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In Israel's education system, 'democracy' is a dirty word

The Education Ministry seems to be doing all it can to give teachers the feeling that deep, honest conversations about democracy and equality are not welcome in school.

By Gil Gertel

The director-general of the Education Ministry published an amendment to its “Educational Discourse on Controversial Issues” guidelines last week. The reason? To impose restrictions on guest lecturers who come and speak to students. The amendment does not propose any tools for selecting lectures, instead it creates ambiguity intended to frighten principals and teachers. Two studies published over the last few weeks confirm the trend: fear has spread on all levels, from teachers to heads of local authorities, over dealing with humanistic and democratic education. We have reached a point in which democracy is seen as a “complex and explosive concept.” Israeli society is afflicted with a severe anti-democratic disease.

Exactly one year ago, Education Minister Naftali Bennett banned members of Israeli anti-occupation group, Breaking the Silence, from speaking to students. This, of course, was nothing more than spin. In Israel the education minister does not decide who can or cannot enter schools, certainly not by arbitrary declarations against an organization that he dislikes. Bennett knows this, and thus thoroughly examined the work of educators, who for the past year have tried their best to figure out how to please the honorable minister. These professionals cannot make a decision vis-a-vis government bodies — instead they are to establish criteria to filter out those who must not be allowed to enter school grounds.

The director-general’s guide on educational discourse, in its original version, was intended to push teachers to deal with controversial topics. The directive called to remove the barriers of fear, to guide teachers, and emphasize the importance of such discourse. Here is a positive example from the guide:

The goal of this guide is to encourage teachers to hold discussions on questions of personal identity and civil discourse on controversial topics that raise moral dilemmas.

The education system is interested in educating its students to make value-based judgements, to develop a public and political consciousness, to become active on social and political issues, and to take a stand. Thus it seeks to promote a principled and critical discourse, as well as a range of opinions in the framework of civil education that is common to all sectors of society.

The updated version published last week included a paragraph on the entry of guest lecturers:

Ambiguity is...Read More

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Goodbye to the Syrian intellectual who sought to liberate his homeland

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who passed away last week, was a Syrian intellectual of the highest order. He placed a mirror in front of both the Arab world and its tendency to blame the West for all its ills.

By Dror Ze’evi

The Arab states are in trouble. Their citizens are unable to break through the walls of prejudice, they fail to significantly contribute to the intellectual currents of the world, and women and minorities are excluded from taking part in society and the state. Arabs are trapped by ignorance and are exploited by their leaders, which make cynical use of religion. Worst of all: they are trapped in a web of lies that they themselves spun.

No, this is not a quote by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. These words were written in 1968 by Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who passed away last week, in his book, Self-Criticism After the Defeat. Following their shock and failure in the Six-Day War, Arab leaders resorted to various conspiracy theories to justify their defeat by the Israeli army. Few dared to criticize the political order or the cultural norms of the Arab world. Al-Azm was one of the few who dared to chastise the rulers in writing.

Shortly after the war, Al-Azm published Critique of Religious Thought. Facing an authoritarian society, Sadiq criticized the use of religion as a tool for political action, as well as for inflaming the masses. Following the book’s publishing in Beirut, Sadiq and the publisher were arrested for ridiculing religion and inciting ethnic conflict. They both spent time in jail. Sadiq’s books are still banned in many Middle Eastern countries.

Al-Azm was born in Syria in 1934 to the wealthiest, most famous family in the city. His ancestors served as governors in the Damascus district — which then included Israel — in the beginning of the 18th century (their castles were known to be just as large and extravagant as their patrons in Istanbul). Al-Azm, for his part, never cared much for wealth or prestige. Upon finishing his doctorate studies, he returned to Lebanon and taught at the American University of Beirut until he was expelled to the diaspora. As a Syrian patriot he tried his entire life to live in his homeland and tell his fellow countrymen the truth. He was not deterred by persecution or the law, struggled to publish his books in Arabic, and preferred...

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What I'm doing to help the Syrian people

Read up, share information, attend protests, donate to NGOs. This is what we can do to help Syrians.

