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We must embrace diaspora, says head of Jewish student union

WUJS president-elect Avigayil Benstein says her organisation must change to reach students discovering their Judaism at university

    WUJ's new president-elect Avigayil Benstein
    WUJ's new president-elect Avigayil Benstein Photo: Alex Balabko

    Jewish student activists from around the world have declared March to be Antisemitism Awareness Month — and chosen an ambitious new leader who plans to amplify their voices.

    “It’s 2018 and antisemitism still exists but sometimes Jews are afraid to talk about it,” says Avigayil Benstein, the president-elect of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), in an interview with the JC.

    “This awareness month will show we’re not out to minimise other prejudices but that it’s okay to say let’s talk about issues that are specific to Jews.”

    Jewish student bodies in all countries will be invited to run programmes and campaigns, and to urge local universities to adopt the definition of antisemitism outlined by the Berlin-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

    Ms Benstein is a cosmopolitan character. An Israeli who also has British and American citizenship, she believes that juggling these identities has left her well-placed to bridge gaps between Israel and the diaspora, and to understand diaspora communities.

    “My life is a series of what could be contradictions,” she says.

    “I’m British and American and Israeli, I’m religious but very liberal, I love shul but sometimes it’s hard to be there as a woman.”

    She thinks that these aspects of her identity help her to understand and serve Jewish students from different countries and varied religious and political backgrounds.

    Ms Benstein grew up in Israel, initially speaking English with a British accent, just like her mother Debbie Benstein, who grew up in Golders Green and made aliyah after finishing university. Then 21 years ago, at age three, she suddenly switched accents to the US pronunciation of her father.

    “My grandmother was appalled when it happened,”  she says.

    But while she sounds American, her British identity is strong: “My grandmother Jenny Kestrel arrived in Britain when she was three after Kristallnacht, and Britain accepted her and welcomed her, so there’s a strong feeling in my family of gratitude to Britain.”

    In London she feels comfortable “in a way I don’t in many other places.”

    Her army service was British-themed, spent representing the IDF to the UK media.

    When she takes the helm of WUJS in the summer, replacing another Brit, Yosef Tarshish, Ms Benstein will be hoping to confront longstanding challenges like BDS.

    She also wants to innovate in newer areas, such as with the wave of people discovering they are Jewish during their student years and wanting to connect to the community.

    One of her big ideas is to get Jewish student organisations in different countries to share the work they do, because they are often going back to the drawing board each time they face a challenge, even if activists elsewhere have dealt with it.

     “They run a campaign and then it just sits on a Google Drive somewhere,” she notes, explaining that she wants to create a “resource bank” for everything from Jewish history classes to ways to fight offensive resolutions.

    “You already have the slogans from one place, and details of what students were saying and how they were saying it. So sharing this [experience] around makes sense, and gives us more power as a unified and amplified voice.”

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