Two Israelis in their 20s — alumni of the same university and living in the same city — are in a head-to-head race for the leadership of the resurgent World Union of Jewish Students.
Formed by poet Chaim Bialik and psychologist Sigmund Freud among others, the organization was once considered a powerhouse, able to harness the collective power of thousands of young Jewish students. After losing relevance over several decades, the body has recently U-turned and is now en route to restoring much of its influence.
In running to lead the WUJS, the two candidates have latched onto those heady days of yore.
“Albert Einstein was the first president [of WUJS] back in 1924,” Liron Politzer said, explaining the tradition and prestige he wants the group to regain.
When Natan Sharansky was released, he met the group’s leadership, Chaya Esther Pomeranz stated, emphasizing the need for “Jewish students to always be at the forefront” of global issues.
On Thursday the WUJS congress will choose between the two young Israelis for president. Both candidates “are looking to continue, and are capable of continuing, the organization’s renewed growth,” outgoing president Oliver Worth told the Times of Israel.
Besides Einstein, over the years the presidency of the group was held by a number of household names, including Israel’s sixth president Chaim Herzog and world-renowned author Amos Oz. In recent telephone interviews, Pomeranz and Politzer told the Times of Israel how they became involved with the organization, what they believe it should do, and why they want to head it.
“My whole life is an Israel-Diaspora thing,” Pomeranz said. Born in California, the 24-year-old graduate student lived in Jerusalem for the first couple of years after moving to Israel with her family at the age of two before moving to Efrat. “I’m in a unique position to act as a bridge,” she said. “I’m a religious woman who grew up in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria” — she used both terms — “and I’m on the liberal-left on everything not Israel-related. I have my own views about those topics, but my background gives me the middle ground.”
Both candidates point at their childhood experiences as having influenced their world views and agendas. While Pomeranz’s life in the anglo-Israeli world shaped her position of choice during national service (where she worked in the Jewish Agency and with American youth) and later activities, Politzer looks at his Holocaust-surviving father as the greatest factor in what he’s done.
“I’m a rare example for an extremely young second generation to the Holocaust,” Politzer said. “My father is a Holocaust survivor, and I was born when he was getting older,” he said. “That’s where my connection to WUJS comes from — the knowledge that it’s important to safeguard strong and active Jewish organizations around the world.”
“We need to take the initiative and not only react… Create an opinion before events take place, not afterwards”
Politzer’s activity with Holocaust-related institutions is intense; among other things, he’s a member of the Governing Council of the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research.
The election of a new president was scheduled at the end of WUJS’s busiest week of the year, following a week-long congress, with sessions about hot topics as well as talks by politicians and groups, including Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Women of the Wall.
At the end of the congress, delegates from campuses across the globe — from Australia to Brazil to Canada to the Czech Republic — will submit their voting cards.
Each country is given voting power in relation to its Jewish population, WUJS Director Yoni Forsyth explained. For instance, Germany has 10 votes, while Estonia only has 2. “It’s like in the US election, where you gotta win Ohio to win.” — referring to the swing states with electorial power. “France [with 12] is our Ohio.”
Pomeranz and Politzer have different views regarding WUJS’s role in the future, with Politzer envisioning it as federation that unites Jewish student bodies from around the world and Pomeranz describing it as “an umbrella organization” working with other groups. However, both are fully committed to the organization, the students, and what it represents.
The two also acknowledged the work of Worth, who managed to re-stabilize the organization and its budget. His efforts, they noted, allowed WUJS members to focus on agendas and activities instead of fundraising.
“WUJS became possibly the best, most important thing in my life,” Pomeranz said, recalling how she first became aware of the organization in 2009, sharing her online experience on the eve of November’s US elections, when she stayed up “on Skype, talking to friends from Switzerland, South Africa, and other places.”
