Interview: Annie Cohen, Union of Jewish Students presidential candidate

Annie Cohen has been called the ‘anti-Zionist candidate’ for leadership of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). rs21 interviewed her about why she’s standing.

Protests organised by the left-wing Jewish group Jewdas, as pictured in Annie Cohen’s campaign video.

Annie Cohen, tell us a bit about why you decided to stand for UJS President.

I’m very involved in Jewish left wing activism with Jewdas*, which has grown incredibly over the past few years. A lot of us are students, and UJS therefore claim to represent us, but most of us (myself included) have never actually joined UJS, mostly because of its stance on Israel.

I guess firstly we wanted to let the establishment know we are here. Over the last few years not being a Zionist has become more normalised and accepted within British Jewish communities, and that’s a really positive change so we want to keep it going.

Secondly, we do want to challenge the work UJS does with aggressively pro-Israel organisations (which make up around half its partners) and in opposing BDS. Life is getting much much harder for Palestine societies and Palestinian students, who are likely to also be affected by Prevent and the new Hostile Environment policies. Antisemitism is often weaponised to silence others, and manipulate the feelings of young Jewish people, and that has to stop.

Thirdly, antisemitism is getting worse. I experienced antisemitism at university last year, and by focusing on BDS and pro-Palestine activity, UJS is not tackling it. Not only is the rising far-right and alt-right presence on campus often being ignored, but by labelling every act of Palestine solidarity antisemitic, actual incidents of antisemitism within Palestine solidarity movements are not dealt with.

We put forward a candidate last year, and this year it’s me! And whether or not I win, we aren’t going away.

The Jewish Chronicle recently described you as the ‘anti-Zionist candidate’, but you prefer the label ‘non-Zionist’. For you, what’s the difference between anti-Zionism and non-Zionism?

I’m a non-Zionist because I don’t support the state of Israel, nor do I support Jewish or any other form of nationalism. However, I say non rather than anti because I think Zionism means a lot of different things to a lot of people, and I think it is often demonised in a way that is unhelpful. In UJS official publications about anti-Zionism, for example, Zionism is defined as a belief in the right to Jewish national self-determination – a right that for many people in the world is still considered fundamental. For Palestinians, Zionism is the ideology that denies them that same right.

Personally, I’m more into radical autonomy than national self-determination, and I think what begin as national liberation struggles almost always end in racist, oppressive states. But I also know that not all Zionists support the state of Israel, and I think it would be helpful if leftists more often referred to the state, rather than the ideology, when opposing it. After all, as in all cases, we should be targeting the ruling classes, not Jewish people in general whose beliefs are often formed by their own experience of persecution. (Just to note, this is a request I would make of white leftists, not of Palestinians, who as I have already pointed out have their own experience of Zionism.)

You mention in your campaign video (above) that a trip you made to the West Bank was formative for you. What happened on the trip and why did you come back a non-Zionist?

Because I saw what was happening. I met children who had just got out of prison, I saw a sick man get held up for hours at a check point by soldiers who were laughing at him, I experienced those soldiers pointing their guns at me when I tried to intervene. I saw settlers spitting on my Muslim friends, and I experienced how impossible life under occupation is, every single day. I had grown up being told that this place was my homeland, that it had saved my family and community from destruction, so the reality was completely devastating.

The trip was the end of a process that I guess was begun for me by Operation Cast Lead, which I think made a lot of people question what was being done in the name of Israeli (and therefore, our) security. It was also at the beginning of a long process of political transformation that wasn’t just about Israel. I was starting to call myself a communist and question nationalism in general.

I can remember sitting on the Mount of Olives after meeting a kid who had been tortured in an Israeli cell, and crying and saying ‘but I can’t imagine a world without a Jewish state’. All my life I had been taught that it was Israel that kept us safe. But seeing what it did to other people, I couldn’t justify that need anymore. A freedom based on the oppression of others is no freedom at all. As I started to look into other ways that Jews have fought for our safety and autonomy, I realised that actually national statehood makes no sense! I don’t think Israel has made us any safer – far from it, and it has drawn us into a battle with other persecuted peoples when we should be standing in solidarity.

