How to represent the British Jewish community?

Marie van der Zyl, president of the British Board of Deputies, seeks to unite the community and fight antisemitism.

Marie van der Zyl (center) holds up a sign at the Enough is Enough demonstration in the UK on March 26, 2018 (photo credit: GARY PERLMUTTER)
Marie van der Zyl (center) holds up a sign at the Enough is Enough demonstration in the UK on March 26, 2018
(photo credit: GARY PERLMUTTER)
LONDON— This particular Thursday was a late night for Marie van der Zyl, president of the British Board of Deputies. As she walks into a boardroom at the law firm Gordon Dadds for our interview a few hours before Shabbat kicks in (her full-time paid role is as a partner at the firm; the presidency of the Board is voluntary), I ask what has been keeping her up.
A few days prior to our interview, van der Zyl wrote an article in the British newspaper, the Jewish News, in which she described, amongst other things, dealing with a Haredi call to protest outside the Board’s annual dinner with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a petition to ban the use of the Palestinian flag in her organization’s literature, and a protest outside the Board’s office organized by the activist group Na’amod (born out of the ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ in May 2018).
These events haven’t been what’s stopped van der Zyl sleeping; quite the opposite. “I was cooking my chicken soup at 11 o’clock at night and finishing it at 6 a.m. this morning,” she says. She later reveals that her three appearances on Israeli television in May to discuss Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party took place while she was meant to be on vacation.
Van der Zyl was elected president of the Board in May 2018, after serving as one of its vice presidents between 2015-18. She arrived in the role in the midst of what remains one of the most testing times for Britain’s Jewry, in which concerns and divides emerging from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party under his leadership, stances on Israel, and community cohesion are rockier than ever.
In May, shortly after the Kaddish for Gaza protest, the UK community was described by one of the country’s most prominent Jewish figures, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, as being “on the path to self-destruction.”
Meeting with van der Zyl, I hoped to find out whether the community had gone further back or forward down this path in her first six months in the role, as well as how she and the Board plan to heal division in the months and years ahead. I left acutely aware of just how difficult it is to attempt to represent all sections of a Jewish community, even one as relatively small as the 290,000 in Britain.
The British Board of Deputies describes itself as “the voice of the British Jewish community,” and has traditionally served as the main conduit between British Jewry, the government and the general public. Founded in 1760, the organization has faced the unenviable task of attempting to represent the views of all of Britain’s Jews throughout its 258-year history. Made up of nearly 300 deputies elected from synagogues and communal organizations across the UK, for Marie van der Zyl, the idea of being part of its senior leadership is something that for most of her life seemed a distant prospect.
Born in London’s far eastern borough of Redbridge in 1965, van der Zyl’s childhood consisted of the experiences typical of many Jews growing up in Britain. A student at her local state school, she smiles with memories of playing the bagpipes at the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade, the oldest Jewish youth movement in the UK; her daughter, too, is now a member. She recalls numerous trips to Israel following her grandparents making aliyah in 1969, which entailed driving to Marseille to get the boat to Haifa due to her mother’s fear of flying.
A student at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University), she has gone on to have an impressive career as an employment lawyer. Van der Zyl pinpoints representing famed gentlemen’s club chain Stringfellows in 2012 as her career high. Her team won one of the first big gig economy cases by successfully arguing that the claimant, a lap dancer, was self-employed.
The life changing moment for van der Zyl with regards to her Jewish activism came when she contracted thyroid cancer in 2008, when her daughters were aged two and four. At a time at which she literally came very close to losing her voice, van der Zyl describes how she discovered it as an active participant within the British Jewish community. Advised at the time by her rabbi to join the Board because, then, it was filled with a group she politely refers to as “older gentlemen,” she brims with pride that now, in her Presidency, the majority of the team at the Board, including two out of three of its vice presidents, and its chief executive, are women.
By far the biggest concern of the Board, and many within the Jewish community, is the ongoing confrontation with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party that he has fronted since September 2018.
The combination of a joint front page by the UK’s three major Jewish newspapers describing Corbyn as an “existential threat” to the community, the party’s extensive debate over accepting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and a September poll in the Jewish Chronicle, which showed that 40% of British Jews would seriously consider emigrating if Corbyn became prime minister, present the case for a problem whose solution has no end in sight.
