Board of Deputies VP candidates debate refugee policy

Contenders discussed how far the representative body should go in addressing issues such as asylum


Board of Deputies vice-presidential contenders: (top row from left); Denise Lester, Jeremy Michelson, Owen Power: (below): Andrew Gilbert, Adrian Cohen

Vice-presidential candidates in the Board of Deputies elections have urged the need to speak out on behalf of refugees.

The five contenders for the three VP posts were asked about the Board’s involvement in civic issues, and particularly those affecting refugees, at the first election hustings last week.

Owen Power, who represents the York Liberal Jewish community, referred to politicians “stirring up fears” in the North over migration.

“So it is vitally important the Board of Deputies, indeed our community, stand up for refugees and asylum-seekers,” he told the hustings, which were organised in London by Progressive Judaism. “I think we have got a marvellous record and a lot to be proud of but I think with the general election coming up, this is really going to be an issue, that we must stand up and speak out for refugees.”

Denise Lester, from South Hampstead Synagogue, pointed out that Jewish tradition and values included “pursuit of justice and access to justice for refugees and asylum-seekers”, and said that as a solicitor she had acted “for the most vulnerable refugees in family matters”.

But the challenge was when the Board had spoken, “we have been dealing with a government that has not wanted to hear us,” she said. “We may have a change of government — and they may be more receptive to us.”

Adrian Cohen, who represents Highgate Synagogue, noted that “we are a community of immigrant heritage” whose forebears in many cases had fled persecution and harsh economic conditions.

He said three years ago he had spent some time in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, meeting someone from a village from where a woman drowned in an attempted Channel crossing.

“It is something that touches upon me tangibly,” he said.

But he said, “I think the Board isn’t in a position where it can directly take a position on legislation. But what it can do is to articulate concerns around values.”

The Board could talk about the importance of social cohesion, the value of life or the sensitivities of international law.

“But we do have to tread carefully because rightfully, we have to have a working relationship with the government of whatever political persuasion or complexion, so we have to take that into account,” he said.

Jeremy Michelson, deputy for Stenecourt shul in Manchester and chair of the Board’s regional committee, stressed that “obviously our core work is advocating for the Jewish community”.

His grandparents had escaped poverty and persecution in East Europe, he said.

“But the thing is they didn’t go from one country to another, demanding that they be allowed into a certain country,” he said. “I think things are different and sometimes we forget that.”

While the Board should be able to raise general issues “in terms of human values”, he said, “I do think we have to be careful about the way that we do it and we shouldn’t take our eye off the ball in terms of our core work.”

It had to be done in a way that gets “noticed by the government but not destroy our relations with the government, whether it’s Labour, Conservative or whatever” he said.

Andrew Gilbert, deputy for the Movement for Reform Judaism, believed that it was rabbis “who have got a big role here. These are prophetic voices in our community and I think the Board doesn’t have to do all the speaking itself.”

The Board should “get behind our rabbis on some things and let them do the talking on issues … which are put much more strongly and much more succinctly by our rabbanim,” he said.

Hustings organised by the Board itself are due to take place on Tuesday night in Manchester, in Leeds on Wednesday and Glasgow on Thursday.

The Board has previously been criticised for intervening on issues to do with migration by the chair of the National Jewish Assembly, Gary Mond, who founded it after resigning as the Board’s senior vice-president two years ago.

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