As pro-Palestinian encampments spread to European campuses, UK government seeks to head off unrest

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, center, and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, center left, hold a meeting with universities leaders and representatives from the Union of Jewish Students in Downing Street, London, England, Thursday May 9, 2024. Pro-Palestinian protesters have begun building encampments at universities around the U.K. over the past two weeks as students and academics call on the institutions to cut ties with Israel over its offensive in the Gaza Strip. (Carl Court/Pool via AP)


CAMBRIDGE, England (AP) — About three dozen pro-Palestinian protesters crawled out of their tents Thursday morning at Cambridge University, grabbed coffee and tea and sat in a circle for the daily briefing.

Drink water, display the Palestinian colors, don’t talk to reporters, their leader said at the 43-tent encampment beneath the gothic spires of King’s College Chapel. In case of trouble, one group member hovered along the adjacent King’s Parade wearing a neon yellow vest marked “Police Liaison.”

But after the third night of the encampment, there had been no need for the police despite a small number of counter-demonstrators, according to protesters and local merchants. At most, the group’s chanting on Monday led a few customers to abandon their sidewalk café tables and head indoors, said Beverley Atay, manager of the Copper Kettle across the street.

“They’re just expressing their point of view, which is their right,” she said, watching the scene outside the café’s windows.

Despite the relative calm at Cambridge and other U.K. campuses, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak summoned university leaders to his Downing Street offices on Thursday in an effort to head off the kind of student unrest that has gripped the U.S. in recent weeks.

Before the meeting, Sunak warned of “students and academic staff being targeted, threatened, and assaulted simply for being Jewish.”

“We will always protect freedom of speech and the right to protest,” Sunak wrote in the Times of London. “But just as importantly, universities have a profound duty to remain bastions of tolerance, where such debate takes place with respect for others — and where every student feels safe and at home, whatever their faith or background.”

Sunak’s intervention came after pro-Palestinian protesters built encampments at about a dozen U.K. universities over the past two weeks as some students and academics call on the institutions to cut ties with Israel over the conflict in Gaza.

That has raised concerns about a repeat of the violence recently seen at Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Los Angeles, where police moved in to make dozens of arrests. The unrest has already spilled over to some European countries, with police breaking up encampments in Vienna and Amsterdam in recent days.

For some Jewish students in Britain, the protests are an uncomfortable addition to a year already marred by a rise in antisemitism. The number of antisemitic incidents at the U.K.’s 142 universities tripled last year as tensions rose over the war in the Middle East, according to the Communities Security Trust, which works to combat antisemitism in Britain.

“We are seeing language emanating from these encampments and protest movements such as calls to globalize the intifada,” said Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Students, which serves students across the U.K. and Ireland. “These are not meaningless political statements, these are direct calls for violence and they have no place on campus.”

Sunak’s office said he invited vice chancellors from some of the U.K.’s top universities to discuss efforts to tackle antisemitism on campus. Vice chancellors are the top academic and administrative officials at British universities.

As part of the effort, Sunak announced that the government would provide an additional 500,000 pounds ($623,000) to the University Jewish Chaplaincy Service to support Jewish students.

The rise in antisemitism in Britain mirrors a trend seen across Europe and the U.S. following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing military campaign in Gaza, according to major Jewish organizations.

Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, during the attack. An estimated 250 people were abducted, with the militants continuing to hold around 100 hostages and the remains of about 30 others.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, displaced about 80% of the population and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine, Palestinian officials say.

The war has inflamed tensions around the world, triggering pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. college campuses where disruption and confrontations with counter-protesters have brought police intervention. Israel and its supporters say the protests are antisemitic, while critics say Israel uses such descriptions to silence opponents.

So far, European student protests have remained relatively muted compared with those in the U.S.

One of the primary reasons is the different roles the U.S. and European countries play in the Middle East, said Georgios Giannakopoulos, a history professor at City University of London who has studied student protests.

While the United States is a global superpower that has supported Israel since its creation in 1948, European countries have different histories and less direct ties to Israel.

“But what this movement now seems to suggest, slowly picking up pace in some U.K. universities, is that U.K. students not only want … to oppose the war in Gaza, but they also want to show their solidarity to their American counterparts who they feel are being repressed quite heavily,” Giannakopoulos said.

By calling in the vice chancellors, Sunak has inserted himself into the debate about balancing the right of free speech against the right of all students to pursue their education without fear of intimidation.

Sally Mapstone, president of the higher education trade body Universities U.K., said universities have a duty to provide a safe environment for everyone on campus and they are taking that responsibility very seriously amid recent tensions.

“We want to work with government (and with the Department for Education) to do everything we can to generate a culture which de-escalates the tensions that we are seeing at the moment and allows reasoned debate without the opportunities for harassment, which are concerning,” Mapstone, who is also vice chancellor at the University of St. Andrews, told the BBC.