“This organization influenced me… it has potential,” says Pomeranz — WUJS’s Comptroller for the past two years — explaining her decision to run for president. Since WUJS is no longer in debt and has a stable foundation, “it’s time to make it relevant to the unions. This is where the Jewish students are.”
“I was at the WUJS congress when they held the last elections for president,” Politzer said, describing his first encounter with the group, “and I stayed in touch with people via Facebook and emails.” The decision to run for president was made along with Israel’s national student union, who thought it was time for an Israeli to head the organization.
“It’s time for there to be Israelis [leading the organization], like there used to be,” he explained. As the former head of the student union at Bar-Ilan University, Politzer seemed a good fit for the national union. Still, some students from around the country were less enthusiastic about the idea. They noted Politzer was an aspiring politician and member of the Green Party (which is in the running for the Knesset in the forthcoming election), and, via Facebook, called upon the union to reverse the decision.
The ideas presented by Politzer for his vision of WUJS could further demonstrate why the Israeli union would like to see him at the helm. WUJS needs “to keep Israel strong, especially in the public’s opinion,” Politzer said. “We need to strengthen the [Jewish] communities,” he added. “Israel is strong when the communities are strong, and WUJS can empower the unions — which, in turn, will strengthen the communities.”
Politzer believes it is time “to work on university campuses, to shift the public’s opinion about Israel. We need to take the initiative and not only react… Create an opinion before events take place, not afterwards.”
Advocacy and working with Jewish students on campuses around the world is a field Pomeranz knows well. “My goal was to go to business school,” she recalled. During her national service, she “took part in a StandWithUs seminar. That made me understand I had what it took to mediate between Israel and the Diaspora.” Pomeranz also founded Israel’s Model UN body, securing university funding and cooperation for the cause.
“WUJS became possibly the best, most important thing in my life”
The vision presented by Pomeranz involves Israel, but isn’t centered around it. “Jewish students were always at the forefront of important issues,” she says, describing the WUJS heritage and mission. ”When founded, [WUJS] dealt with quotas for Jewish students in universities throughout the world. It dealt with antisemitism — it still does. When Sharansky was released, he met with WUJS who had spearheaded the fight for his freedom. It fought apartheid in South Africa,” Pomeranz added. “I want the organization to evolve, to deal with the big, global issues at hand.”
In fact, Pomeranz is worried that over-addressing Israel could backfire. “In regards to Israeli politics you have to take a backseat. France, Uruguay, Germany — they all have different positions [regarding Israel],” she explained, cautioning that alienating Jewish student bodies, either from WUJS or from their local government, wouldn’t serve the cause.
Something both agree on is that over the past years WUJS prestige had declined and with it the group’s relevance in the public discourse, but neither could put there finger on the reason. Pomeranz said she thought the rise of other, semi-official organizations — especially Israel-related ones, like the David Project and StandWithUs — marginalized the work of the student unions.
Both Pomeranz and Politzer said they would place WUJS and the Jewish student unions above their personal success, noting they’d be in office for two years before making room for the next president. “Heritage is power,” Politzer said, saying it was time to restore the organization to its natural place. There are important issues at hand, Pomeranz stressed. “I hope whoever leads WUJS understands this.”
Over the past year, Jewish student bodies made the news a number of times. In France, the main Jewish union took legal action against Twitter in an attempt to block anti-Semitic posts shared over the social media network. A demonstration for the arrest of the world’s “most wanted” Nazi was organized by Jewish students in Budapest, and received the backing of WUJS President Worth.
“For 20 years, there was a slow decline. Over the past two years it has been drastically the opposite,” Worth said, when discussing the organization and the way it was perceived by the public. From an organization that “only existed in name,” WUJS is now on the right path back to its natural place, the Scottish-born president said.
On the eve of these elections, WUJS has “a higher prestige than it had two years ago, and the annual congress — both last and this year — can pay testimony to that,” Worth told the Times of Israel. The candidates, he said, “should want the organization to continue to grow.”