As outsider candidates take the lead in elections around the world, the trend of radical populism may be coming to Jewish student politics in the United Kingdom.
The surprise contender in this year’s elections for president of the Union of Jewish Students is Eran Cohen, a veteran pro-Palestinian activist and outspoken supporter of the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement.
The 27-year-old’s candidacy marks something of a departure for a body that has long been a bastion of communal politics, committed to fighting campus boycotts and strengthening students’ ties to Israel.
A senior UJS role has long been a traditional stepping-stone for students considering a future in Anglo-Jewish leadership or mainstream politics.
Cohen, a member of the U.K.’s Jewish anarchist collective Jewdas and a committed diasporist, comes from a very different place, as he makes clear in his three-and-a-half minute campaign video.
Set to the strains of resolutely Diaspora klezmer and liberally sprinkled with Yiddish, it begins with a recap of 1917 and the Balfour Declaration. Now, declares Cohen from a synagogue pulpit in London’s East End, a historic bastion of radicalism, “it’s time for the “Balfive declaration!”
This five-point plan includes a vow to oppose increasing tuition fees – described as a “gneyve,” Yiddish for robbery – and to privilege Diaspora outreach over strengthening connections to Israel.
It ends with a pledge for “Bagels, Dreidels, Socialism.”
“This one is straightforward,” Cohen deadpans. “I shouldn’t have to explain BDS to you.”
Joking aside, he may have his work cut out for him. UJS, which represents more than 60 Jewish societies or J-Socs around the country, is liberal in outlook, supporting a two-state solution and fond of anti-racist and interfaith programs.
Nonetheless, “they’re right-wing compared to me,” he cheerfully admits.
Born in Tel Aviv, Cohen grew up in Kfar Vitkin until the age of 10 and has mostly lived in London ever since.
A Labour party member and third-year biology student, Cohen has fighting experience of union politics from his time working as a medical lab assistant in an East London hospital. He also boasts in his campaign video of being wounded during active service in the West Bank, “so I’m not afraid to put myself on the line for what I believe in.”
This, however, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the time he was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet by an Israel Defense Forces soldier during non-violent protests in Bi’ilin.
Cohen said his own involvement in Jewish activities on campus had been frustrated by a binary approach to Middle East politics.
“You can’t even have a conversation about Israel and Palestine or Zionism and what it means without being shut down. [The JSoc] argues that they are a religious not a political group, but that’s not legitimate when you have Israeli flags [at events] and try to recruit people to go on Birthright.”
This scheme, offering free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults to strengthen their identities, is run through the United Jewish Israel Appeal, one of UJS’s main funders. Jewdas, for its part, has launched a Birthwrong alternative, which last summer went to Andalucía.
So Cohen turned to York’s Palestinian society, where he served as the BDS officer and ran a successful campus referendum to boycott settlement goods. He also produced and acted in the highly controversial Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza and helped organise the annual Israel Apartheid Week, a cross-campus campaign described by UJS as “incredibly hostile and intimidating.”
All this may make his candidacy a hard sell, but he is very keen to argue that there is nothing extreme about BDS, insisting earnestly that Israel Apartheid Week really shouldn’t be a problem.
“Jews here make Israel a central part of their identity, so Jewish students perceive that as an emotional attack on their identity,” he said.
He admits that BDS is not necessarily a straightforward issue, explaining that personal experience makes him unsure about the academic boycott. His third-year project is a study of a genetic mutation among intermarried communities.
“Most of the patients are Palestinian peasants, most of the researchers are Israelis,” he said. “Even if I was fully supportive [of the academic boycott], would I boycott a university or research that would benefit Palestinians? Obviously not.”
So how would he carry out the UJS mandate to actively work against boycotts of Israel?
Since union policy is created by conference not presidential decree, Cohen said he would be happy to submit to the will of the majority, although “I would encourage debate and education within UJS about BDS.”
What’s important, he argues, is that those with non-Zionist views should also have communal representation, citing research by “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group Yachad that showed 31 percent of British Jews did not identify as Zionist.
“In a modern democracy you can’t ignore that as insignificant,” he concluded.
His reading is clearly partial; the same survey showed that 90 percent support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, whether they self-identify as Zionist as not. A further 66 percent are strongly opposed to sanctions being imposed on it.
But many on the left of the community, even if opposed to BDS, have been delighted by his candidacy and see some fun to be had if he gets a good showing in the polls.
“It would be an interesting exercise in the young shaking up the establishment,” said one head of a prominent Israel-related organization.
Indeed, Jewish communal institutions have not exactly covered themselves in glory in recent times. The president of the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s umbrella body, appalled large swathes of the community by rushing to congratulate Donald Trump following his election win.
“I would like to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory,” Jonathan Arkush tweeted just hours after the results came in. “After a divisive campaign, I hope that he will build bridges and ensure that America’s standing as a beacon of progress, tolerance and free-thinking remains strong.”
More than 100 people – including numerous student leaders – signed a furious letter of complaint to the Board, which later issued a clarification.
Community organizations are also consistently accused of unthinking support of current Israeli government policy and failing to reflect Anglo-Jewry’s more progressive views. So perhaps it’s not surprising that those on the far-left of Anglo-Jewish politics are taking the fight to the mainstream.
“It’s a sign of the times that people go to extremes,” Cohen agreed.
And maybe this is why Cohen says that the reaction to his candidacy has been mostly positive. At least, he hasn’t received “more abuse than usual” on Twitter.
“I’m not running for myself,” he points out. “It wasn’t my personal ambition to be president of UJS, but it was needed as so many of us felt isolated or alienated.”
At the UJS hustings he spent hours talking to JSoc officers, which was “very interesting.”
“Very few of them had come across Jews that had these opinions before,” he said. “I learned a lot from them and I hope they learned something from me.”
So could he win? Nomination required candidates to secure support from at least 10 students across five campuses, which Cohen said he had achieved with ease.
The other two contenders certainly seem to have put less effort in their campaigns. There’s a rather parve offering from one Josh Holt, whose video boasts of heading the Board of Deputies’ Israel activism sub-group, while Adam Schapira opts for a Hollywood-style blockbuster parody that fails to include a single campaign promise.
And turn-out is generally very low. Last year was a record showing, with just over 1,100 votes cast in the four-man race. The victor, Cohen said, won by four votes.
So he will be campaigning at JSocs around the country right until voting ends on December 8. His friends will continue to roll out a very active social media campaign, including a further “613” campaign pledges, including lobbying for refugee rights. (Policy number 41: “Being anti-occupation does not make you anti-Israel”).
For Cohen and his supporters, his candidacy already represents a victory.
“Even if we lose,” he said, “we do what we set out to achieve – to encourage a conversation about Jewish identity.”