Marie van der Zyl – President, Board of Deputies
September 2018 / Tishrei 5779
5778 will be remembered as the year that the Jewish community came together to say ‘Enough is Enough’ to antisemitism.
It was unprecedented and heart-warming back in March to see so many people from all parts of the community join like-minded non-Jews and parliamentarians to stand in front of the Palace of Westminster to protest against the antisemitism that, staggeringly, is tolerated in our country’s official party of opposition.
Several aspects of this protest were meaningful. I was gratified by the speed with which we, the Jewish Leadership Council and other partners, devised and executed the idea. We were overwhelmed by the response from the 2,000 people who travelled to Westminster at 24 hours’ notice, including more than 30 MPs from Labour and other parties, and friends from the Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities. Never has our community made a more powerful statement that we will not tolerate antisemitism in the Labour Party. Perhaps most important of all was the near unanimity with which we spoke. And it is this unity which we as a community need as we go forward to face challenges such as this.
Although the overwhelming majority of the community were behind us in our protest against antisemitism, there are issues which do divide us. Of course, we will never agree on everything but there is a right and a wrong way to disagree. For example, when the Kaddish for Gaza event took place following the Hamas-sponsored violent protests at the border with Israel, nobody was more appalled than me. However, the tone and tenor of some of the comments aimed at the protesters has bordered on hateful and abusive. Such ferocity does nothing to advance the argument but rather discredits the point being made and leaves our community in a less civil place.
While we must fight against hate, prejudice and injustice, much of my work as President of the Board of Deputies is in promoting projects which work for a positive outcome. My first action as President after my election in May was to travel to Manchester for discussions with leaders of northern communities and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, then on to Glasgow and Edinburgh for talks with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and
discussions with my Scottish Jewish colleagues. I intend to be a leader for all Jews of all denominations across the country and none of us is more important than any other.
We also need to reach out beyond our community which is why I have prioritised interfaith work, in particular, creating links with Muslim partners. This summer, for the first time, the Board of Deputies hosted an interfaith Iftar for senior Muslims and Jews including the Chief Rabbi and I have travelled the country meeting Muslims from Leeds to Luton and points in-between. Jews and Muslims have much in common and my objective is to create relationships which will strengthen us all and fight the prejudice and ignorance which has divided us in the past.
This was also the year that in the United Kingdom we celebrated our crucial role in the creation of the State of Israel, with celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, culminating in the Parliamentary Balfour Reception, attended by many ministers, MPs and peers. And in this 70th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, we have been promoting a dialogue for peace between Israelis and Palestinians through Invest in Peace. This project, undertaken with Christian communities, is interfaith work at its most meaningful, tackling difficult issues positively and head on. We are determined that, rather than import the Middle East conflict, we should work together to support a constructive conversation towards reconciliation.
Those of us who love Israel were delighted that the Duke of Cambridge undertook the first official Royal visit to the country. It would be hard not to be touched by his moving message in the Yad Vashem guest book. And the goodwill and friendship in his speech at the Ambassador’s reception left an impression on all of us who were present. A key message of the visit was about the importance of engagement. In addition to supporting coexistence with the young Israeli and Arab footballers, the fact that President Rivlin and President Abbas felt compelled to offer messages of peace in their meetings with the second in line to the British throne was a real tribute to the enduring ‘soft power’ of the British monarchy. This was clearly a man with a genuine warmth and friendship for the Jewish people and, going into 5779, amid all the political turmoil we have encountered this year, the image of the Duke, both at the Western Wall and, playing football on the beach, gives me wonderful memories to take into the new year.
May this Rosh Hashanah bring you, your families and all of Am Yisrael health, strength and peace.
Marie van der Zyl
**Carol Cohen, Deborah Cohen and Robert Sacks are Belsize Square’s representatives to the Board of Deputies. If you would like to discuss any matters relating to the Board of Deputies with them, please contact the office for their contact details**