LONDON — Marie van der Zyl’s first weeks as the new president of Britain’s Board of Deputies have been nothing if not eventful.
Only the second woman elected to lead the main representative body of British Jews in its 258-year history, she has already been thrust into a series of controversies.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party last week once again snubbed its nose at Britain’s Jews by announcing a new code of conduct which waters down the working definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
While attempting to wrestle with the ongoing row over anti-Semitism in the main opposition party, the Board itself has come under fire over its handling of allegations of Islamophobia against one of its deputies. Likewise, tensions within the Jewish community surfaced following the Board’s robust defense of Israel’s handling of violent protests along the Gaza border this spring.
But after serving three years as Board vice-president with responsibility for tackling anti-Semitism and interfaith relations, van der Zyl seems unfazed by these challenges.
Her tone may be a little softer than that of her feisty predecessor, Jonathan Arkush, but the Board’s new president nonetheless shows a steely determination not to let Corbyn off the hook.
“We need to see action, not words from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party,” she argues.
Referring to the main slogan of the Jewish community’s unprecedented demonstration against systemic anti-Semitism outside the parliament building this past March, van der Zyl continues: “Enough is enough. We meant that.”
Later this month, van der Zyl and Jonathan Goldstein, chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, are expected to meet with Corbyn to follow up the “disappointing” session the communal organizations held with the Labour leader in April.
“We have made a series of suggestions to Labour, and that represents the minimum — and that’s the absolute minimum — standards that we would expect,” she suggests.
Already, however, Labour seems to be falling well short of these demands.
The party’s decision to adopt a code of conduct for tackling anti-Semitism which, among other things, dropped four of the IHRA’s 11 examples — all of them outlining how criticism of Israel can veer into anti-Semitic discourse — provoked a furious response from van der Zyl and Goldstein.
“The UK Jewish community has adopted in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism, as have the British Government, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, 124 local authorities across the country and numerous governments around the world,” they argued.
“It is impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition. Its actions only dilute the definition and further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour movement.”
“Labour still has a long way to go and they need to stop seeming [like] they know better than us what anti-Semitism is and implement our recommendations without further delay,” van der Zyl argues.
As things stand, the party is trying to “hold itself to a lower standard.”
Labour also pledged to tackle the backlog of disciplinary cases involving allegations of anti-Semitism, agreeing that two of the most high-profile – those of Ken Livingstone, and Jackie Walker, a former vice-chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group – would be handled within three months.
Van der Zyl is unimpressed by Corbyn’s characterization of Livingstone’s resignation from the party in May as a “sad day” and believes the former London mayor “evaded being expelled.”
“We still want to see what’s going to happen with Jackie Walker,” she adds.
Nonetheless, van der Zyl offers an olive branch. She thinks that “there is some hope Labour realizes how serious the Jewish community is and the serious damage that’s been done to [its] reputation.” This was evident, she continues, in May’s local elections when the party polled poorly in areas of north London where there is a sizeable Jewish population.
“I really do want the Jewish community to be in a position where we can move on and talk about other things, but, ultimately, that’s going to depend upon Labour,” she says.
Van der Zyl distances herself from some of Arkush’s more hard-edged rhetoric, dismissing his recent claim that many Jews may choose to leave Britain if Corbyn becomes prime minister.
“No, I don’t say that. Britain is a wonderful place to live and we are much more fortunate than many of our Jewish friends in, for example, France,” says van der Zyl. “We have these concerns which we are raising, but I am not telling people to pack their bags.”
She also defends those Jews who have remained in the Labour party and rejects charges they are betraying the community.
“I don’t think that’s a very fair thing to say. The Labour party isn’t Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, it is all of our Labour party and there are many people who feel that one way of fighting this is to stand your ground and stay and fight within Labour and not to disengage and to continue that fight.
“Look at our MPs, for example, Luciana Berger [and] Louise Ellman, they really are getting over the message and I think that they are doing a very good job,” she argues.
At the same time, van der Zyl makes clear her irritation at the growing sway within the party of the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). Some constituency Labour parties have opted to affiliate with the hard left group, and it has also won the backing of the country’s most powerful trade union leader, Len McCluskey.
“I think JVL was set up to deny anti-Semitism within the Labour party,” she charges, “and they are absolutely being given inappropriate weight within the Labour party and they are in no way representative of the mainstream Jewish community.”
Alongside pledging to tackle anti-Semitism, van der Zyl also made defending Israel a key part of her campaign for the Board presidency.