Van der Zyl’s predecessor in the role, Jonathan Arkush, implied that Jeremy Corbyn was antisemitic, noting in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that his chairing of antiwar group Stop The War, which has frequently challenged Israel’s actions in Palestine, should be questioned. “If he shares (its) prevalent discourse about Israel, then that view is unquestionably antisemitic,” Arkush said.
Van der Zyl, on the other hand, is cautious in discussing Corbyn, stating that he “could be” the existential threat that Britain’s Jewish media described him as. In her eyes, what is critical is what the Labour leader does next, repeating to me the Board’s line used throughout the spring and summer of 2018: “We need actions, not words.”
Historian and academic Geoffrey Alderman, who has written extensively on British Jewry and their political affiliations, suggests that van der Zyl and the Board have a huge challenge on the horizon during her tenure.
“At the next general election, the Board will have to ask itself a question that it’s never asked itself seriously before in its history,” he said. “Should it make a public statement warning British Jewish electors against voting for a political party, in this case the Labour Party?...Jews will expect some direction here.” In no uncertain terms he described it as “the No. 1 issue facing Mrs. van der Zyl.”
Van der Zyl is acutely aware of the stick many on the left continue to beat Arkush with, namely his leaked private comments that the Conservative Party’s re-election in 2015 was in the community’s “best interests.” She told me in no uncertain terms that “the Board of Deputies shouldn’t be telling anybody what party to vote for.”
Yet to say that she does not take the threat of antisemitism within both the Labour Party and a growing far-right seriously, would be unjust. One of the most solemn moments during our meeting followed the question of whether van der Zyl had ever been subject to antisemitism.
“Yes, I have … I remember the name of the person,” she says. Though she had not experienced it before and has not since, she vividly recollects a boy from her school who used to ask her “why weren’t you gassed?”
The other major issue van der Zyl faces is keeping the Jewish community united with regards to both one and other, and Israel. While the aforementioned divides between stances on Israel and politics remain intense, questions over representation dangle over van der Zyl’s Board.
The Haredi community, who have chosen not to take part in elections since the 1970s, is the largest growing segment of British Jewry, and according to a report from June 2018 published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the Board, will make up half of all Jewish children aged up to four by 2031. The question of the Board’s legitimacy in representing all Jews will continue to be put to the test in the years ahead.
Dr Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist and writer who focuses on the British Jewish community, notes that on the topic of Israel “some deputies believe that the Board should be always and publicly supporting Israel whatever it does,” while there are also “those that are uncomfortable with some or all of the actions of Israel and want those represented as well.”
In van der Zyl’s case, it is clear she fits into the former, stating that the Board exists “to promote a sympathetic understanding of Israel.” Recalling her recent meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this year, one of her few reflections was that “he was incredibly nice to me.” This occurs in the face of a British Jewish community of whom 68% said they felt a “sense of despair” every time settlement expansion in Israel was announced, according to 2015 polling by City University London that was commissioned by British NGO Yachad.
The Board frequently puts out press releases regarding goings on in Israel. In 2018, two notable interventions received both praise and disdain from all sides of the political spectrum: its response to the Israel-Gaza border protests, which emphasized Israel’s right to defend its borders, and its response to the Nation State Law in which one of its vice presidents described the bill as having “regressive elements.” The first engendered a letter signed by 781 British Jews criticizing the Board’s response as “ill-conceived and unnuanced.” The second resulted in a petition by two deputies to bring about a no-confidence bid in Vice President Sheila Gewolb for “meddling in the processes of a democratic state.”
The day before we met, van der Zyl’s previous op-ed in the Jewish News was published. Making reference to the criticisms from the Jewish community that the Board was receiving, it was headlined ‘If everyone’s a critic, we must be doing something right.’
It is undeniable that Marie van der Zyl relishes the challenge the presidency presents. Yet it is clear throughout our meeting that the manifold issues that she faces, whether it be effectively representing all segments of the Jewish community, engaging with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, or getting the tone right with regards to the Board’s engagement with Israel will continue to cause problems. For her, one of the most essential aims of her presidency is to make the Board “a space where everyone can come to debate”, something that she sees as critical to avoiding British Jewry going further down the dangerous path it has been walking in recent months.
It is hard to tell if van der Zyl, or anyone for that matter, can hold the British Jewish community together. She mentions that her father, who passed away a few years ago, was disappointed that she didn’t become an MP. In her eyes however, she says in her position she feels like the “MP for the Jews.” As with all members of parliament, one of the hardest realities to deal with is that for all those who voted for you, there are many who did not.