By Elizabeth Tsurkov

A number of people have asked me what they can do about the situation in Aleppo or Syria. My answer to them is to donate money and spread information about what is happening there.

Although the situation in Aleppo and other besieged areas in Syria is horrifying, donating to these areas means higher prices in a place where there is limited number of goods. Moreover, due to the high prices of goods in areas under siege, the money spent on one meal for a person under siege can be used to pay for for 10 meals in areas not under siege.

I have seen people with good intentions asking others to donate to the “White Helmets,” a volunteer NGO that operates in rebel-controlled areas. It is a worthy organization, and its volunteers are real heroes. But it is also an organization that is well-funded by European governments and large foundations. There are people who are in greater need of your money.

I suggest donating to smaller organizations in order to avoid bureaucracy and to ensure that most of the money will reach its intended target. It is important not to donate to the United Nations or UNICEF, since they have been known to collaborate with the Assad regime. The organizations I suggest below are ones I have personally donated to (I also know people who work for these organizations).

All the NGOS are registered outside of Syria, and it is possible to donate with a credit card:

Karam Foundation — An organization that works in Syria provides aid to refugees both in and outside of Syria. They place a special emphasis on aid to children.

SAMS — An organization that runs hospitals in both Syria and neighboring countries.

Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) — Another medical organization that trains doctors working in Syria.

Hand in Hand for Syria — A Syrian-British organization that runs a number of projects inside Syria, including delivering humanitarian aid.

Beyond that, those who want to help should read about Syria and share information with their friends. As Israelis we cannot do much to change what is happening, but beyond the border there are horrendous crimes taking place. The least we can do is not ignore them. Attend protests — these are very important...

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Why did the Israeli army conduct anthrax experiments on its soldiers?

Ten years after it ended, most of the details of a secret trial that tested anthrax vaccines on Israeli soldiers remain unknown. Who was really behind the experiments, and were they even needed at all?

By Ran Goldstein

A hit TV show, “Taagad,” recently came to the end of its run in Israel. Set in an army medical center, it became a cult hit, to the extent that every currently serving soldier could quote its dialogue. But aside from its popularity, the show also reawakened one of the most serious affairs to have arisen in Israel over the last few decades — an issue that was swept under the carpet, without anyone responsible paying a price.

The affair, which began in the 1990s, involved the testing of anthrax vaccines — the “Omer-2” project — on a group of around 760 soldiers, over a period of eight years. The trial’s organizers exploited the high motivation and innocence of the soldiers, most of whom were attending courses or were at the start of their military service, and whom they approached to participate in secret experiments.

Crucial information was hidden from the soldiers during the recruitment process; they were forbidden from informing their unit doctor about their participation, and most of them didn’t even tell their parents. All this, along with the exploitation of troops that occurs within a hierarchy, completely undermined the informed consent given by the soldiers. The process was so tainted by defects that it’s doubtful whether the soldiers’ signatures can even be considered as agreement.

After the story was aired on investigative TV show “Uvda” in 2007, Physicians for Human Rights began interviewing soldiers who had participated in the trial. We spoke with around 60 soldiers, several of whom reported side effects such as skin problems, intestinal and digestive issues, migraines and headaches, tiredness and weakness.

A central storyline in “Taagad” involved soldiers taking medicines to test their effectiveness in dealing with a sarin gas attack. The trial in the series was instigated by external elements, and it wasn’t clear whether the army knew what was being tested. A pharmaceutical company seemed to be collaborating with people in the army or the Ministry of Defense, for the benefit of Russian entities. The company recruited a doctor who had agreed to cooperate for financial gain, and exploited combat soldiers, who due to their patriotism didn’t ask questions. The soldiers were prepared...

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How the social protests in Israel broke down national borders

While trying to plan a new life abroad following the failure of the 2011 social protests, Regev Contes uncovers a family secret that radically alters his Israeli Jewish identity.

By Mati Shemoelof

Regev Contes’ new documentary film, “Goodbye Adolf,” which recently aired on Israel’s Channel 1, is full of courage and honesty. (Warning: this article includes spoilers.)

