The politics of the UJS (Union of Jewish Students)

These BDS-Supporting British Jewish Students Are Changing Their Community

Joseph Finlay, Forward
7th December 2017

Israel is a controversial issue in Britain and Jewish students are feeling its ramifications.

A reply by David Davidi-Brown, the CEO of the Union of Jewish Students follows below. A response to that is anticipated shortly.

The British Union of Jewish Students, the sole body that exists to represent Jewish Students in the UK, has always run social and religious programming. But its raison d‘etre has long been defending Israel on campus.

Since Zionism became hegemonic amongst British Jews in the 1950s and 60s, and since Zionism became controversial in Britain in the 1970s, UJS has been firmly Zionist, devoting its energy to combatting anti-Zionist motions and campaigns at both campus and national levels. Candidates for UJS president have historically taken this a given, which meant that they were unable to run policy campaigns – the policies would be the same. Instead, they tended to run on personality.

But in the last two years, something has changed. In an exciting development, students are standing for elections who represent not the majority of the British Jewish community, but rather its changing nature.

Both this year’s and last year’s elections have included candidates with policies diametrically opposed to those traditionally taken by UJS. Eran Cohen, who contested and lost last year’s election, and this year’s contestant, Annie Cohen (no relation), are explicitly non-Zionist. This means that the two Cohens reject the pro-Israel policies that are axiomatic for most UJS candidates, and indeed for most British Jewish institutions.

Eran Cohen based his campaign on a five part plan that included focusing on Diaspora outreach over connecting with Israel. He called it the “Balfive Declaration”, a parody of Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary who first tied Britain to a pro-Zionist stance in 1917. He was also explicitly pro boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel. He put out a BDS call, but for “Beigels, Dreidels and Socialism”, implying that his advocacy for a boycott of Israeli products was tied to a diasporist form of Jewish identity..

Annie Cohen’s manifesto calls for UJS to affiliate with Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the UK equivalent of Jewish Voice for Peace. She also demands that the Union ‘stop sidelining anti-Zionist, non-Zionist and Zi-curious students’.

Both have run energetic campaigns, backed by activists from Jewdas, the anarchic British Jewish collective that has been organizing parties and protests since 2005.

Neither of the two Cohens represents a majority of British Jewish students. Eran Cohen received just under 10% of the vote last time, and Annie Cohen is likely to do similarly — although the London based Jewish News has warned of the possibility of an upset, reminding readers that the notion of radical socialist Jeremy Corbyn being elected Labour leader was once totally laughable.

What is interesting is that these candidates are on the ballot paper at all. At one level, it is due to the fact that the Union is actually pretty democratic, allowing any candidate with ten nominations to stand. Policy is decided equally democratically, at an annual general meeting in which everything is up for grabs.

Such campaigns would be far less likely to occur with the Board of Deputies, the supposedly ‘representative’ body of British Jews, as only the 200 or so Deputies have a right to choose the President, and the methods of electing the deputies are pretty questionable. Nor could it occur with Hillel International, whose board of Directors is appointed rather than elected, thus leaving its anti-BDS ‘Standards of Partenership’ policy immune to democratic challenge.

Just as interesting is that there are students willing to run these radical campaigns. Given how far their politics are from the current positions of UJS, it would be far easier for them to disengage from Jewish student life altogether and campaign for Palestinian rights through the many campus Friends of Palestine societies.

But their Jewish identities are sufficiently strong for them to refuse this path, choosing to fight within UJS and try to convince Jewish students of their positions.

This, while challenging, is not impossible. Both Cohens have been strong on other areas important to Jewish students, taking a tough line on anti-Semitism, calling for UJS to campaign for free education, to fund mental health services and to give bursaries for Jewish students in financial need. At a recent town hall in Manchester, Annie Cohen promised to “review UJS finances in order to divert funding away from Israel tours to student welfare services and hardship grants”.

Indeed, rather than an aberration, the existence of students like this may reflect changes in the Jewish community in Britain in recent years. Jewdas has created space for radical Jews to meet, practice Judaism, and organize politically together. As a result, Jews who take non-Zionist or socialist political positions feel less isolated from the community and more in touch with their Jewishness.

At the same time, the organization Yachad has created a space particularly for young people who wish to express criticism of Israel within a Zionist environment. Though loosely aligned with J-Street, Yachad is in reality significantly more radical, campaigning on issues of house demolitions and military courts in the occupied territories.. Yachad has created a significant political space well to the left of Zionist organizations like the Jewish Leadership Council, the British equivalent of the Council of Presidents, while at the same time being seen in the community as “kosher”.

In parallel to these developments there has a been a growth in right-wing Jewish organizations, in particular the proliferation of regional “Friends of Israel” groups that eschew more nuanced defenses of Israel in favor of full throttled support for Netanyahu’s agenda.

In other words, British Jewry is turning into a less coherent community; left-wing organizations like the Jewish Socialist Group have existed for decades, but only now is there is a serious push by radical organizations to fight within existing communal structures, forcing mainstream bodies to take them seriously.

Perhaps we are moving closer to the US Jewish Community in which public debates between the likes of AIPAC, J-Street and Jewish Voice for Peace are simply the norm

Much ink has been spilled on the issue of left-wing anti-Semitism in the UK in recent times. But many of the arguments over anti-Semitism, and the extent of it, actually reflect arguments in the Jewish community itself; over questions of what being Jewish means, of whether we define ethically or religiously, of whether or not we remain an oppressed minority or whether we, as a community, have become privileged and prosperous.

