Board presidential candidates debate the ‘Islamicisation of British politics’

All agreed that interfaith dialogue should continue to be pursued


The candidates for president of the Board of Deputies were asked what they would do to address “the Islamicisation of British politics” at a hustings in the final week of campaigning before Sunday’s election.

Edgware Synagogue deputy Keith Myers raised the question which he said he had been asked to put forward by a fellow-congregant.

In response, Board treasurer, Michael Ziff, one of the four contenders for the top job, cited last week’s last election to Leeds Council of Green Party candidate Mothin Ali - who had exclaimed “Allahu Akbar” after his election and said his victory was for “the people of Gaza”.

Ziff said: “We, as the Jewish community in Leeds, are clearly worried about the way forward.”

The Board has condemned social media posts by Ali, which it said had appeared to justify the October 7 Hamas attack, but in a statement, he said he did not support violence on either side and was sorry for any upset his remarks had caused.

Ziff said there were not enough people in the Jewish community who were interested in getting into politics. “We need to make sure that we are training younger people who will get involved,” he said.

When the event’s chair, former British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, asked if he accepted the “premise of the question, the Islamicisation of British politics”, Ziff replied: “I don’t think we have yet achieved that status, I don’t think we are there yet.”

Former Board of Deputies senior vice-president Dr Sheila Gewolb said she found the emergence of the new campaign group The Muslim Vote, which has published an electoral wish-list, “frightening”.

The group, which wants Israeli politicians involved in settlement expansion banned from the UK and opposes the anti-boycott Bill currently under consideration in the House of Lords, seeks to “stop genocide in Gaza”.

Gewolb added: “We stood up to Jeremy Corbyn, and Keir Starmer took over, but these people haven’t gone away. They are all out there.”

Many of them had gone to the Green Party, which needed to be challenged over how it was recruiting candidates, she argued. “We need to… discuss the process by which these people stand as candidates. We need to stamp on it because, like everything else, if we are not on top of it, it’s only going to get worse.”

Former Board public affairs adviser and presidential contender Phil Rosenberg said he would “gently push back against” the term Islamicisation.

“I do think we have to stand up… to Islamist extremism,” he said. “And when there are incidents that tend in that direction, there are worries about the Green Party particularly, we do have to stand up with clarity.”

But he added: “There are many moderate Muslims in this country who are our friends - probably the majority - and we need to work with them to marginalise these Islamist extremists.”

Echoing his caution about the use of the term “Islamicisation”, Board vice-president Amanda Bowman said it was “not necessarily [one] I would be comfortable with. I would like to think that it is not the general view of most of us.”

But she found some of the campaign objectives of The Muslim Vote “shocking” and “very troubling”.

Most of the hour-and-a half-meeting, which was arranged by the Board at JFS in London on Tuesday evening, focused on the fallout from October 7.

When asked about interfaith activity, all candidates agreed that it had become harder but that it should continue to be pursued.

Bowman said: “It’s only by being around the table and having those difficult conversations that we can actually change people’s perspectives. We have to be absolutely driving people together rather than apart.”

People in the Jewish community were still grieving over October 7, she argued, and interfaith partners “don’t know how to talk to us. We need to keep having the conversations when we can because if we shut down those connections, they are going to be even harder to rebuild as we go forward.”

Ziff, who is vice-chair of the Faith and Belief Forum, said, “We have had a very difficult period since the war and there is no doubt at this moment in time that the relationships are not where they need to be. And we are going to have to work at that. I am confident that over a period of time they will come back, but I don’t think they will come back as they were before October 7.”

He was due to be meeting a group of “influential” Christian supporters of Israel on Thursday to see if we can “find a way forward to try to improve relations”.

Gewolb said: “There are friends out there who don’t all hate us and don’t all hate what is going on [in Gaza], but they recognise the difficult times we are having… We do need to strengthen and sustain those links.”

A member of the Lord Lieutenant’s Council on Faith in London and the Religious Education Council of the UK, she said that she had the connections that can “do just that”.

Rosenberg said that “we shouldn’t be too downcast” about the state of interfaith relations, citing the support of groups like Christian Action Against Antisemitism. There had been a lot of support from the Hindu community and support in the Muslim community too, he said.

He had recently been invited to a mosque to attend an Iftar (evening meal to break the fast) during Ramadan, but when he had posted about on social meeting, extremists had called for the mosque’s leadership to go. “There are many moderates, but they are under pressure as we are from these extremists,” he said.itic”.

The discussion took a sharper turn at the end when veteran deputy Jerry Lewis targeted a specific question at Rosenberg over some past incidents at the Board, claiming he had set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews against advice and had tried to establish a rival group to the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities.

Rosenberg responded that he was “very proud of my track record” in his 16 years as an officer and more lately as a deputy at the Board. “We fought antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and sent it packing, we got Hamas and Hezbollah proscribed.”

But there were lighter moments too. Laughter resounded around the hall when Gould, who is chief executive of London Zoo, picked up on a phrase used by one of the candidates and said, “Can I point out I am the only person in the room that can actually have an elephant in the room?”

Michael Leaver, who represents Northwood’s Ark Synagogue on the Board, told the JC after the event that his impression had been “ a very good one. Any of the candidates would be suitable.There were some very good ideas from all four of them.”

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