The Cambridge Union Society, one of the most illustrious debating societies in the world, has a new president — a Jewish undergraduate from Rickmansworth.
Jonah Surkes, 21, who is in his final year of studying human, social and political sciences at Clare College, will serve as the society’s leader for the coming academic term, after having won an election for the position last June.
“It’s an honour and a surprise,” he said. “Honestly, sometimes it still feels like the most surreal, incredible thing, and I feel like I’ve been blessed,
In its 200-year history the Cambridge Union has hosted speakers including Sir Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and Baroness Thatcher.
Mr Surkes: “We’re very lucky to have incredible people who’ve spoken here in the past, an amazing history, and also the fantastic ability to develop teams who are able to support everything I want to do.
“It’s an incredible society. It feels weird, but I’m settling in.”
Mr Surkes, a member of Pinner United Synagogue, said he believed his Judaism had helped him to thrive in a debating environment. “The training you get for your barmitzvah, and a lot of the things we do in Jewish social groups like RSY, they all train you in terms of your confidence and public speaking. That is an almost unparalleled opportunity that we’ve been very lucky to have.
“When I eventually got to Cambridge, public speaking and debating fitted in quite nicely with what I’d always done.”
In the role of Speaker’s Officer for the society last year, Mr Surkes helped compile a line-up which included Senators Bernie Sanders and John McCain, actor Tom Hiddleston and Mary Berry, the former star of the Great British Bake Off.
He was reluctant to divulge the big names that will appear at the union during his presidential term, but he said: “You can expect to see some familiar faces from TV, academy award winners, some particularly controversial American politicians, and — hopefully — one of the world’s greatest footballers.”
Mr Surkes is also planning to host a debate on Israel in February.
“I wanted to have a debate [which was] not about fighting over historical inaccuracies, or… ‘is Israel a rogue state’, which we’ve had before,” he said.
“I thought ‘let’s try and look to the future… of what we can really do to consider peace in the Middle East.”
The debate, “This House believes that the two-state solution is dead”, will be held in February.
“We have what you would class as pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians on both sides. It is going to prove an incredibly interesting debate, because you’ll have speakers like [the anti-Zionist] Norman Finkelstein speaking on the same side as [former Israeli ambassador to the UK] Daniel Taub. They’re not going to be arguing the same thing, but they’re on the same side in that they both support a two-state solution — in very different forms.”
Mr Surkes said some members of his family were confused over whether he was now head of the Cambridge Union of the university’s student union — a very different organisation.
“That’s ok,” he said. “It’s an easy mistake to make. They are proud. They will be there for a couple of the debates.”