Contes, one of the leaders of the 2011 social protests, brings to the screen what we social activists felt after the failure of the protest: how it divided us, how we gave up and surrendered, how we scattered and dispersed to all corners of the globe in search of a suitable home. The film revolves around Contes, who cannot contend with the soaring housing prices in Israel and, contrary to his friends, whose parents are in no position to offer him financial assistance. In other words, Contes is part of the Ashkenazi disadvantaged class. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film.)

In a moment of bitter disillusionment, Contes is resigned to using his last remaining savings from his pension fund. Contes and his wife, Shir Nosatzki, are thus forced to migrate, finding Berlin to be a convenient and suitable location. The only thing that bothers them seems to be Berlin’s Nazi past, and the fear of being a Jewish minority in Germany.

Contes’ film deconstructs the Israeli national imagination — one based on national identity, which views itself as an imagined family meant to provide citizens with food and security. The disintegration of national identity makes clear how class functions in Israel, with the rising cost of living leading to fear and anxiety. But in 2011 we did not fall into the trap of blaming each other for this situation. Instead we refused to believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told us that we should unite in fear against the Iranian nuclear threat or Hamas. In the internet age, we no longer believe the lies of the ruling class as and its right-wing neoliberal government. The 2011 protests changed our collective ethos. The Israeli public learned that the government lies, using spin and media campaigns to mask its corruption and plunder.

Solidarity from the ultimate nemesis

Contes wakes up and realizes that the country is not actually providing him with the answers he is looking for....

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Israel strands Bedouin in their own village

The sudden and unannounced removal of a Bedouin village’s only bus stop, by Israel’s Transport Ministry, has placed the community under de facto closure.

By John Brown*

The residents of Umm Batin, a Bedouin village in the south of Israel, were surprised to discover at the beginning of December that the bus stop they use to get to nearby Be’er Sheva had disappeared without warning or explanation.

When village residents asked bus drivers — after catching the bus from a stop further away — what was going on, they were told that services to their village had indeed been canceled. Instead, they learned, they would have to travel to the nearby town of Omer in order to be able to use public transportation.

Umm Batin, a recognized village of around 5,000 inhabitants, is now under de facto closure for anyone who doesn’t own or have access to a private vehicle. Salameh Abu-Kaf, a member of the Umm Batin council, tells Local Call: “Many residents take the bus every day in order to get to work. Until now we’ve had the stop opposite the village.

“Although it was extremely dangerous to cross the highway in order to reach the stop, we were at least able to get out of the village,” he added. “Now they expect us to walk along the highway to get to the next stop? It’s incredibly dangerous.”

The stop was apparently taken off the route at the instruction of the Ministry of Transport, so that works could be carried out on the Cross Israel Highway, which is supposed to pass through the area. Even if this is the case, however, the Ministry of Transport did not bother to notify residents of Umm Batin in advance, nor to find a workaround solution for them, or even to give them time to come up with a solution themselves.

This is not the first time the bus stop has made the headlines. Last June, high school students in Umm Batin made a short film [Hebrew] in which they protested the discrimination in public transport services available to the village, referring to the same bus stop as Abu-Kaf.

In the film, the students demonstrated the dangers they faced in crossing the highway to get to the stop, with no traffic lights or pedestrian crossing....

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Living on borrowed time: Palestinian village fights for its existence

Threatened with their village’s destruction, Palestinians in Susiya live in a political and psychological limbo. While working, studying and trying to lead a normal life, the residents are also fighting to stop their home from disappearing. 

By Max Schindler

When asked what her family will do if the army demolishes her village, Soraya, 16, hesitates: “We’ll go to Yatta,” she says, gesturing towards the nearby West Bank market town.

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We’ll stay here. Don’t say that.”

It’s a question on the mind of every resident of Susiya, a Palestinian village made up of tarpaulin huts and sheep pens that faces pending demolition, after being razed four times by the Israeli army in the past 30 years.

