An Israeli who supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights is running for president of the UK’s Union of Jewish Students.
A victory for Eran Cohen would be a political earthquake in the UJS, which has long been a stronghold for supporters of Israel.
Its constitution commits it to “inspiring Jewish students to making an enduring commitment” to Israel.
Echoing Israeli government propaganda, the current president of the UJS claims BDS is a way to “demonize and delegitimize” Israel.
Ella Rose, a former UJS president who went on to work for the Israeli embassy, even pledged to “combat BDS.”
In stark contrast, Cohen promises to implement BDS, mischievously dubbing his take on the issue “beigels, dreidels and socialism” in his campaign video, at the top of this article.
A Jewish Jeremy?
In an interview with The Electronic Intifada on Friday, Cohen said the idea first came about in discussion with a group of similarly minded left-wing Jewish activists.
“I didn’t think I would be the person to run,” he insisted. This sounds a lot like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he was first drafted in as the insurgent left-wing candidate in the summer of 2015, and went on to score a surprise landslide victory in the election for party leader.
It is a comparison Cohen resists, saying that Corbyn had a far wider popular movement around him.
Cohen says he was told one estimate for his chances of victory was one-in-eight, which is “the same chance as Trump winning.”
Despite Cohen’s protestations, there is a real comparison to be made to Corbyn, beyond semi-superstitious statements about the strangeness of 2016 – which has seen Trump’s election upset conventional wisdom in the US, and voters in the UK defying polls by voting to take their country out of the European Union.
When Corbyn’s friends on the Labour left decided to run a candidate, they initially saw it much more as a chance to push debate leftwards than a serious bid to take the party’s leadership.
Cohen and his team are hoping to change the debate within the Jewish community.
He cites a 2015 poll commissioned by liberal Zionist group Yachad which states that a quarter of UK Jews support sanctions against Israel while 31 percent define themselves as not Zionist, with another 10 percent calling themselves unsure.
This is “not an insignificant minority,” Cohen observes. “We’ve all had experiences of being alienated, or explicitly pushed out” of university Jewish societies, he says, as well as our “wider communities for our political beliefs.”
“Many are put off joining Jewish societies on campus by their explicit links to promoting Israel,” he has asserted in a campaign press release.
“There’s a lot more of us out there who are in the same situation, their voices aren’t heard, and people don’t even know they exist,” Cohen adds.
“We wanted to fight for our space there,” he says. “Even people who disagree with us are acknowledging that it’s really important that we’re creating discussions.”
Although described as “anti-Zionist” in a campaign press release, and “non-Zionist” in one article this week, Cohen emphasizes the importance of democracy, and says he will not enforce his views on UJS members.
While affirming his personal support for BDS, he has conceded that “it is not currently a policy option for UJS.” He does, however, call for the union to “boycott settlement produce.”
Despite this conciliatory tone, Cohen has been subjected to what he calls “unpleasant” attacks by pro-Israel activists, especially online.
He has been called a “self-hating Jew,” and he says some have even slandered him as “kapo,” a term used to describe Jewish collaborators with Nazis in the death camps.
In a Times of Israel blog, Jonathan Hoffman, former vice president of the Zionist Federation, writes that it is “impossible to overstate the adverse implications of a Cohen win,” adding that “all Jewish students who are not anti-Zionist must register to vote and then vote ABC (‘Anyone But Cohen’).”
Hoffman may fear that Cohen’s candidacy does have the potential to draw in students who, like Cohen, feel excluded from Jewish institutions.
“I didn’t think I would ever have the chance to be a part of the Jewish community again until Eran Cohen stepped up to run for president of the UJS,” supporter Nicci Shall writes, also in The Times of Israel.
Shall says that while she was on a year abroad in Israel, she was “called a terrorist and threatened” for expressing criticism of Israel’s abuses of Palestinians.
Voting for registered Jewish students is open now and closes on 9 December at midday. The results of the election are expected on 11 December.