University leaders should ensure “red lines” are drawn between free speech and inciting violence in pro-Palestinian protests on campuses, the leader of a Jewish student group has said.

Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), urged universities to take “swift and decisive action” to protect Jewish students.

Vice-chancellors from a number of leading UK universities were summoned to a meeting with the Prime Minister at No 10 on Thursday to discuss antisemitism on campuses and keeping Jewish students safe.

Rishi Sunak called for universities to remain “bastions of tolerance” during the roundtable with vice-chancellors.

It comes as student encampments against the war in Gaza have been set up at more than a dozen universities in the UK, including Newcastle.

Tensions have continued to ratchet up in standoffs with pro-Palestine protesters at US university campuses and thousands of demonstrators have been arrested since the protests began last month.

Mr Isaacs, who attended the roundtable meeting at Downing Street on Thursday, said direct calls for violence “have no place on campus”.

He told the PA news agency: “The burden is now on vice-chancellors to ensure we don’t see scenes in the US replicated in the UK.”

Mr Isaacs said: “Fundamentally, red lines have to be drawn. We are seeing language emanating from these encampments and protest movements such as calls to globalise the intifada.

“These are not meaningless political statements, these are direct calls for violence and they have no place on campus.”

He added that Jewish students have “faced a year like no other in terms of the volume of antisemitism on campus”.

Guy Dabby-Joory, head of campaigns at the UJS, said there had been discussions in the meeting on ensuring any “criminal behaviour” at protests would be met with an appropriate response.

He said: “We think actions will speak louder than words.”

Mr Dabby-Joory added: “We hope the universities will take their duties far more seriously. We hope they will show zero tolerance to antisemitism of any form.”

At the meeting, Mr Sunak and leaders at 17 British universities discussed taking disciplinary action against students found guilty of antisemitism or glorification of terrorism, or any form of intimidation or violence.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was up to universities to deal with such investigations.

Ahead of the roundtable with university leaders, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said vice-chancellors needed to show leadership in response to protests over Israeli military action in Gaza at UK universities.

She told Sky News: “What we don’t want is our campuses becoming unsafe environments for students or staff and going down the route that you see in other places like the US.”

When asked whether there is a fear that events in the US will be replicated in the UK, Ms Keegan said: “There’s always a fear of that.

“There is always a contagion fear and obviously there are some groups that are encouraging this as well.”

Her comments came after more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside the Cambridge Union on Wednesday evening to protest against a talk by billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is founder of American software company Palantir.

On Wednesday, some students at Newcastle University – where a pro-Palestinian encampment is in place – missed their health and wellbeing appointments after protests meant they could not enter a university building.

A spokesperson for Newcastle University said: “Our attempts at constructive dialogue with protesters were not taken in the spirit intended and the protest escalated to a completely unacceptable level.”

Ms Keegan told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that protests should not “be targeted” at individual Jewish students or lecturers.

Get more from The Northern Echo and stay informed with subscription. Click here to find out more.

She said: “They can’t be harassing people. Nor should they also be stopping other students just going about their education.”

Asked whether she thinks Mr Sunak is clear on the difference between antisemitism and legitimate protest against Israeli army action, Ms Keegan told Times Radio: “It’s not straightforward in every case.”

She added: “The reality is you have to look at those situations and what is targeted, what is inciting hatred or is actually moving into harassment.

“And you know, those lines are lines that we need to be clear about.”

Most read:

Representatives from Jewish charity the Community Security Trust (CST) also attended the meeting alongside vice-chancellors from a number of leading universities where student protests are currently taking place.

In 2023, 182 university-related antisemitic incidents were recorded by the CST compared with 60 incidents in 2022 – a rise of 203%.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), said the meeting with ministers and the UJS had been “positive” and she welcomed the opportunity to have a discussion about how “to avoid an escalation of campus tensions”.

The Northern Echo:

She said: “Universities have taken the rise in antisemitism on campuses since October 7 very seriously and will continue to work hard to ensure the safety of Jewish staff and students.

“The current conflict has raised tensions across many communities and we have been clear there is no place for intolerance on our campuses.

“In line with the sector’s clear commitment to freedom of speech, it is important that universities allow and support students and staff to debate and discuss this crisis, and the challenging issues it raises, but within the law, and with respect and tolerance.”

In the autumn statement in November, the Chancellor announced that £7 million of extra support would be committed to tackle antisemitism in schools and universities.

Of this, £500,000 will be dedicated to supporting the work of the University Jewish Chaplaincy, which helps students deal with incidents of antisemitism.