The perceived linkage between Judaism and Zionism can be a turn-off for some students, believes Chaya Esther Pomeranz, newly elected chair of the World Union of Jewish Students.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Pomeranz said that despite having been raised as a religious Jew in Israel, where Zionism and Judaism are “one and the same,” such cannot be said for many of today’s Jewish students on campuses worldwide.

“I’m not saying that this is an ideal situation, but there are Jewish students whose Jewish identity is important to them but they are not necessarily in line with the Israeli government’s policy, which is perceived as globally, to the uneducated eye, the Zionistic cause,” Pomeranz said.

While WUJS is a Zionist organization, she said, “we have to allow these students to formulate their own interpretation...

We try to educate students and take these two values and try to incorporate them into one. But it’s a decision that they make..and we have to assist them in that choice.”

While many in Israeli believe that an attack on Zionism is by definition anti-Semitic, Pomeranz disagrees. There is a difference between “fighting [for] Jewish issues and when it is that [our members] are fighting for Zionism,” she says. “It’s the same thing when the line is blurred between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.”

Through its affiliates, WUJS represents students in Israel, Australasia, South Africa, South America and Europe.

The organization does not have much of a presence in North America, where Hillel has filled the same campus niche.

A large part of the organization’s efforts today are focused on building partnerships with various groups to strengthen the impact of Jewish activism on campus, Pomeranz said.

“We try to form coalitions on campus with the LGBT community or with woman empowerment organizations that are popping up right now on all these different campuses,” she explained.

In South Africa, WUJS’ local affiliate has made an end-run around campus Muslim groups and formed a new organization comprising Muslim and Jewish students.

WUJS’ focus varies by country, although the issue of boycotts against Israel looms large in most places, Pomeranz said.

“Today, we are looking at BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] as a central problem that we’re facing pretty much internationally.

That’s something that consensus-wise is an issue in Europe, where students don’t actually live on campus, to Australia, Chile, pretty much everywhere,” Pomeranz said.

“Today we also have issues like Jewish identity, mainly in the Former Soviet Union, where BDS is less of an issue.

You have issues of anti-Semitism, primarily in Hungary and Sweden, it’s a very big challenge that we’re dealing with in France. In the UK, BDS is the largest issue.”

Among all of the issues facing Jewish students on campus, Pomeranz said, the biggest challenge is cultivating the next generation of leaders, a “perennial challenge,” in her words. While there are Jews attending various forums and functions, they go as individuals and not necessarily as Jews.

When attending such events, she said, she knows “that there were other Jewish students there, but they weren’t standing up as Jews.

“We want to empower our students to take on these Jewish values of tikun olam [fixing the world], or lagoyim [‘A light unto the nations’]... that have kept us alive all these years.”

Allie Shafran contributed to this report.

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