Connection is the theme for all three vying to be UJS president

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Connection is the theme for all three vying to be UJS president

As Jewish students prepare to go to the polls, Stephen Oryszczuk finds out how the candidates propose to improve the campus experience

UJS Presidential candidates, 2023-2024, left to right, Edward Isaacs, Gavriel Solomons, Abel Keszler.
UJS Presidential candidates, 2023-2024, left to right, Edward Isaacs, Gavriel Solomons, Abel Keszler.

Three candidates for UJS president 2023-24 are winding up their arguments ahead of their last hustings on Sunday, having set out their case to improve the Union of Jewish Students.

They are Ábel Keszler, a final-year psychology student at Glasgow who was born and brought up in Budapest, Bristol politics student Edward Isaacs, and Gavriel Solomons, an Orthodox rabbi’s son studying at Hertfordshire.

Antisemitism on campus has hit the headlines of late. In November, the National Union of Students president was ousted after she was found to have made past antisemitic comments, while this month the NUS’s own internal investigation found that Jewish students had been “subjected to harassment”.

At Bristol University, Isaacs said he was involved in the case against Prof David Miller, who was sacked after making a series of comments, including the allegation that Israel was using Jewish students as “political pawns”.

As UJS president, Isaacs said he would work to create “educational initiatives” for all students in the UK “to understand, recognise, and respond to modern antisemitism”, citing antisemitism from the far-left, but he did not elaborate on what these educational initiatives would be or what age group they would be aimed at.

Solomons, another politics student, said UJS should “not take stances on contentious socio­political issues which can isolate large sections of our community”, listing the organisation’s criticism of far-right Israeli politicians as a result.

His manifesto suggests that UJS allocates a specific Sabbatical Officer to coordinate Jewish societies and students facing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motions, or efforts to stop a university from adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Both Isaacs and Keszler said they would work to improve the experience of LGBTQ+ students, with Isaacs wanting to introduce training with the charity Keshet, while Keszler sought to bring back Liberation Caucuses – networks of students who identify as a minority.

If an overriding theme can be discerned from this year’s UJS presidential contenders, it is one of connection, which may reflect the post-Covid emergence of student life after two years in which connection was largely digital.

Solomons, who says he would like to visit every one of the (roughly 70) J-Socs in the country, wants to increase the connection between a university’s current and past Jewish students, or alumni, while also arranging for large regional events, to and from which smaller J-Socs would get subsidised travel, which Isaacs also offers.

Keszler said he would “provide opportunities for our members to connect, network and have fun with members of other J-Socs,” and help get Jewish students to international seminars “to develop skills to help themselves and their community”.

While Solomons said he would keep initiatives such as Jewniversity Challenge, Isaacs said he would introduce an annual sports tournament for all Jewish societies, and kickstart a Year Abroad network to connect students travelling the world, potentially on their year out.

To foster connection, Solomons suggested regionalising J-Socs and introducing a new newsletter, while both Keszler and Isaacs said they would set up exchange programmes: Isaac’s would be with international J-Socs, and Keszler’s would be in the UK and Ireland.

Keszler, who pioneered the Scottish Jewish Student Summit, bringing together all of Scotland’s Jewish students for the first time, says he would pair J-Socs across the nations and support them “in creating joint events allowing them to connect, learn from each other, and create friendships regardless of location”.

Of the three, Solomons was the most critical of UJS, arguing that in his experience, Jewish students felt “under-represented or neglected” by the organisation, which he said had become less visible on campus over the years. He added that it needed to “realign with its core values”.

The theme of inclusivity was also mentioned by all three candidates, with Isaacs suggesting a “progressive prayer space on campus” and mental health first aid training, while Keszler said he wanted to create a Friday night dinner prayer book, “making them accessible to all religious backgrounds”.

Voting opened on Sunday, when the first hustings took place in Cambridge. The second hustings are in Leeds this Sunday, with voting closing at midnight on 2 February. The result will be announ­ced at UJS Conference on 5 February. Only Jewish students can vote.

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