A senior MP has compared reports of anti-Semitism at the University of Bristol to “1930s Germany”.
Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon urged ministers not to “wash their hands” of concerns from Jewish university students, including those at the University of Bristol, PA reports.
The university launched an investigation last month after one of its academics, Professor David Miller, received heavy criticism for comments he made about Israel.
The House of Lords heard the political sociology lecturer’s behaviour had led to Jewish students “being subjected to weeks of harassment and abuse”.
Professor Miller called for the “end of Zionism” and said Israel is “trying to exert its will all over the world” during a Zoom call in February.
Bosses at the university have confirmed that they have launched an investigation into the incident, and support is being offered to students.
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More than 500 academics signed a letter saying they “wholly condemn” the comments, with more than 100 MPs and peers demanding action from the university. Countdown presenter Rachel Riley was among several high-profile figures to criticise the professor.
Tory MP for Harlow, Mr Halfon, highlighted the incident – which he condemned as “appalling” and “a disgrace” – during an Education Select Committee session with universities minister Michelle Donelan on Tuesday.
Addressing Ms Donelan, he said: “Students should not feel that they’re living in 1930s Germany who go to Bristol University and other universities.
“I think it’s become such a serious national issue, been raised in Parliament a number of times, that you should take a proactive role and do what you can to speak to the senior management and tell them to get a grip and deal with this once and for all.”
He added: “There’s been some awful things going on in terms of Jewish students. They feel unsafe, they feel unprotected, they feel that now the university is a a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and yet all the Government can do is say ‘we’ll wait for a review and not intervene’.
“I mean, surely you should look at things like funding, or at least meet with the vice-chancellor early on and say ‘What on earth is going on here? Why do thousands of Jewish students feel that Bristol University is not a safe place for Jews?’
“There’s nothing to stop you picking up the phone and saying to the vice-chancellor ‘What on earth is going on? Get your act together. Do something. Protect these students which is your duty to protect them.’ Rather than to wash your hands of it and say they’re autonomous.”
Ms Donelan said she was “not washing her hands” of the issue as she stressed that incidents of anti-Semitism at universities were “an area of focus” for the Government.
In October, Gavin Williamson warned that universities could have their funding cut if they refused to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
Ms Donelan told MPs on the education select committee that 98 universities had now signed up to adopt the internationally recognised definition.
She said: “Anti-Semitism is abhorrent in universities and we have been working to encourage as many as possible to sign the IHRA definition, which Bristol already had done and that highlights the fact that that’s not the panacea to addressing this issue.
“In regards to specific cases, the Government doesn’t comment. There’s an investigation going on in Bristol and I believe it’s still live.
“And I would urge Bristol University to ensure that is as thorough as possible because some of the reports that have come out are extremely concerning.”
Jonathan Gullis, Conservative MP for Stoke on Trent North, called for academics who have allegedly made anti-Semitic comments to be sacked, and for the Office for Students (OfS) to be able to remove vice-chancellors from their posts if they fail to tackle anti-Semitism.
He said: “Until we start bringing that kind of scrutiny and action into our university sector, like you would do if you were in a primary or secondary school, these incidents will keep happening.”
But Ms Donelan said: “We can’t sack professors, or people like that, because we are not their employers and this is the difference with the university sector because they are autonomous we haven’t actually hired them.”
She added: “I agree with you that certain universities do need to go further on this area and it is deeply concerning that Jewish students feel put off from applying to certain universities. That’s not modern Britain and that’s not the country that we all want to live in.”
In a statement, the University of Bristol recognised the “deep concern” the professor’s comments had caused for “some members of our community”, and “also that people hold very different views on the issues raised”.
The statement continues: “The university has offered support to both students and staff who have been affected by it.
“We can confirm that the university has already initiated an investigation into this matter. The investigation is being carried out in accordance with the university’s internal process and, as we have explained in a previous statement, that process is confidential.
“In particular, it is not appropriate for the university to make any comment on this matter while the investigation we have referred to is underway.
“Our freedom of speech policy underlines the vital importance of the right of staff and students, as members of a free and democratic society, to speak openly without fear of censorship or limitation, provided that this right is exercised responsibly, within the law, and with respect for others who may have differing views.
“The university’s clear and consistently held position is that bullying, harassment, and discrimination are never acceptable. We remain committed to providing a positive experience for all our students and staff, including by providing a welcoming environment for Jewish students, and to fostering good relations and an inclusive university community.”