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UJS Elections: Who should get the progressive vote?

Ella Taylor and Bz Gilinsky

2016 is the year of election drama, and if you are a Jewish student in the UK we are by no means done yet. The election for President of the Union of Jewish Students is underway and Adam Schapira, Josh Holt, and Eran Cohen are all vying for the top job. Schapira sits on the right, whilst Holt is best characterised as a centrist, with Cohen attracting the headlines as a candidate from the radical left. This has created an interesting but largely unnoticed dynamic: unlike in previous years, there is no clear centre-left candidate.

A large and growing constituency of Jewish students, progressively minded, liberation-focused and with anti-occupation politics, have no obvious choice. These Jewish students will break either for Cohen or Holt, and with last year’s centre-left candidate losing by just six votes, they could easily decide the election. There is an initial appeal to Cohen’s campaign too. His emphasis on fighting tuition fee rises and rising xenophobia has added substance to an otherwise largely vacuous affair. The abuse he has received is revolting, and his anti-establishment campaign resonates with many on the centre-left, as we, too, are swimming against the tide in many Jewish communal debates.

A vote for Cohen, however, would be a serious mistake. Disingenuous on Israel and dishonest about his own principles, a BDS-supporting president would not serve the campus politics left-wing Jewish students want to see. On anti-semitism his track record disproves his rhetoric, and on liberation and anti-racism too, Cohen’s pitch relies on a misrepresentation of the union he wants to lead. A false prophet of progressivism, Cohen is not the UJS President we are looking for.

It is Cohen’s stance on Israel that has drawn the attention of most. Realising the centre-left vote is up for grabs, Cohen has seemingly moderated his position. But Cohen is not of the politics that inspires us to campaign with Zionish, Yachad, and the New Israel Fund. His claim that he is “just anti-occupation” is disingenuous in the extreme given his support for Israel Apartheid Week and full BDS as campaigns officer at York’s Palestine society. He does not want a moderate, liberal, Zionism, but no Zionism at all. More often than not, pro-Palestine students in Cohen’s tradition want one-state of Palestine and no Israel at all.

Electing Cohen would be wrong not just on principle but tactically too. Progressive Jews who want to shift our community into a tougher stance in support of a two-state solution and Palestinian human rights are consistently undermined by the accusation our politics empowers BDS and those who want to see Israel removed from the map. Cohen will turn this previously baseless accusation into truth, undoing years of hard work the left has done to give anti-occupation politics credibility in the Jewish community.

But let’s put Israel aside. Cohen’s touts his credentials in the fight against anti-semitism, arguing that the most significant threat to British Jews is from the far-right. Regarding wider society he is correct; but this avoids the fact that on campus anti-semitism is almost solely a far-left issue. And on this issue, his is betrayed by his track record. In response to far-left anti-semitism on campus and elsewhere, York PalSoc, of which he is an exec member, advertised a lecture by Jonathan Rosenhead, who believes far-left anti-semitism is a series of fabricated smears, a “monstrous soufflé of moral panic”.

Other instances of Cohen’s hypocrisy on this issue are not hard to find. In a recent video, Cohen argues that blaming Jews for the crimes of the Israeli occupation is clear anti-semitism. And yet, Cohen acted in a production of Seven Jewish Children, a startlingly inflammatory play written in response to the 2009 Gaza War that makes no mention of Israel or Zionism, speaking only in reference to Jews. The jury is still out on whether the play should be categorised as openly anti-semitic. Needless to say, when Cohen starred in the play in March this year, he would have been well aware of its worrying reputation.

Where will Cohen stand when faced with these issues in office? Will he stand up to Oxford’s Israel Apartheid Week advocates who say Jewish experience of anti-semitism is the same as straight men feeling uncomfortable in LGBT clubs? What will he say to Malia Bouattia when she talks about the ‘Zionist-led media?’ Or when BDS campaigners claim that Hamas’ desire to kill Jews for being Jews is legitimate anti-colonialism? Going on precedent, we have no confidence he will be on our side.

There is also much that is disconcerting about Cohen’s approach to liberation in UJS. There is no doubting his commitment to the cause. But his approach to the issue has been to talk down UJS to enhance his own credentials. In a +972 magazine interview, Cohen says with thinly-veiled disdain that UJS has “slowly been changing recently with the attempts at inclusion of LGBT Jewish students and women”. It is a similar story regarding religious pluralism, where in Oxford’s egalitarian facebook group Cohen claimed that liberal and reform Jews are excluded from UJS by those who view them as not ‘properly’ religious.