These UJS campaigns are part of those ongoing arguments, none of which are likely to be resolved any time soon. Despite their shock value, Annie and Eran’s campaigns in fact bridge both sides of the debate, simultaneously acknowledging the ongoing reality of anti-Semitism and the existence of Jews who are poor and underprivileged, while realizing that British Jews are collectively strong enough to help other groups, particularly migrants and British Muslims, who suffer so much ongoing Islamophobia.

Even if their chances are slim, these candidates are opening up difficult but necessary debates within the British Jewish community. For that, they should be celebrated.

Joseph Finlay is a writer and musician. He was formerly Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and writes on politics, Judaism and culture.

Our Campus Jewish Group Accepts Pro-BDS Students, Even Though They Don’t Return The Favor

David Davidi-Brown, Forward
14th December 2017

Last week, Joseph Finlay wrote in these pages about new developments in the British Union of Jewish Students, the body that represents Jewish Students in the UK and of which I am the CEO. “[UJS] has always run social and religious programming,” writes Finlay. “But its raison d‘etre has long been defending Israel on campus.”

Finlay celebrated the contributions of a handful of BDS supporting Jewish students, whose efforts Finlay writes have expanded Jewish student life beyond defending Israel.

I welcome Joseph’s comments on UJS’ openness and robust democracy. I agree that this year and in Annie Cohen particularly students who express non-Zionist Jewish identities have contributed to our unified, not uniform, Union of Jewish Students.

That said, the suggestion that UJS’s “raison d‘etre has long been defending Israel on campus,” as Finlay suggests, or that it is the recent involvement of BDS supporting students that has pushed it beyond that, is pure chutzpah.

Throughout our near one hundred years leading, defending and enriching Jewish life, our diverse and dynamic leaders have played a significant role in broader campus and civic life. In the ‘70s, UJS was at the forefront of kicking racists and fascists off campus. In recent years, our efforts to ban the neo-Nazi group National Action preceded the UK Government proscribing them as an extremist terrorist group. In the ‘80s, we were one of the first diaspora Jewish organisations to support mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. This has continued with various campaigns such as Bridges not Boycotts, offering intelligent and informed discussion of Israel and Palestine and taking students from a range of backgrounds to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

In the early 2000s, two students — one Orthodox-affiliated and the other Reform — came together to launch Bagels, a space for LGBT Jewish students. A few years later saw the establishment of three Liberation networks for marginalized Jewish students, including women, LGBT and Disabled students, and an annual Liberation conference was established. Our campaign Reclaim, now in its third year, empowers students experiencing mental health challenges to take the lead in tackling the stigma around mental health.

For five years, Jewish students have raised awareness of the need for more ethnic minority bone marrow donors, signing up over 200 potential lifesavers in partnership with Anthony Nolan. UJS were part of communal efforts to respond to the Darfur genocide, and in last year’s presidential election it was the Orthodox Zionist candidate who made supporting refugees a key priority. Despite the fact that he did not become UJS President, his efforts are part of increased work on this issue, including clothes collections, rallies, teaching English to asylum seeker children and at our 2017 annual conference committing UJS to join the campaign to re-open the Dubs amendment.

To insinuate that only BDS supporting students can deliver broader and more progressive campaigns and conversations is misguided, misleading, and incorrect. The inspiring and impactful work highlighted above has been passionately led by Orthodox, Masorti, Reform, Liberal, secular, and Zionist students found across the political spectrum.

Rather than expressing genuine interest in the varied concerns of Jewish students, Finlay and some of those he champions are engaging in BDS virtue signaling. It’s especially hypocritical to commend their opening up of Jewish student life, given the contrast with how Zionist members of UJS are open to views from a movement that is anything but open to dissent. Campaigners within the BDS movement have sought to stop Israeli speakers at UK campuses, even those who are the most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. There have been attempts to deregister Jewish students unless they commit to a narrow expression of Palestinian solidarity. Following the Chicago Dyke March, it was the members of Jewdas themselves who highlighted the folly of banning expressions of Jewish identity that have endured for thousands of years before there was a State of Israel.

In two consecutive UJS presidential elections, over 90% of an average 1000 voters chose proudly Zionist candidates. The 2011 JPR National Jewish Student Survey found that 72% that being Jewish is about supporting Israel, so it is unsurprising that almost all of our members proudly and passionately express multifaceted relationships with Israel. And still, they find room in their community for non-Zionists like the two Cohens Finlay describes.

After recent activity that has mainly featured satire and stunts, it was constructive to see the students Finlay commends bringing forward a motion to UJS Conference that called on UJS to better include non-Zionist and anti-Zionist students. UJS will work hard to do so in our educational activity and support for Jewish societies on campus.

Broadening the range of voices in our union is no barrier to passionately campaigning on positions held by the overwhelming majority of Jewish students. We will broaden our horizons with far greater openness to ideas that we disagree with than the BDS movement does.

David Davidi-Brown is the CEO of the Union of Jewish Students and currently on the Schusterman Fellowship. David helped set up Keshet UK’s school and youth programme and is a trustee of the Jewish Youth Fund.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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