Antisemitism within higher education: roundtable discussion

Summary of the meeting with stakeholders on 23 February 2022.

Attendees and apologies


  • Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Chair)
  • Nina Freedman, Union of Jewish Students
  • Amanda Sefton,  Union of Jewish Students
  • Ephraim Borowski, Scottish Council for Jewish Communities 
  • Kirsty Robson, Scottish Council for Jewish Communities
  • Rabbi Aharon Lemberger, Jewish Student Chaplaincy Scotland
  • Paul Edlin,  Glasgow Jewish Representative Council
  • Susannah Lane, Universities Scotland
  • Dr David Duncan, University of Glasgow
  • Dr Jim McGeorge, University of Dundee
  • Veronica Strachan, Robert Gordon University
  • Rachel Adamson, Scottish Funding Council
  • Lord Mann, UK Government
  • Jewish Students at Scottish Universities
  • Debbie Browett, Scottish Government
  • Steven Paxton, Scottish Government
  • Daniel McCarron, Scottish Government
  • Brian Hirst, Scottish Government
  • Lara Cook, Scottish Government

Items and actions


By way of background, the Minister explained that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills had committed to a meeting with the Jewish student community in response to a letter from the Union of Jewish Students.

The Minister made clear that there is no place in Scotland for any form of antisemitism or religious hatred that makes our communities feel insecure or threatened.

The Scottish Government is committed to listening to the lived experience of Jewish students to inform our approach to tackling antisemitism, and that is why we have facilitated this discussion.

Student experiences

The Minister invited students to share their experiences:

  • during the May 2021 Israel/Palestine conflict, a student expressed to her friends, support for the State of Israel. She was told by her friends that she was a terrorist and a bad person for doing so. The student shared that there are ways of supporting Palestine without being antisemitic. The student was also accused of posting ‘Israeli propaganda’ on social media
  • one student reported a positive experience at her institution but was aware that some students think it is ok to tell antisemitic jokes
  • despite being involved in several student societies it would appear that Jewish people ‘do not have a seat at the diversity table’. Antisemitic remarks are repeated as if they do not count. Jewish friends are afraid to express their identity and support of Israel for fear of a backlash and have highlighted issues of self-isolation and alienation due to fears of discussing their Jewish identity with other students. This fear of expression runs contrary to the ethos of higher education
  • even questioning the antisemitic actions of others is challenged. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism is important in tackling antisemitism and the student was grateful that his institution had adopted it
    The student reported that he had received antisemitic abuse from teachers and fellow students. Antisemitism is racism and racism is learnt
  • affirmative action must be taken and antiracism teaching is an essential part of that. Similarly, there is a need for sensitivity training, to educate about the Jewish people
  • Jewish people want to have a seat at the diversity table and want to work with partners to take this forward. Jewish people seem to be excluded from the narrative on equality. Jewish voices need to be heard and there should be no barrier to their participation
  • micro-aggressions were a common experience. An overseas post graduate student was described by another student as having ‘sleepy eyes’, which is a Nazi term, while in conversation with another post graduate student, reference was made to the ‘Jews in Brooklyn’
  • some Jewish students were told that the IHRA definition of antisemitism should not be used as this allowed Israel to get away with things. There was a need to better explain the IHRA Definition.
  • online antisemitism, with its persistent threats, is damaging to mental health. There is an assumption in such traffic that Jews are racist, immoral and deceitful and are blamed for the actions of the State of Israel

The Minister thanked the students for sharing their experiences.

Universities Scotland, Scottish Funding Council, Lord Mann

The Minister then invited Universities Scotland, Scottish Funding Council and Lord Mann to contribute.

  • Universities Scotland introduced Dr Jim McGeorge, representing the universities’ Secretaries Group. He welcomed the Round Table, thanked the students for sharing their experiences, made clear that antisemitism is unacceptable and reiterated the higher education sector’s commitment to engage with students and staff to tackle it, including the anti-racism commitment made by all universities in 2020. Racism exists and so does antisemitism – Jewish students and staff should feel safe and confident in their institutions. A number of universities have adopted the IHRA definition, others are considering it and others have come to the view that their existing policies are sufficient. As autonomous bodies, adoption is a matter for institutions themselves
  • it is important to engage with the Jewish community and reference was made to the meeting of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) with the University Secretaries Group in November. It is also important to engage with Jewish Chaplaincy, train staff (informed by the UJS Kings College, London pilot) and make sure that Jewish voices are heard, in for example, the shaping of the student misconduct guidelines. Jewish festivals and the contributions of Jewish staff should also be celebrated
  • the Scottish Funding Council thanked the students for sharing their experiences and referred to the resources to help institutions tackle racism that SFC had commissioned Advance HE to develop and published in March 2021. The SFC is looking at enhancements to these resources. In addition, it is looking at how to best develop SFC’s equality outcomes so as to specifically capture the harassment and discrimination experienced by certain groups
  • Lord Mann explained that issue facing Jewish students was not the issue of faith but the issue of ethnicity. He referred to the fall in numbers of Jewish Students at the University of Paris and how many have isolated themselves as a result of fear
  • he emphasised (a) the key role of the Union of Jewish Students, as the Jewish Student representative body and the Jewish Society in working with institutions to tackle antisemitism; and (b) the importance of the IHRA Definition in tackling antisemitism. The Definition does not restrict free speech or criticism of the State of Israel
  • the key issue is about Jewish Students defining themselves as Zionist and this being turned to be a term of abuse. It is concerning that Jewish students are ostracized for simply having a view that Israel is a fulfilment of the Jewish nation’s right to exist. The debate around Palestine should not be framed by reference to the holocaust. Lord Mann would be happy to help in the ongoing work with Jewish students

Open discussion

The Minister thanked the Jewish Students, Universities Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council and Lord Mann for their comments and welcomed an open discussion.

  • antisemitism should not be seen as religious discrimination – it should be seen as racism
  • there are moves to oppose the adoption by the University of Edinburgh of the IHRA Definition around a claims of limiting freedom of speech
  • the definition, however, does allow, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country/state
  • Robert Gordon University (RGU) have not adopted the Definition but rather have created a Dignity at RGU Policy, the aim of which is to create a safe and welcoming environment for all. The Policy includes a definition of micro aggressions. Holocaust Remembrance Day is now a feature in the university calendar. The University invited one of the students to come to the University to hear more and meet students
  • institutional liaison with Jewish Chaplaincy was viewed as being of particular importance. The example from the University of Glasgow was shared whereby the University had adopted the IHRA Definition. The University highlighted the importance of staff and student training, celebrating Jewish festivals, dealing promptly with cases of alleged antisemitism, and sharing good practice
  • it was noted that while it is important to remember International Holocaust Day, it is equally important that action is undertaken in the present to tackle antisemitism
  • the Union of Jewish Students had voted unanimously in favour of universities adopting the IHRA Definition. They viewed traditional Equality and Diversity initiatives as insufficient to tackle antisemitism. Adoption of the Definition gives Jewish students a level of trust in their institutions
  • reference was made to the letter from the then Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, to universities in England asking them to adopt the IHRA Definition. This has resulted in an increased take up of the Definition
  • the Minister advised that the Scottish Government had adopted the Definition and was happy to reflect on communication on this issue with universities. He maintained the importance of ongoing dialogue with the Jewish community on the issue

Next steps

The Minister 

  • thanked everyone for their contribution
  • advised that Scottish Government officials would prepare a note of the meeting and would, with agreement, publish this on the Scottish Government website
  • reiterated that he is keen to work with Jewish organisations and other stakeholders to address the issues raised this evening and revert to the Union of Jewish Students on those
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