This is an insult to an organisation that has been at the forefront of these struggles within the Jewish and student community. UJS liberation networks were established years ago, inclusivity training is run with Jewish LGBTQ group Keshet, UJS regularly hosts the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, a recent UJS Liberation Conference was a huge success, and UJS is the most enthusiastic proponent of cross-communalism in the whole of British Jewry. There is, of course, much more work to be done. But champions of liberation should not base their case on a wilful misrepresentation of those who preceded them. Dismissing hours of dedicated work on inclusivity undermines UJS’ liberation efforts, rather than strengthening them.

Cohen has run as a crusader for inclusion and reform, but left-wing Jewish students should see through his shtick. Not a progressive but a radical, his newfound moderation on Israel is a weak charade. On anti-semitism his judgement is poor and he is divorced from the reality of most students’ experience. His commitment to liberation is clear but his dismissal of the fantastic work UJS does is a cheap and cynical campaign trick, designed to push our student union down in order to portray himself as its moral saviour. And whilst there has been a lack of enthusiasm over Holt, left-wing Jewish students need not be downbeat: balanced on Israel, he wants to put inclusion officers on JSoc committees and use the nationwide UJS network to empower progressive campaigning.

The centre-left vote is up for grabs in this election, and many Jewish students will remain undecided. For us, however, the choice is clear.

Ella and Bz are history students at Oxford, madrichim of RSY and Noam respectively, Yachad campaigners, Labour students, and Zionish’s coordinators for 2016-17.

Jewish students can vote in Presidential elections here. If you are not currently a member of UJS, register to vote here

For Liberal Zionists, Israel Apartheid Week is Exhausting

Natasha Spreadborough

Israel Apartheid Week strikes a significant chord with the Jewish community everywhere. As the cardboard, graffiti-covered walls and faux-checkpoints go up around university campuses, so do the leaflets, tweets and Facebook posts about Jewish-Arab coexistence, Palestinian terrorism, “the real Israel/apartheid/take your pick”. On both sides the dialogue is vicious, hateful, and uncompromising. On both sides it involves the wilful distortion of truth and consistent over-simplification in order to put forward one aggressive narrative. Liberal Zionists find themselves stuck in the middle.

Israel Apartheid Week whips up a storm of hatred against a place many of us hold dear, and an aggressive dehumanisation of a population we are often very familiar with. In the manic fervour surrounding IAW events, nuance is frequently lost in any discussion or event. I sat with several Jewish students in the SOAS (University of London) Student Union last year during a debate on the academic boycott of Israel listening to the entire room scream that Israel will be burned to the ground. This is not infrequent during IAW.

This year saw a mock Israeli checkpoint at Cambridge University, with students dressed up in khaki and wielding fake guns. A similar event was held at Leeds University, with one Jewish student reporting feeling threatened, particularly by the Israeli flag armbands the students bore. At SOAS, their yearly cardboard replica of the separation barrier was again erected outside the university, covered with phrases such as “illegal under international law” and “cutting people off from schools, hospitals, food, water”.

This kind of environment is not only painful for Jewish students, but tends to encourage instances of overt antisemitism. It is a week where we see kosher food removed from Student Union shop shelves and Jewish students evicted from student societies on account of their Zionist beliefs. Some Jewish students report feeling endangered, particularly on smaller or more hostile campuses, and are compelled to travel around in groups, or avoid their campus all together.

At the same time, liberal Zionists are forced to wrestle with the points and ideas being aired, and the response of the mainstream Jewish community. Many of us are very aware of the violence and injustice of the occupation, and are actively involved in battling it. As such, we can be uncomfortable with responses from the wider Jewish community which tend to whitewash Israel and deny the problems we know to be true.

Last November I was lucky enough to attend an incredible four-day trip around Israel and the West Bank with Yachad, a pro-Israel pro-peace organisation based in the UK. We were exposed to a wide variety of opinions and realities surrounding the occupation, meeting with Israeli NGOs, think tanks and human rights workers, Palestinian activists, Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and members of the Israeli government. What resounded for us was becoming aware of the depth of violence, injustice and inequality in the occupation. None of us were naive of this before, but many of these things we experienced we’d previously only heard about through the prism of anti-Israel discourse and activism. It’s hard to glean accurate information from organisations committed to one narrative, or to trust people who perpetuate such antisemitism. It is equally hard to deny what you experience as a reality.

