Meet the pro-Palestinian student running to lead Jewish students in Britain
He’s been called the ‘Jewish Jeremy’
The Union of Jewish Students exists to represent all Jewish students in the UK and Ireland. Eran Cohen is an undergraduate student at the University of York hoping to become its next president, but his candidacy is anything but typical.
Eran is an Israeli-born student who identifies as a “pro-Palestinian, non-zionist” activist and supports the boycott of Israeli products. Sufficiently intrigued, The Tab caught up with him to find out more about the latest unconventional campaign shaking up 2016.
Why did you decide to run for UJS?
I decided to run for UJS following a discussion with a big group of like-minded students, where it became clear that while our voices are marginalised, our numbers are not marginal. We knew from experience and from available statistics that there are substantial numbers of Jewish students who care about opposing the Israeli occupation, who care about rising university costs. And, especially now that Brexit and Trump have emboldened the far-right to air their views publicly, we know that the majority of Jewish students are extremely worried about racism and anti-Semitism. Many of us had been involved in the UJS in the past and were unhappy with its total silence on issues which it had been mandated by its conference to act upon – for example supporting the NUS’s #cutthecosts campaign. So we felt that it was time we stand our ground and get some representation in what happens to be the only democracy in the UK Jewish community.
You’ve described yourself as a ‘pro Palestinian, non-Zionist’, would you say that makes you an unlikely candidate to run for this position?
Very unlikely, and that’s intentional. Although I don’t consider supporting equal human rights for everyone and opposing nationalism to be “extreme”, my views are seen as such by many in the British Jewish community. We felt that my candidacy would bring the conversation to a place that, while making some people uncomfortable, would also allow for a more honest and constructive discussion that can include everyone on the political spectrum. And apart from a few enraged adults outside the student community, that’s mostly what we’ve seen: Jewish students engaging with us and with each other in productive and open-minded ways. 2016 has been the year of the underdog and the protest vote, so I’d say my chances are good.
In what ways is your campaign different to the others being run?
Our campaign started off because we have a lot to say, so I think it is more frank and content-based. Whilst there are some brilliant ideas from the other candidates (such as the women’s leadership program), our campaign avoids buzzwords and name-based puns and focuses on real policies.
We’ve made very concrete proposals about how to oppose tuition fee rises (for example a concerted boycott or sabotage of the National Student Survey), what to do to combat racism and anti-Semitism effectively, and how to critically engage with Israel over its continued, brutal occupation of Palestine.
We’re all about bringing marginalised voices to the fore and using effective methods to achieve our goals, the UJS isn’t just a step along the careerist ladder for us. We want a movement, not a job.
What are some of your best policies?
My favourite one so far is probably our interfaith policy. From a religious perspective, interfaith dialogue is really interesting and can give us new ways of interpreting our texts. From a community perspective, it strengthens the understanding and mutual respect between communities that are often seen as being at odds with each other. So our promise to deliver mind-blowing interfaith that will make everyone come together is my favourite policy so far.
Another one is our criticism of Israel. I’m an Israeli who is opposed to occupation and apartheid, and I want to see my country become the amazing, beautiful place I know it can be. I support BDS because I think it’s the only practical method that ordinary citizens can use to affect the decisions of the Israeli government (who, let’s face it, is holding all the cards in peace negotiations, and has no real incentive to take seriously the prospect of compromise). Having said that, I recognise that most Jewish students are uncomfortable with BDS. Presidents can’t do what they like, they are mandated by conference, so if conference won’t mandate me to support the boycott movement through UJS then I can’t, and won’t, do that. But I won’t stop trying to convince people either.
There are a lot of concerns about Malia Bouattia and anti-Semitism in the NUS. What would you do about that?
Malia is guilty of using the same lazy and bigoted language that many on the left reach for, the language of conspiracy, phrases like “Zionist-controlled media”. However, I think that if we don’t distinguish between ideological racism and a racism borne out of ignorance then we are being dishonest and ultimately shooting ourselves in the foot; we will fail to face up to the real enemy. According to the CST’s 2016 report, 72% of politically-motivated anti-Semitic incidents come from the far-right, while 24% came from anti-Zionist sources. All of these should be taken seriously, however by focusing so heavily on anti-Zionism we are allowing the vast majority of anti-Semitism to go unchallenged. I know from personal experience that there is a tiny, vile minority of anti-Semites in the BDS movement (it makes sense to them: “Israel is Jewish, we hate Jews, therefore we hate Israel”), and they have been opposed and shut down again and again. But the real enemy of Jews is the far-right, and always has been.
I would work with the NUS and Malia, and I would critically and unashamedly call out her or anyone else for anti-Semitic language and behaviour. I find it hard to believe that anybody who campaigns so hard against other forms of racism is ideologically anti-Semitic, so I think that Malia would be open to personal, sincere discussion and correction.
What would you say are some of the biggest problems facing Jewish students right now?
I think the biggest problems facing Jewish students are the same ones facing all students in the UK. Rising xenophobia and racism affect us all, and fascism is inimical to education and academic pursuit; it thrives off ignorance. The attack on education as seen in the Higher Education Bill, in the proposed Teaching and Excellence Framework, threatens to lift the fees cap and turn universities into marketplaces (to a greater extent than they already are). The sort of reforms set to take place have been devastating to the NHS and public transport system, there’s no reason to believe they will work in academia. Jewish students are not separate from the rest of the student population; our interests are the same and we must work together to maintain them.
You can find out more about Eran’s campaign here.