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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