Stu­dent prom­ises film stars and foot­ballers for Cam­bridge Union

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY DANIEL SUGARMAN

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 twostate 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.”

Jonah Surkes

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