“Since the very beginning I firmly believed that I had a lot to give to Jewish students around the world”, says Jonathan Braun, President of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), speaking on what prompted him to apply for one of the most coveted positions in young Jewish activism.
The World Union of Jewish Students was created in 1924 by the English lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht with the idea of opposing the quotas imposed by universities in Europe for the entry of Jewish students. In this mission Lauterpacht involved a friend of his, Albert Einstein, who would soon become the first president of the WUJS. Over the years, the Union has grown to what it is today: a body that represents over 800,000 Jewish students and operates in over 50 countries around the world.
Jonathan Braun, born in Israel and raised in Switzerland, lived in an Orthodox family which, as he says, has “always been quite active in the Jewish world”. For this reason, it has always felt natural for Jonathan to want to give something to young Jewish students, first in Switzerland and later in Europe and around the world.
At the end of the month, his mandate that began in February 2020 will end, making way for the Russian Yana Naftalieva, elected during the Congress held during New Year in Jerusalem. For the occasion, HaTikwa wanted to interview him to talk about his journey and the challenges that Jewish students in Israel and in the Diaspora will have to face.
What prompted you to run for president in early 2020?
Before running for presidency in WUJS, I went for it in EUJS (European Union of Jewish Students). I wanted to support Jewish students with the skills and experience I had gained over the years. However, I was not elected. It was one of the closest elections in recent memory, so this pushed me not to give up, because I knew that many had faith in me and in what I could give. But how could I represent those who come from Latin America or Africa and Oceania? So, between the two elections, I decided to learn and understand their needs before running for President. Which I finally decided to do.
You will soon complete your mandate. How do you judge it?
I think it went great. I believe I have achieved many of the goals I set myself and, weirdly enough, Covid has positively influenced these achievements. Indeed, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to plan our priorities, it has allowed us to double our budget and reach one million shekels this year. On top of that, we’ve increased the number of programs we do, signed long-term partnerships, and generally made the organization stable.
What do you think you have given in these years as president?
First of all I think I gave a lot of time and energy. I’ve definitely grown some gray hair, but that’s something you take for granted when you’re part of this world. But most of all, I believe that I have given the organization an identity and I like to believe that I have inspired many people to become activists and leaders.
What did WUJS give you instead?
Definitely the possibility of turning my passion into a job. It was a huge opportunity for me. Being the president of the World Union of Jewish Students is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I got to meet amazing people and had the chance to visit amazing places. And of course, running such a large facility at this young age gives you a lot of experience, for which I can only be grateful.
Your role has been covered by great characters in our history, such as Einstein, Freud, Weizmann and many others. How do you feel about being a part of this “one of a kind” list?
I’m honestly proud. I cannot promise that I will get a Nobel prize or that I will reach the level of Weizmann, Ben Gurion and so many others before me. But I will definitely do my best. Furthermore, being president of WUJS also carries a certain amount of responsibility, because you have to make sure you don’t ruin all the work these amazing people have done over the years. However, not being alone, but rather having a team that works tirelessly for Jewish students, lessens the burden of responsibility and makes you proud of the work that is being carried out.
Let’s talk a little about current affairs. What do you think are the biggest challenges young Jews face today?
The first challenge is financially. While it’s not a purely Jewish problem, I think it’s a threat that shouldn’t be underestimated. The second is the resurgence of anti-Semitism, which is no longer condemned on social media, talk shows and many other places. I hope there is a reaction from society. We are tasked with making the matter paramount. It is a big problem, one that no Jewish organization can address alone. The last great challenge for the Jewish world is that of unity. A strong polarization of opinions is being created: by now you are either for or against a given issue, you can no longer be in the middle. So it is essential to ensure that the younger generations are able to talk, discuss and feel at ease.
How, from the perspective of a young Diaspora Jew, will the election results in Israel affect our communities?
First of all we need to specify how the perception of what is happening in Israel is completely different. Diaspora communities are questioning why elections in Israel have seen a drift to the right. But there are some things that I think are important to contextualize. The first concerns the voting system and the specific weight of far-right parties in Israel, which is not the same as right-wing parties in Hungary or Italy. Furthermore, one must ask: what are the priorities of the Israelis? Certainly stability and the desire to have a government, then there is the constant issue of security and lastly the desire of the electorate to give the possibility to other options. There will be long-term problems between the Diaspora and Israel, but I think the important thing is, again, not to get polarized, try to understand why the Israelis have come to this decision. Whether we want it or not, it doesn’t matter who is in government, Israel is the only safe home for Jews. The fear of Diaspora communities is that the far right could be used against them. But if you are targeted as a Jew or as a Zionist because the government of Israel is doing something wrong, the problem is that the person in front of you is anti-Semitic.
Exclusive interview for “Rinnovarsi per Crescere”. The article was updated in light of the election of the new WUJS president on 12/31/2022.
Nato a Roma. Giornalista pubblicista. Collaboratore per Shalom.it e responsabile della comunicazione sui social network per l’Archivio Storico della Comunità Ebraica di Roma. Consigliere con la delega a Roma e Tesoriere nel Consiglio Esecutivo 2018, Revisore dei Conti nel 2019 e per il 2023.
Caporedattore nel 2020, è l’attuale Direttore Editoriale di HaTikwa.