Former Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles and Universities Minister Jo Johnson have condemned an anti-Israel protest that disrupted a University College London event with Jewish students last week as “simply unacceptable in 2016”.
In an unusually strong statement, in reply to concerns raised by Conservative Friends of Israel, Pickles said: “There is a deep-rooted problem in our universities that must be wiped out.”
If follows a fracas outside a Friends of Israel society event at UCL on Thursday night, at which former IDF soldier Hen Mazzig was due to speak. Mazzig now works for StandWithUs.
UCLU Friends of Palestine Society President Yahya Abu Seido was this week referred to police by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which said the protest “resulted in three female students being assaulted”.
A statement from the group read: “At one point protesters jumped through a window to confront a terrified audience of predominantly Jewish students.”
Johnson said it was a “troubling incident,” adding: “Universities have a clear responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive environment and no staff or student should ever feel threatened or intimidated.”
While acknowledging the importance of free speech and debate, he said: “There is no place for students that use intimidation or violence to attempt to shut down the free and open exchange of ideas – even ones they disagree with.”
Pickles said the UCL protest was “shocking,” adding: “The growing problem of anti-Semitism on university campuses is a serious challenge facing the Jewish community and the UK as a whole.”
This is the second such incident in a year, with pro-Palestinian protesters disrupting an event at King’s College, London, in January, after campaigners threw chairs and set off fire alarms to derail a talk by the former head of Israel’s secret service.
CfI chairman Pickles said: “As a result of the current climate and increasing reports of anti-Semitism on campuses, both Israeli students and Anglo-Jewish students are wary of pursuing higher education in the UK. This should be a concern to us all.”
Universities UK has said it will prioritise a discussion of anti-Semitism at its conference on Thursday, with a workshop on “identifying and tackling anti-Semitism and harassment of Jewish students”.
A spokesman said: “People have the right to protest on campus, as long as this done peacefully and does not seek to disrupt an event. When such incidents occur, universities have been quick to launch enquiries.”
Earlier this week, a joint statement by Britain’s major Jewish communal bodies, including the Union of Jewish Students, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust spoke of “deep concern”.
They said: “At campuses across the UK, we risk seeing a major erosion of safe spaces for meetings of Israel and Jewish societies. It is now common place for Jewish societies to keep locations of meetings private for fear of disruption. Freedom of speech and safe spaces are eroded when Jewish and pro-Israel students cannot run events in an open setting without the threat of intimidation. Confidence in the UK as an attractive location for Jewish students from overseas is also put at risk as is the reputation of the universities themselves.”
They welcomed a recent report by Universities UK, but added: “It is now urgent that Universities take powerful measures to address this issue, including expelling any student who participates in violence. The Jewish community will not tolerate a continuation of this restriction on safe spaces. We will seek urgent meetings with Vice Chancellors demanding a programme of action.”