Meet the 'non-Zionist' Activist Hoping to Lead Britain's Jewish Student Union

For the second year running a candidate touting something other than Zionism is trying her hand at engaging a broader student voice

A still from UJS head contender Annie Cohen's campaign video: "Yes We Cohen!"
Youtube Screen grab

For the second consecutive year, the United Kingdom’s Union of Jewish Students (UJS) has a non-Zionist candidate running for president.

Last year, the surprise runner out of the three contenders was Israeli-born Eran Cohen, a veteran pro-Palestinian campaigner and outspoken supporter of the Boycott Divestment, Sanctions movement, which advocates the boycott of Israel, its institutions and products, culture and higher education.

Although he finished a distant third, Cohen's candidacy alone came as something of a departure for a student role more often seen as a fast track to communal leadership positions.

This year, another pro-BDS Cohen is running to head UJS – Annie Cohen, a 31-year-old student of history and Yiddish at the University of London.

A friend of Eran, and a fellow member of the Jewish activist collective Jewdas, Annie will be courting a student body of more than 8,500 on 60 campuses across the country, and one mostly more concerned with defending than criticizing Israel.

Annie Cohen in the History and Yiddish student's campaign photo.
Philip Kleinfeld

“I hope that there will be people who want to vote for me within the mainstream, but my main target are students who aren’t engaged with UJS,” said Annie. "Those are the ones who are likely to be more excited by my campaign.”

Her dry, self-deprecating “Anniefesto” comes straight out with the fact that she is not a Zionist, while making clear that she’s also not a humorless ideologue. (Her campaign photo features her in a fluffy Pikachu onesie).

In contrast to the self-consciously “look at me” tone of the other two candidates, Cohen’s campaign video is cutely low-tech and understated, with handwritten notelets telling her story to a catchy Yiddish song.

Priority number one is addressing anti-Semitism on campus, particularly on the left, but she argues the best way to tackle through education as well as by building alliances with anti-fascist groups.

“We can demand that everyone stop comparing everything to Hitler, unless they are in a German history class,” she writes.

She wants to partner with groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians, build a more inclusive union as regards both political and religious affiliation, and promises “some epic parties,” which all makes a lot of sense.

Last year, Eran Cohen got 89 votes, coming in far behind the winner Josh Holt with 682 votes. But with just over 1,000 votes cast, “ten per cent of votes for a BDS activist within UJS, which has a mandate to block BDS, isn’t bad,” notes Annie.

Her own view of BDS is that of “broad support for a Palestinian, non-violent form of resistance”, although she acknowledges that some aspects of the movement can be problematic.

“I don’t believe BDS is anti-Semitic although I think it can become a forum for anti-Semitism, realized or not.”

More importantly, she says, the establishment community has become so focused on what she sees as a BDS red herring that they ignore genuine threats, listing a number of neo-Nazi and far-right rallies she claims went unnoticed by the community.

About to embark on a nationwide tour of campuses, Annie said that she had received “a lot of positive feedback from the hustings, there were definitely people who spoke about the effect that Eran had, people were discussing issues of non-Zionism in an open and frank way”.

But there has also been a dark side. “Eran got a lot of nasty messages and got called things like kapo [Jews who worked for the Nazis in concentration camps]. I’ve had a lot of that, often more gendered abuse.“I was once told that ‘my ovaries should be flattened like Rachel Corrie,’” she recalls with bemusement.

Annie’s sincerity can’t be doubted, but she gets rather cross when challenged about the first video she posted as part of her campaign, one about a flagship Jewdas campaign called Birthwrong - “our diasporist alternative to Birthright.”

It’s a delightful initiative that runs tours to places in Europe of Jewish heritage, countering the Israel-centric view of mainstream Jewry. Cohen introduces it as “one of the projects that I’m most proud of.”

But here lies the problem. One of the guests on the 2015 tour was US writer Max Blumenthal, who appears a number of times in the video and is interviewed at the end, although not identified.

Blumenthal, a particularly enthusiastic anti-Israel author who has compared Israel to Islamic State, more recently found notoriety with his work “exposing” the Syrian opposition as part of a Western-backed regime change adventure. Even the citizen first responder White Helmets, he has alleged, are part of this interventionist conspiracy and themselves commit atrocities.

This has somewhat isolated Blumenthal and his ilk even within the pro-Palestinian movement, but Annie is clearly impatient with questions about linking herself with such a figure. His association with Jewdas, she argues, has been “spun and blown out of proportion” and his appearance in the video was not an endorsement, she says.

“He was a prominent journalist writing about Israel-Palestine who wanted to support and promote our trip.”

To her credit, Annie later messaged me to say that she had looked further into Blumenthal’s record after our interview and had asked UJS to take down the video.

But troublesome alliances with people who, for instance, deny war crimes in Syria, is a feature of the wider landscape of left-wing politics.

Annie has no pretensions to political sophistication; she works as well as studies and her team is made up of time-poor volunteers.

Still, her well-meaning insistence that she’s able and ready to represent Zionist students, “though I am not one myself,” is highly unlikely to be realized.

Her argument that Israel doesn’t need to be the defining feature of campus life runs counter to decades of communal work that has coached students as frontline defenders of the Jewish state. But then again, these alternative views seem to be inserting themselves into the institutional mainstream. Next up, maybe a Jewdas candidate for the Board of Deputies, the representative body the activists have lampooned as the “Bored of Deputies.”

She makes a good point that communal bodies not only need shaking up, but also need to represent a political as well as a religious spectrum. Jewish students can only benefit from anarchic voices willing to challenge Zionist orthodoxy with humor and compassion however unsavory some of their fellow travellers might be.