Both our own experiences and what we heard first-hand from Palestinians and Israeli human rights workers forced us to wrestle with the label of apartheid. We all, obviously, had very different and passionate view points; but it was not important for us all to draw one coherent conclusion. That is the biggest failing of labelling Israel and/or the occupation as apartheid. The strength of the images and connotations it represents instantly shut down a nuanced and critical approach to the occupation, to the conflict, and to the interactions of Israelis and Palestinians. The situation here is not South Africa; it comes with its own context, history(ies), politics, nationalisms and narratives. That is not to say the occupation does not, in so many appalling ways, resemble apartheid South Africa. But it is something that should be interrogated in its own context, and the suffering of the Palestinians should stand on its own merit.

So what can liberal Zionists do around this time, stuck between the whirlwind of hatred and antisemitism, the injustices of occupation, and the battles of distorted narratives? Engage. Engage with the conflict and the occupation. Engage with each other. Engage with your own ideas and (mis)conceptions. Support those organisations that are striving to do the same thing, on either side of the Atlantic. The Forward wrote back in November about a brilliant guide to Israel/Palestine activism, which I am very enthusiastic about, having worked or currently working with many of the organisations listed. Many of them could greatly do with support – financial or otherwise – at a time when Israel’s left-wing NGOs are under attack. If you are able, participate in their work in the region, and learn more about the nuances of the conflict, and what you can do to help. After a taking part in a similar Yachad trip to mine and becoming aware of some of the injustices of the military court system in the West Bank, a group of British students were motivated to raise money for a lawyer to defend Palestinian children caught in the system, a useful and constructive contribution.

Equally importantly, support each other. Reach out to liberal Zionist friends. Become more involved with liberal Zionist organisations locally. Unite with a large and international community who share your values. For Jewish students on campus especially, IAW can be an emotional struggle. Find ways to consistently remind yourself, and be reminded, that you are not alone.

Israel Apartheid Week is an aggressive battle between two polarised narratives. Despite the elements of truth in both sides, neither achieve anything helpful. There are many more ways to raise awareness of the occupation, discuss the complexities of Israel and the conflict, help Palestinians on the ground, and battle antisemitism without resorting to the kind of hatred we see at this time of year. Liberal Zionists should look to each other and to the organisations and communities engaging helpfully with the conflict. There is great work being done.

What makes a Jewish colonialist?

Carter Vance

Conception is powerful in political discourse. When an image about who a group of people are, what their history is and how they came to be where they are is created, it can take on powerful political implications. This is especially the case when this image fits a pre-defined narrative and it easily slots into an existing moral framework. The image can become too perfect to give up, even if the reality is a more complex beast.

In the discourse on Israel-Palestine, as it plays out on university campuses, on the choppy digital sea of social media and most importantly as lived reality on the ground, these conceptions are more than just idle thought experiments. Conception becomes weaponised, drawing easy narrative analogies of colonised and coloniser, or of nobility and savagery, or of rightful and illegitimate. The fundamental conception which underlies a majority of these narratives is that of who and what a Jewish Israeli is.

Who, then, is the Jewish Israeli? Many view the Jewish Israeli as in some core sense a Westerner, a European, somehow unlike and not “of” the place they now inhabit. This perception is fuelled by the fact that Israeli leadership, both historically and today, tends to be drawn from Ashkenazi Zionists, and that pro-Israel commentators and politicians regularly make claims that Israel is an extension of a collective Western “us”. This is evident in claims that Israel “shares our values” or is an “outpost of democracy”.

On the anti-Zionist left, this image of the Jewish Israeli is combined with a violent history between Jews and Palestinians to render the Jewish Israeli a colonialist of the European archetype. Israel is thus seen as a wholly imperialist imposition on the region, meaning Israel can be neatly slotted in with the broader anti-imperialist project of the global Left.