The embattled, 400-person village has recently attained iconic status in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as both doves and hawks draw lines in the sand over its fate. Supporters of a two-state solution are making a hard-pressed, last-ditch effort to save the village, after years of relentless settlement construction by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Right-leaning Israelis want the Palestinians evicted so they can expand the nearby Jewish settlement, also called Susiya, while Western diplomats drive by weekly in 4-wheelers to the isolated hamlet in the south Hebron Hills, taking case interviews and reporting back to Washington and Berlin about the need for a two-state solution. Other envoys include leftist Israelis and international tour groups who stop by in a show of solidarity.

The groundswell of international attention on Palestinian Susiya is matched by the Israeli government’s spotlight on the Jewish settlement of Susiya. In a symbolic gesture, Israel’s hawkish defense minister Avigdor Liberman chose to visit the settlement of Susiya on the first day of Israel’s school year in 2016. Defense ministers do not typically visit schools, let alone give speeches to them. Liberman hunched in the doorframe of a class and spoke of the rights of settlers to live in the West Bank — making no mention of their Palestinian neighbors.

With the election of Donald Trump, diplomats and journalists who document Israeli human rights violations may be in for a rude awakening. The president-elect’s main Israel adviser, Jason Dov Greenblatt, once lived in a nearby West Bank settlement and served as a combat soldier there.

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How to whitewash the killing of two Palestinian teens

Video and forensic evidence didn’t stop the Israeli authorities from failing to properly prosecute the killing of two Palestinian youths at a Nakba Day protest in 2014.

By John Brown*

The Israeli state prosecutor will shortly sign a plea bargain with Border Police officer Ben Deri, who is on trial for killing Palestinian teenager Nadim Nawara in the West Bank town of Beitunia in May 2014. According to the deal, Deri will be charged with causing death by negligence, rather than manslaughter. As such his punishment will likely be symbolic, perhaps even just community service. Under the terms of the plea bargain, the indictment will say that the live bullet which killed Nawara “worked its way” into Deri’s rifle magazine, which was not supposed to have contained any bullet casings.

Nawara, 17, was shot and killed on May 15, 2014, during a Nakba Day protest outside Ofer Prison, next to Beitunia. Muhammed Salameh (Abu al-Thahir), 16, was also shot dead. Neither were posing any threat when they were shot — Salameh was shot in the back — nor was anyone throwing stones in their vicinity. The Israeli army claimed that the teenagers were shot with rubber-coated steel bullets during a violent riot, while then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that IDF soldiers had been in danger. Israeli news site Ynet went so far as to add that it was being checked whether armed Palestinians had opened fire “in the Qalandiya area,” which is adjacent to Beitunia. However, thanks to footage of the incident captured on CCTV, along with the autopsy on Nawara’s body, it quickly became clear that the IDF’s claims were incorrect and that the two youths had been killed by live fire.

The surprise in this case is not how dramatically the indictment has been scaled down, but rather that the file progressed to charges at all, despite the IDF’s attempts at whitewashing. These included, among other things, the Binyamin brigade commander’s investigation which claimed that no live ammunition had been fired during the protest. But two further pieces of footage documented the shootings, refuting the claims that there had been no live fire and that the first piece of CCTV footage to be released was fabricated.

Unfortunately for Ben Deri, the army and military analysts, CNN released footage that clearly showed soldiers...

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Welcome to Netanyahu's Westworld

Israelis have a choice: they can either oppose the occupation or watch the Right turn their country into a sadistic theme park.

By Alon Mizrahi

‘Westworld’ is a new science fiction television show that revolves around a futuristic amusement park populated by androids. Westworld caters to high-paying guests who can do whatever they wish within the park, without fear of retaliation from the hosts. In Westworld neither morals nor the law prevent humans from acting on their often sick desires.

Under the ruling Likud party, Israel is becoming a kind of Westworld. Our amusement park includes two groups: rich, powerful guests, and residents who aren’t real humans — they exist only to allow the guests to turn their frequently sick whims into reality.

If you are not a right-winger in the low, violent, ignorant sense of the word, you are not one of the guests. Your blood, respect, and property are for the guests to take. You are an android, and the purpose of your existence is to take part in an experiment designed to demonstrate how you react to humiliation and fear.