She strongly backs the Board’s support for Israel’s handling of the Gaza protests, which drew criticism from some corners, including two groups which have delegates on the Board. Yachad, a left-wing Israel pressure group, organized a petition by 500 supporters protesting at the “ill-conceived and unnuanced” tone of the Board’s statement, while Liberal Judaism deemed it “unilateral and ill-judged.”
“The Board was clearly vindicated because nearly all of those who were killed were either members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” van der Zyl responds.
“That’s been well publicized in the news. Every death is a tragedy, there’s no doubt about that, but Hamas leading its people to charge at the border fence is the height of irresponsibility,” she says.
But van der Zyl does not believe it is the Board’s role to quash dissent. Its critics have “given their point and I have given mine and what’s very important is that the Jewish community remains unified and that we learn to disagree with respect.”
“I want the Board to be a place where all people with diverse views can be represented and come and give their views. That’s very, very important, that all Jews have their voice at the Board of Deputies,” van der Zyl says.
At her first meeting as president of the Board, van der Zyl struck out at some of the criticism leveled at a small group of left-wing Jews who gathered outside Parliament to say the Kaddish mourning prayer for Palestinians killed in the Gaza border protests.
While saying she was “appalled” at the “ill-conceived” event, she nonetheless said that some of the criticism directed at protesters had “bordered on hateful and abusive.”
She welcomes the fact that some of the protesters have been elected to the Board and insists that they “should be treated with respect and not personally abused.”
As vice-president of the Board, van der Zyl led the fight against the BDS movement on British campuses. She believes it is important that any discussion about the experience of Jewish students at UK universities is a balanced one.
“I wouldn’t want to see any Jewish student, whether from home or overseas, being put off either from going to university or feeling that they can only go to a certain university,” van der Zyl explains.
There have been “pockets of trouble” at some, mainly London-based, universities. Protests at Israel-related events have “spilled over into aggression” and the Board has tackled both the universities concerned and the Minister for Higher Education. She also credits some major London institutions, such as the London School of Economics and King’s College, for adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in its entirety.
But van der Zyl also notes that the problem largely rests with student unions adopting BDS policies on the back of a vote by “a handful of students” and emphasizes that “the vast majority of Jewish students would agree that they have a stimulating, fulfilling and enriching time on campus.”
As an alternative to BDS, she is an advocate of the Solutions Not Sides education program, with whom the Board is currently working. She wants to see more opportunities for people in Britain to learn about and discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its complexities. Van der Zyl speaks proudly of the Invest in Peace project the Board runs in partnership with the Christian group Churches Together in Britain and Ireland which seeks to support Israeli-Palestinian peace-building.
“It’s a chance for us to export a message of peace and reconciliation,” van der Zyl explains.
Van der Zyl recognizes that the Middle East conflict causes tension between the Jewish and Muslim communities, but says that strengthening interfaith relations is one of the “key priorities” of her presidency.
As vice president, interfaith relations was part of her portfolio and she built a strong reputation, criss-crossing the country to meet with Muslim leaders. She built alliances on issues such as tackling hate crime and defending faith schools and religious freedom.
Van der Zyl was also a vocal opponent of Islamophobia, joining a complaint to the press regulator about an anti-Muslim article in The Sun, Britain’s highest-selling newspaper, and speaking out against the far-right activist Tommy Robinson and media celebrity Katie Hopkins. One of her first public events as president was to join the chief rabbi at an iftar dinner (when Muslims breaks their Ramadan fast) where she pledged to be a “committed ally” of the Muslim community.
So delighted to host a Muslim-Jewish Iftar tonight, to honour our friends at @MAAS_UK – Muslims Against Antisemitism. @BoDPres Marie van der Zyl is now thanking Muslim brothers and sisters for their solidarity, and pledging that we will always be an ally against anti-muslim hate. pic.twitter.com/2bTe2uSXnw
— Board of Deputies of British Jews (@BoardofDeputies) June 12, 2018
That pledge faced an early test with allegations of Islamophobia directed against one of the Board’s own members. The case of Roslyn Pine, who allegedly shared Tweets calling Muslims “the vilest of animals” and describing Arab migrants as “an invading army,” is now before the Board’s constitutional committee.
However, van der Zyl has put forward recommendations to its code of conduct and advocated a “far-reaching review” after it was revealed that the body has no power to suspend or expel members.
The fight against racism and prejudice is personal to van der Zyl. Her grandfather came to Britain on the Kindertransport.
“I think with our history and my personal history refugees are a subject that touches all of our hearts,” she says, noting that her West London synagogue has a large sign saying “asylum-seekers welcome here.”
She recently described Donald Trump’s family separation policy as a “disgrace” and called for Britain to do better in its treatment of refugees.
“I know I owe my existence to my grandfather being taken in as a child refugee,” she says.
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