It is this basic idea (not, as is often claimed, anti-Semitism) which gives BDS-type activism such a sense of moral urgency and legitimacy. Apart from the oft-made comparisons to apartheid, it gives fuel to a claim that Israel is the last remaining colonialist project of the modern era. Israel is “singled-out” for its abuses because it is perceived as a European colonial project, something which other countries, despite their crimes, are not.

However, quite clearly, this conception of the Jewish Israeli does not hold up to proper intellectual scrutiny for at least two reasons.

Firstly, depending on how exactly calculations are performed, either a majority or just under half of the non-Arab population of Israel are not in any sense European. These are the Mizrahi and, to a lesser extent, Beta Israeli Jews who lived in the Middle East and Africa for generations until the former were mostly expelled in the aftermath of the 1948 War, and the latter were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.

On top of this is the fact that it is the Mizrachi vote that keeps Netanyahu in power. Likud’s greater Israel dream is seen as the logical extension of a European colonial project, but that European project is kept alive by Jews with no European origins. Netanyahu’s anti-Arab rhetoric is seen as symptomatic of a colonialist Orientalism, but as Aron Heller notes, Netanyahu’s “hard-line rhetoric taps into Mizrahi disdain for the Arabs who mistreated them in their countries of origin”.

What of the Ashkenazi Jews, who can reasonably be defined as “European” in lineage? An image of these Jews as marauding colonialists is completely at odds with the historical context in which these Jews emigrated to Palestine. Early Zionist settlement was spearheaded by Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, and two-thirds of Holocaust survivors moved to Israel in the aftermath of the WWII. An analytical framework which transforms a Holocaust refugee into Cecil Rhodes is incredibly divorced from reality. But, as mentioned before, the image is too perfect, and the synthesis into anti-colonialist politics too smooth, for the framework to be given up.

It is often said that Israeli society is increasingly evincing a “bunker mentality”, telling the rest of the world they don’t understand the nation’s plight and should bugger off. If this hardening of attitudes is taking place, and there is indeed substantial amount of evidence to suggest that it is, it is not hard to see why. Israel’s foundation is that of a number of groups of traumatized people looking for refuge from their various existential dooms.

None of the preceding should be understood as justifying Israeli actions or policies. A colonial analysis is not the only possible framework from which to criticise Israel, or to legitimate rhetoric against the two-state solution. As other articles on this website have explained, there is a world of difference between explaining mentalities and condoning them. It should also not be understood as denying the trauma of the Palestinian Nabka. Indeed, it is precisely that ignorance of historical trauma which contributes to a sense of undue demonisation and moral superiority on the pro-Israel right. It is merely the case that this ignorance finds its mirror image in many claims of the pro-BDS left, particularly on university campuses.

Left without a humanising understanding of the traumas of the other side, our narratives drift ever further apart and harden ever more. Against this must be an effort at genuine compassion, a real recognition of generational traumas and the hope that our narratives can at least begin to converge. In that convergence, then, we may begin to see a path forward to the shared solutions that today seem more distant than ever.

Think Twice Before Using the Term ‘Zionism’

Noah Lachs and Joel Collick

“Zionists are not welcome here” was the statement released in June by the administrators of NoHeterox**, Oxford’s online forum for the Queer and Trans community. NoHeterox** justified their position “because we are anti-colonialist; we are anti-empire”, before a post called for the expulsion of all “Zios”. On Skin Deep, Oxford’s largest platform for the discussion of racism, Jews have been labelled “Zionist infiltrators” or simply “Zionists” by members when flagging up anti-Semitism. SocialistWorker.org explains how “Zionism = Racism”.

Critics of Israel love to use the word ‘Zionism’. It’s rhetorically punchy, and creates an all-encompassing enemy that all criticism can be focused on. Many unconnected people and organisations use “Zionist” as a catch-all term for everything and anything connected to Israel, or as an insult, or as a synonym for occupation, colonialism, racism, and control.

Where do the pejorative connotations come from? For many, the answers are the Nakba, the Palestinian refugee crisis, occupation, settler expansionism, and so on. These are each topics for discussion in their own right, and all deserve attention. But it is a misinterpretation of Zionism, as well as selective simplification and deep-set prejudice that elicit the kind of statements above.

There are three reasons to be cautious, clear and specific when using the term ‘Zionism’ in discussion of Israel and Palestine.