If you are an Arab citizen of Israel, the state has never truly recognized you as a human and your position in society has not significantly changed under Likud rule. But if you are a Jewish Israeli who once thought that only one group plays the role of the androids, who never thought that this sadistic worldview could affect him, the only thing I can say is this: welcome to the extreme right’s amusement park.

The Mapai myth

The myth of Mapai, the predecessor of the present-day Labor Party, goes as follows: once upon a time Israel was controlled by mean, avaricious Ashkenazim who oppressed everybody. Now we’ll hit back at anyone who resembles them, or anyone we want. Because once upon a time we were the victims, so it only makes sense that we hit back.

I want to propose a very clear difference between Mapai’s regime and that of Likud: Mapai built up political power, often in an exaggerated and corrupt fashion, stemming from a cultural worldview that promoted a progressive and just society of Jews in their historic homeland, during years of difficult challenges. Likud is building political power for the sake of political power during years that Israel’s existence is unchallenged. Its ideology is power, it practices chutzpah and unruliness, and humiliates those who...

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Meet the women shaking up Israel's ultra-Orthodox community

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community has been experiencing tremendous changes, all led by women, over the past few years. At a recent conference, a group of Haredi women spoke about the personal price they pay, and the chance we could one day see them in the Knesset.

By Eli Bitan

In mid-November, women from the organization “Nivharot” (“chosen” or “elected” in Hebrew) held a conference in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim quarter. It was attended by activists in the ultra-Orthodox community, both women and men, who are struggling to ensure Haredi women have the right to run in the next elections under the slogan: “Not Elected — Not Voting.”

Already in the months preceding the conference, which was designated for leading activists in the social struggles within the Haredi community, the breakthrough was clearly visible. The struggle had repeatedly been declared as having no chance of success by ultra-Orthodox men who control the Haredi parties. What started as an esoteric campaign eventually become the subject of one of the most intensely debated issues within the Haredi community.

When Nivharot was founded two years ago, its members chose Sara Shnirer, a prominent educator and the founder of “Bais Yaakov,” the Haredi educational network for girls, as its symbol. Shnirer is viewed as a trailblazer for Haredi women, despite often fierce opposition by politicos and rabbis, which eventually turned into enthusiastic support. The Haredi myth about Shnirer glosses over her early years, during which she took on the rabbinical establishment, which did not see eye to eye with her about the need for women’s education. Instead of dwelling on this period, it has become customary to extoll the wall-to-wall support she enjoyed in later years. Choosing her as a symbol for Nivharot brings the early years back in focus: this is how Shnirer started off, the rest will eventually join.

A petition submitted to Israel’s High Court of Justice by women’s organizations against the bylaws of ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party, which prevents women from running in elections, is still pending. The three Haredi parties — Agudat Israel, Degel HaTorah (which ran jointly with Agudat Israel under the United Torah Judaism alliance), and Shas — created, before the recent elections, the “women’s council,” headed by Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Shas party, who died in 2013. During her keynote speech at the Nivharot conference, Bar Shalom announced she would run for the Knesset in the next parliamentary election, presumably not as a candidate of Shas.

Facebook boycott

In addition to the petition to the High Court, there are other...

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Settler violence and IDF collusion deny Palestinians the fruits of their harvest

Stolen fruit, destroyed trees and harassment by the army and settlers wreak havoc with the yearly olive harvest, an essential source of subsistence for West Bank Palestinians.

By Yossi Gurvitz, for Yesh Din

“The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up” (Deuteronomy 28:33)

“I’ve been taking care of my trees for 31 years. These are my trees, I planted them, they’re like my children,” says Ali Taher Ali Salah. He is standing in his toy shop in the village of A-Sawiya, watching the children coming and going, buying toys that cost a shekel each. Not far away, near a military base, are his olive groves. We visited him at the height of the olive harvest season in early November. Palestinians rely greatly on the olives and the oil they make from it for their livelihood. Some two months ago, before the official beginning of the harvest, Salah saw children — not much older than the ones who frequent his store — stealing the fruit from his trees, filling one sack after another. “I see them harvesting the olives, putting a sack under the tree. Can you imagine how hard it is for me to see someone else harvesting my trees, and I can’t walk over to him and ask ‘what are you doing?'”

