If you’ve ever been to a political hustings, you’ll know that what it is, essentially, is one large public job interview for multiple applicants. Each attempts to demonstrate their eminent suitability for the role, while attempting to imply, with greater or lesser subtlety, that the other candidates are inferior choices.
The Board of Deputies hustings at JW3 in North-West London on Tuesday night, was no different. Edwin Shuker, Marie van der Zyl, Sheila Gewolb and Simon Hochhauser all want to be president of the Board. There were around 150 people in the audience, which was overwhelmingly… non-young. It was quite surreal listening to all four candidates talk about the need for more youth participation in the Board when not a single one of the people talking was under the age of 50.
To my surprise, the evening was far more entertaining than I had expected.
“Don’t vote for me if you want a president who will tell you what you want to hear,” Mr Shuker said, telling the audience exactly what they wanted to hear.
“I was the first person to call out the Shami Chakrabarti report for what it was, a whitewash,” said Mrs van der Zyl. An accurate statement, but followed by the sublime “my quote is in Wikipedia”.
Sheila Gewolb gave a stirring opening speech about combating antisemitism.
“The next president”, we were told, would need to engage with those outside the community open to engagement. Unfortunately, Dr Gewolb initially said the president would need to “engage tiresomely”, before correcting herself. It was “tirelessly”. Certain people in the Labour leader’s office might have agreed with the former.
Mr Hochhauser gave an urbane introductory speech, safely focusing on Labour antisemitism and waiting for the first question – what would you do differently to Jonathan Arkush - before sticking the knife in. All four candidates praised the incumbent president, but Mr Hochhauser said “there are areas that we need to improve quite substantially, and I feel have been left a little bit lax, not by Johnny, but by the whole team, over the last three years.”
Given two members of that “whole team” were sitting beside him, it was not a terribly subtle dig.
Candidates were asked to talk about a life decision they regretted. Mr Shuker responded that he had no regrets, opting for the my-weakness-is-that-I -try-too-hard standard interview answer. Mr Hochhauser said he regretted not being Mr Shuker, a man of no regrets.
The candidates were then given the chance to question one other candidate.
“I’ve been working 3,000 hours on the defence division, dealing with lots of antisemitic issues,” Mrs van der Zyl said.
“Edwin, how would you deal with antisemitism?”
Mr Shuker said he didn’t need 3,000 hours to know how the next few months could go for the Jewish community. A strategy was clearly needed, to involve more people from outside the community. “A single tweet from JK Rowling [on antisemitism] is worth two demonstrations,” he said, not providing the calculation behind that equation.
When questions were accepted from the audience, one of those called upon was “Geoffrey”, a pseudonym used by members of the hard-left Jewdas group when speaking publicly.
“Geoffrey” claimed a survey last year had showed that one in four Jewish students were “OK with BDS” and that a Yachad survey found that one in three Jews in Britain don’t call themselves Zionist.
“What are we going to do about the scourge of Jewish anti-Zionism,” he asked sarcastically.
I had wondered whether any of the candidates would take issue with these figures. For example, when that same Jewdas activist mentioned the second figure in an interview with Ha’aretz a few years ago, the reporter had felt compelled to point out that “his reading is clearly partial; the same survey showed that 90 per cent support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, whether they self-identify as Zionist as not.”
But the response from the four candidates, in a way, was even better. Not a single one appeared to realise they had been asked a sarcastic question, so the Jewdas contingent were treated to four very sincere answers about anti-Zionism, antisemitism and the Jewish community. It must have been quite frustrating for them, but it was highly entertaining from a few rows away.
All levity aside, the four candidates are clearly deeply committed to the Jewish community’s well-being. I don’t know, however, whether it is better to congratulate or commiserate with the victor – the three years ahead look likely to be challenging for Jews in the UK, and, as Board president, Sunday’s winner will be at the centre of that storm.