Firstly, the complete amalgamation of Zionism with all these related and unrelated issues is just factually wrong. It is important to separate Zionism from the State of Israel. Zionism is Jewish nationalism; the belief in the Jewish people’s right to self-determine in the land of Israel. Since 1942, Zionism chose the path of statehood to fulfil these national aspirations, with the State of Israel coming into formation in 1948. It is a state like many other states, with leaders, institutions, and policies.

Railing against Zionism or Zionists in order to criticise Israeli policy, institutions, socio-religious groups, and policy, misses the crucial difference between an ideology that supports the existence of the State, and the subsequent actions of that State.  

Zionism is not actions done by Israel, or a politician who wins just 25% of the vote in Knesset elections. Zionism is not the discrimination and racism experienced by Israeli Arabs, or even Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews. It is not a byword for Palestinian oppression. Many Zionists oppose all these things.

That is not to say Zionism itself is free from analysis. Nor is it to deny that Zionism has historically caused injustices, or that certain interpretations of Zionism play a direct role in Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict today. However it is to say, that if you are using the word ‘Zionism’, be aware that you are not tackling these specific interpretations of Zionism, or just the occupation, or the IDF. It means you are tackling nothing less than the entire basic concept of Jewish national self-determination.

Secondly, Zionism is not a monolithic entity. Zionists do not represent an organized mass conspiracy of malign intent. Zionism, as the broad principle of Jewish nationalism, includes within it a speckled cohort of conflicting voices, independently projecting their own interpretation of what Jewish self-determination should look like.

Many Zionists shudder at the thought of Binyamin Netanyahu, while others venerate him. Zionism can be religious and secular. Some Zionists aspire to territorial maximalism, depriving the Palestinians of a state. Most Zionists don’t believe in this vision and favour a two state-solution. Some Zionists think Israel should give preferential treatment to its Jewish citizens. Other Zionists think this is abhorrent. All these groups claim the mantle of Zionism, as they share a belief in its core principles.

There is a tendency on the left to subsume all of these groups into one, and that one is normally the worst incarnation of Zionism. To extract the least palatable aspects of a broad-church ideology to represent an entire belief system is not only lazy but disingenuous and prejudiced. There is an added irony too, in that by seeking to divide those who support and criticise the State of Israel into ‘Zionists’ and ‘Anti-Zionists’, the left excludes Zionists who are harsh critics of Israel and also desire change.

Thirdly, there is another group which also uses ‘Zionism’ as a catch-all term: anti-Semites. Contemporary anti-Semitism masks itself using the word Zionism. The story goes as follows; the Zionist lobby instructs international policy, the Zionist banks finance it, the Zionist media pumps out propaganda, and Zionist forces execute racist imperial oppression, globally. It is in this vein that David Duke, blamed “the Ziomedia” for falsely reporting that he had endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon attributed Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity to party members’ “fatigue” with “Zionist interventionist wars” – presumably referring to Iraq.

These kind of conspiracies blend dated anti-Semitic tropes with contemporary accounts of Palestinian oppression. It is not only those on the political fringes that are responsible. To quote Liberal Democrat Peer, Baroness Tonge “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party”.

Indeed some portrayals of Zionism reel into the downright disgusting. The Independent published a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby in 2003, reimagining the blood libel slur for the 21st century. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitic tropes coincided recently in the title of Samantha Comizzoli’s documentary, “Israel, the Cancer”. This presentation of Israel as an unassailable far-reaching sickness carries haunting echoes of some of Europe’s worst anti-Semitic propaganda.

Needless to say, to criticise Israel—its government, its policy, its military, and its judiciary; the racism in its society, the settlements, and the occupation; even the conditions and events of its founding—is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

However, if your statement sounds like a Der Stürmer headline with the word ‘Zionist’ substituted for the word ‘Jew’, it obviously carries anti-Semitic overtones. Remember that NoHeterox** statement? “Zionists are not welcome here.”

Whether or not you mean to be anti-Semitic is irrelevant if you’re using language and images of anti-Semitism. Jews shouldn’t have to decode what is political critique and what is vicious hatred. The burden should not be on Jews.

By all means say you’re anti-occupation, condemn the Nakba, and rail against racism in Israel. Critique Zionism itself, if you’re being very specific about what you’re critiquing. But for all three of the reasons above, stop using Zionism as a coat-hook for every Israel-associated grievance, or indeed anti-Jewish sentiment that you might harbour.