As well as non-Zionism, your campaign has mentioned student welfare issues and life getting harder for students – what do you mean by this and how would you seek to challenge it as President of UJS if you’re elected?

Well firstly, going to university is stupidly expensive! I would make sure UJS joined the fight for free education, and more affordable housing for students, and supported Jewish students taking part in these struggles.

The problems facing students aren’t isolated, but are part of the problems facing society as a whole. One thing I’ve spoken about as part of my campaign is mental illness, which I think has reached the point of a society-wide crisis, as life has become so stressful for the majority of people. UJS are already very good at mental health awareness and de-stigmatising campaigns, and both the other candidates have made continuing and improving this part of their own manifestos, which is great. However awareness campaigns are not enough, and sometimes can even make things a bit worse by making mental illness all about the individual, rather than confronting the causes of why so many people are experiencing a decline in their mental health.

I am not sure what it is possible for UJS or for individual Jewish societies to offer, but I would want to make sure that for students suffering mental, physical, financial or any other form of hardship we offer as much real, tangible support as possible. The first thing I would do if elected president would be to look into UJS spending on programmes for students, and see if and where resources could be directed to increase the UJS hardship fund, or to offer other forms of support. I would also improve the advertising of the hardship fund, as I think if you aren’t involved in UJS, as a lot of Jewish students are, you won’t be aware of it or how to apply for it – and all Jewish students are eligible.

How do you think we should fight anti-Semitism today? How does it compare with the struggle against other forms of racism?

Antisemitism is a form of racism and should be resisted like any other, by any means necessary. However, Israel and the blurry line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism make antisemitism a bit more complicated, and this is made worse by the media and by Jewish leadership who unquestioningly support the state of Israel and promote its hasbara (propaganda). For us to fight antisemitism properly, we need a much more nuanced approach.

There are of course many genuine incidents where I believe anti-Zionism is influenced or even motivated by antisemitism, and those need to be addressed, but at the moment it is hard to do so when we have a generation of Palestine activists who have become so used to everything they do being labelled antisemitic. Particularly on university campuses, antisemitism often manifests, in a kind of fed-up-ness expressed towards Jewish students, who are told that all their views are just a result of brainwashing, and hear things like ‘we don’t want to hear about the Holocaust, you talk about it too much’. As someone who has also been called an antisemite by other Jews for my political views I can understand the frustration, but I can also understand the other side. It often feels like the circumstances in which the state of Israel was formed – after the Jewish people were almost wiped out of Europe by genocide – has been forgotten on the left, and in the past couple of years I have got used to having to immediately follow ‘I’m Jewish’ with ‘and I’m not a Zionist’ to avoid hostility in left wing groups.

I think it would be a lot harder for a Jewish Zionist to change their views now than it was for me ten years ago. A lot of Jewish people still experience anti-Israel activity as antisemitic or at the very least hostile – and I do believe that for many people this is still genuine, and so we need to promote dialogue and understanding, which is extremely difficult to do.

I think that Jewish non-Zionists like myself have an important role to play, challenging both the pro-Israel stance of our Jewish communities, and the often hostile and unnuanced anti-Zionism of leftist organisations. While Palestinians should obviously be free to express their own struggle against oppression in whatever language and on whatever terms they want, I do think white leftists could often do more to understand the Jewish point of view and to think about how they express themselves, whilst remaining uncompromising in their support for Palestine.

How do you see your campaign fitting into wider left-wing campaigns and struggles?

UJS is a big union and has a loud voice within the NUS, so a UJS that supported free education, antifascist activity and stopped blanketly opposing BDS would definitely have a wider impact.

If you are a self-identifying Jewish student, you can vote for Annie Cohen or the other candidates for leadership of UJS at until December 8th 2017. You can follow the campaign on Facebook here.

*All links out of text added by rs21.


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