Salah’s grove is located next to another grove that had been looted two weeks earlier. In this case the police arrived on the scene, but made it too late. In Salah’s case, the cops caught the minors red-handed and returned his olives to him, but the case against the thieves was closed due to their young age.

As far as Salah is concerned, the legal side is less important. The impotence by which a person sees his labor stolen before his eyes and can do nothing about it repeats itself time and again. “This should be difficult for me, but also for the State of Israel,” he says.

The latest information sheet we published regarding the olive harvest shows that the State of Israel does not care all that much. The military authorities claim they will permit the Palestinians to harvest their groves “until the last olive” — a policy they are beholden to by a High Court of Justice ruling handed down in the Murad case (Read More

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I'm Israeli, and I want to be blacklisted for boycotting settlement products

I don’t know what sanctions the Israeli government can impose on me for boycotting products made in the settlements, but I’ll accept them proudly.

By Eitan Kalinski

Israel’s Minister for Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, this week recommended to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon that a special committee be set up to put together a blacklist of companies, organizations and individuals that call for a boycott of products made in West Bank settlements.

I, the undersigned, am not a limited company nor an organization; I am a private individual who has personally undertaken not to buy products from the settlements.

It’s written in the draft regulations sent by Erdan to Kahlon that sanctions will be placed on anyone who commits not to buy products and services from “areas under Israeli control.” It would be my honor to make the list: in my opinion, it’s a respectable whitelist of citizens who recognize the right of the Palestinian people to establish a state of their own alongside the State of Israel.

I don’t know which sanctions you could place on me, a citizen who is on the threshold of his ninth decade. But I guarantee you I will proudly accept any sanction that the Treasury decides to impose on me, because I am determined to continue not buying products made in the settlements.

Eitan Kalinski is a retired Bible teacher. This article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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Meet the radical Israeli looking to lead Britain's Jewish students

A radical, left-wing British-Israeli has shaken up the race for the next president of the U.K.’s Union of Jewish students, and drawn international media attention. Eran Cohen talks BDS, diasporism, and being wounded by unfriendly IDF fire.

By Matan Kaminer

The election campaign for president of the U.K.’s Union of Jewish Students is not the kind of story you’d expect to be picked up by the international media. But Eran Cohen, a British-Israeli and a radical leftist, is not your usual kind of candidate, and his campaign has generated headlines in Jewish outlets in the U.S. and Israel.

With political views seemingly at odds with that of the wider British Jewish community — traditionally conservative in its outlook, particularly when it comes to Israel — Cohen may seem like a long-shot for the UJS presidency. He is, after all, a BDS supporter, albeit with a more nuanced take than some reports have suggested, and has participated in anti-occupation demonstrations in the West Bank. But this is 2016, and nothing seems impossible — especially not the collapse of common-sense consensus politics in the face of challenges from the Left and Right.

Moreover, as a U.K. poll released last year shows, there may be fertile ground for at least some of Cohen’s message: fewer Jews are identifying as Zionists, most believe peace with the Palestinians should be Israel’s top priority and three-quarters believe settlements are a major obstacle to such peace.

Perhaps this shifting climate is why the representatives of mainstream Jewry in the U.K. seem to be pulling out all the stops, including lame puns, to stop his insurgent, hilarious meme-fuelled campaign. I spoke to Eran in the final leg of his campaign to talk BDS, diasporism and the state of U.K. Jewish politics.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I’m from Kfar Vitkin, a third generation socialist family, and we emigrated just before the start of the Second Intifada. I came back when I was 18 to do my service in the infamous Anarchistim Neged HaGader [Anarchists Against the Wall] unit where I saw combat. Other people’s combat, but still. In the course of a routine operation I was wounded by unfriendly fire from IDF personnel.

What is the UJS? Is there anything in its history that indicates that it might be a good vehicle for progressive or radical ideas?

The Union of Jewish Students...

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