40. Marie van der Zyl

Stalwart leader of Britain’s Jews

UK Board of Deputies Head Marie van der Zyl. (photo credit: COURTESY UK BOARD OF DEPUTIES)
UK Board of Deputies Head Marie van der Zyl.
As the head of the body tasked with representing the manifold views of British Jewry in a climate one senior rabbi has described as “a path to self-destruction,” Marie van der Zyl is faced with many challenges. Notable amongst these is the widening divide between the mainstream Jewish community and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the face of the its ongoing antisemitism crisis.
Since her election in May 2018, van der Zyl has shown her desire to continue the stance adopted by her predecessor, Jonathan Arkush, and other communal organizations. In regard to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and its ongoing struggle to deal with antisemitism, she has been stark, describing the Labour leader as “infested by his [own] bigotry” in a hustings event before her election.
Van der Zyl used her first broadcast interview in May to state in no uncertain terms, “Enough is enough; we need to see actions and not words. [We want] to see Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party be accountable and root out antisemitism and all forms of racism.” July and August 2018 provided further scandals with Labour’s refusal to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, coverage of Corbyn having laid a wreath at a PLO cemetery in Tunis during a visit in 2014 and more. For van der Zyl, it would seem that this situation shows no prospect of producing a satisfying resolution any time soon.
In addition to the Labour antisemitism crisis, the Board’s duty to represent the views of all British Jews was faced by one of the biggest challenges in its history following the “Kaddish for Gaza” event held by small a group of young British Jews following the deaths of tens of Palestinian rioters in clashes at the Gaza border in May 2018, which provoked cries of outrage from some within the community alongside calls for respect and tolerance.
Van der Zyl has called for unity in the community, saying, “We cannot afford to be divided in these times.” She also noted that the reaction from some within the British Jewish community was “hateful and abusive,” as she out it at the Board’s monthly meeting in June, but it is notable that she has made a sincere effort to welcome participants from Kaddish for Gaza who were elected to the Board as deputies, saying that they “should be treated with respect and not personally abused.”
A longstanding campaigner against BDS, she made clear her desire to ensure that Jewish students feel safe on campuses across the UK, saying in a recent interview that she “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’s ability as an advocate for British Jewry is clear. Elected as vice-president of the Board in 2015, she has been vocal and active in championing Jewish and non-Jewish causes. She has endeavored to foster stronger relations with Britain’s faith communities, attending meetings alongside Arkush and members of Britain’s Muslim community at the beginning of 2017 as a sign of interfaith unity in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the controversial travel ban. One of the first events attended by the Board’s new president following her election was an interfaith iftar (the meal held to break the fast during each night of Ramadan) alongside British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, where she stated she would be a “committed ally” of the Muslim community.
Her history within the Jewish community began with her involvement in the Jewish Lads’ & Girls’ Brigade (where she learned to play “Hava Nagila” on the bagpipes), as a member of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and living in a Hillel House while studying law at the John Moores University Liverpool. She is married with two daughters and in her professional capacity works as a solicitor specializing in employment /equalities law at the firm Gordon Dadds LLP, where she is a partner.
Van der Zyl is not just a fighter in the political sense of the word. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which spread to her vocal chords and left the possibility of her never being able to speak again a distinct possibility. In an interview with The Jewish Chronicle, she described this moment as a “turning point” for her – one that led to her attending a lunch-and-learn session with West London Synagogue that led her to join its cancer support group. The involvement with the synagogue that this brought about led to her candidacy as one of its representatives on the Board several years later – and the rest is history.
In comments made at the session in which her election was announced, former Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush described van der Zyl as “an absolute stalwart: tireless and effective, utterly committed.” In the months and years ahead, these qualities will be ones that she will need to call upon time and time again.