or intolerance, while also allowing legitimate protest and free speech within the law. “This is particularly relevant when Israel and Palestine are being discussed,” a spokesman said.
“The university sector has been clear that there is no place for antisemitism or any other kind of unlawful discrimination at our universities. While statistics from the CST suggest that reported incidents of antisemitism in universities remain low, even a single incident is one too many.
“In the context of an increase in the number of reported hate crimes across the UK, universities have procedures in place which should give more students the confidence to report incidents.”
The universities minister, Jo Johnson, said this week: “Higher education institutions have a responsibility to ensure that they provide a safe and inclusive environment and act swiftly so that students do not face discrimination, harassment or victimisation.”