The Community Security Trust (CST) is a charity that “protects British Jews from antisemitism and related threats”. It also provides security advice and training to Jewish communal organisations, schools and synagogues and provides a system through which people can report antisemitic incidents. On 17 December 2020, the CST published its report ‘Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018–2020’. The report presents the findings of an investigation by the CST into antisemitic incidents in universities in the UK over the 2018/19 and 2019/20 academic years.

On 21 January 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion: “Baroness Deech (Crossbench) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Community Security Trust Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018–2020, published on 17 December, and in particular, the finding that the number of antisemitic incidents in universities has increased”.

Report: Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018–2020

In its report the CST stated that the “vast majority of Jewish students have a strongly positive experience at university”. However, it also said that antisemitism does affect both Jewish students and staff and that it was essential universities had the procedures in place to deal with incidents adequately.

The organisation had produced the report to highlight problems with existing procedures and their application and to encourage Jewish students “to report and challenge antisemitism where it exists”. The CST defines an antisemitic incident as:

[A]ny malicious act aimed at Jewish people, organisations or property, where there is evidence that the act has antisemitic motivation or content, or that the victim was targeted because they are (or are believed to be) Jewish.

The CST stated that university staff (including academics) and students’ union officers had been responsible for antisemitism on campus in some instances.

Findings: incidents at universities had increased

The CST said that its report uncovered “a much higher number of antisemitic incidents on UK campuses than had previously been reported”. The CST recorded 123 incidents over the two academic years covering 2018 to 2020: 58 in 2018/19 and 65 in 2019/20. Prior to this, the CST had recorded university incidents by calendar year: 25 in 2018, 22 in 2017, and 41 in 2016.

Of the 123 incidents from 2018 to 2020: 107 were categorised as abusive behaviour, 7 as damage and desecration, 5 as threats and 4 as assault. Incidents were also recorded by location: 51 online, 39 on-campus and 33 off-campus. The figure of 123 antisemitic incidents did not include events where a speaker or organisation that had been previously associated with antisemitic views or statements had been invited to speak on campus. The CST record 15 such instances in the academic years 2018/19 and 2019/20. Whilst the CST said such instances were “an important part of the wider story of university-related antisemitism” they did not fit its “strict definition” of an antisemitic incident.

The CST said that the increase in the number of antisemitic incidents it had recorded at universities since 2018 reflected the work of its campus team to encourage students to report antisemitic incidents. The CST therefore added that the increase in recorded incidents needed to be seen within the context of greater awareness of the need to report them. However, it also noted that incidents included in the report had occurred during a period “when recorded hate crime in the UK in general has increased across the board”. The organisation said its annual statistics on antisemitism reflected this trend with incidents increasing in recent years: 1,375 incidents in 2016, 1,420 in 2017, 1,690 in 2018 and 1,813 in 2019. The CST argued that social and political factors, including the political debates around the EU referendum in 2016 and allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, were “likely to have contributed, directly and indirectly, to the sustained high levels of antisemitic incidents recorded nationally by CST since 2016”.

Recommendations for university procedures

The report also examined university complaints procedures including several case studies. The CST recommended that university procedures for handling reports of antisemitic incidents should include:

  • Third party reporting. The CST said that there had been examples where students had quickly reported antisemitism to the CST “but were hesitant to submit a complaint to their university”. The report argued that allowing a third party to submit a complaint on behalf of a student would enhance tackling discrimination.
  • An appropriate definition. The CST argued that adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism would allow universities to ensure “that there is a common, accepted standard with which to measure antisemitism and assess complaints”. The report said the Union of Jewish Students had found that 41 out of 133 higher education institutions (31%) had adopted this definition as at the beginning of December 2020.
  • Timing of complaints. The report stated that universities should have “adequate and reasonable” time frames in place in which to resolve complaints. They should also be prepared to accept complaints of a historic nature because current students may want to wait until they have finished their studies before reporting incidents.
  • Burden of proof. The CST argued that some universities “have imposed unfair requirements” on students to provide “all the evidence” to support a complaint. It argued that institutions “where appropriate” should put measures in place to obtain necessary evidence themselves when investigating complaints (for example lecture recordings).
  • Ensuring impartiality. The report argued that universities should have independent complaints processes where staff investigating complaints do not have any personal relationships with the individuals involved in each case.

UK Government position on antisemitism at universities

In a debate in the House of Commons in October 2020, Vicky Ford, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, referred to a previous publication by the CST on the number antisemitic incidents. She said that increases in antisemitic incidents were “absolutely unacceptable” and showed “how much further the sector has to go to tackle the issue”. Ms Ford stated that as universities began to teach in the 2020 autumn term it was “more important than ever” for students to feel able to report incidents of antisemitism and other forms of hatred. She said the Government expected higher education providers to have a “zero-tolerance approach to all racial harassment and religious hatred and to act to stamp it out, whether it is on campus or online”.

Vicky Ford highlighted that the Government had adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism in 2016 and that it saw it as an important tool in tackling antisemitism. However, she said that, as legally autonomous institutions, decisions on whether to adopt the definition rested with individual providers. The Government reiterated this position in response to a written question in November 2020.

The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, wrote to higher education providers about antisemitism on 9 October 2020. The Government has stated that officials were exploring how to ensure that higher education providers were tackling antisemitism, “with robust measures in place to address issues when they arise”. This included the possibility of regulatory action by the Office for Students:

Options identified by […] the Secretary of State for Education in the letter include directing the Office for Students to impose a new regulatory condition of registration, and suspending funding streams for universities at which antisemitic incidents occur and which have not signed up to the definition.

In January 2020, the Government announced £500,000 of new funding for a programme to support universities in tackling antisemitism over three years. This included visits by 450 student leaders, journalists and academics to Auschwitz. Upon their return to the UK, students would participate “in a seminar which will deal explicitly with campus-specific issues and how to identify and tackle antisemitism”. The programme would work with student publications and media, along with student leaders and networks, to “disseminate the messages they have heard first hand to tens of thousands of students across the country”.

Higher education sector

In 2015, Universities UK (UUK) established a taskforce to examine violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. A report entitled Changing the Culture, summarising evidence considered by the taskforce, was published in 2016. In 2019, a follow-up report, Changing the Culture: Two Years On, found that most institutional practice continued to be focused on student-to-student sexual harassment and gender-based violence. UUK said that “evidence that other forms of harassment (including hate incidents) are being addressed is emerging, although this remains relatively underdeveloped”. As a result, UUK established an advisory group to develop guidance to address racial harassment and race-based incidents experienced by students and staff. This guidance was published on 24 November 2020. UUK said that the guidance took an intersectional approach to account for “those who are both racialised and minoritised in other ways”. It stated that that “in particular, racial harassment can often go ‘hand in hand’ with religiously motivated harassment, including Islamophobia and antisemitism”.

A Times Higher Education (£) article about the CST’s report quoted a spokesperson for UUK. They said that:

Universities must do all they can to tackle antisemitism. We have asked all our members to consider adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, while recognising their duty to promote freedom of speech within the law.

We are aware that an increasing number of universities are adopting the IHRA definition and many are considering what more they can do to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism.

We recently published new recommendations designed to tackle racial harassment in higher education, including antisemitism. This work builds on UUK’s “Changing the Culture” framework and a number of Jewish organisations were involved in the development of this framework.

We are in regular contact with Jewish community leaders and student groups to ensure that universities are supported to do all they can to tackle antisemitism.

Cover image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.