Board presidential candidates stake their claim in first hustings

They were quizzed on Israel, interfaith and pluralism within the communities at Progressive Judaism-organised event


Bidding for glory: Board presidential candidates (from left) Phil Rosenberg, Sheila Gewolb, Michael Ziff, Amanda Bowman

The four candidates bidding to succeed Marie van der Zyl as president of the Board of Deputies went head to head for the first time in hustings on Wednesday night.

They fielded questions on Israel, interfaith, inclusiveness in the community and their vision for the Board over the next three years at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, from an audience of around 40, mostly online, in an event organised by Progressive Judaism.

Before the May 12 poll, they will face four more hustings around the country organised by the Board, as well as another scheduled by the United Synagogue.

While occasional difference of emphasis surfaced, there was no dramatic clash of views among the contenders.

Inevitably countering the rise of antisemitism post-October 7 figured highly on their priorities - but perhaps more revealing than the opinions of the platform were some questions which indicated unease over Israeli policy in parts of the community. One audience member asked how the Board would reflect diversity of views so that it would not be a “mouthpiece” for the Israeli government, while another suggested that Israel’s Gaza campaign was turning many young Progressive Jews away from Zionism.

Board vice-president Amanda Bowman said she would organise dialogue sessions with deputies and briefings with experts in order to develop a policy on Israel that would “reflect the views of all deputies”.

Citing debates that deputies have held in recent years on the two-state solution and the Israel’s government planned judicial reforms, she said she was “joyously pleased” to see “the respect and thoughtfulness” deputies showed and would provide more opportunity for discussion.

But former Board vice-president Dr Sheila Gewolb, while advocating the need for Israel education and discussing how deputies should respond to attacks on Israel, said: “We need to be really careful here. We tried to walk this road before and it doesn’t really work.

“Israel government policy should be for people who can vote for Israeli government policy and we should remember we are the Board of Deputies of British Jews and what goes on in Israel does affect us, but the work of the Board is to protect and defend our community.”

She added: “We are never going to get consensus - it’s a fairy story.”

Broadly echoing the line, Board treasurer Michael Ziff said: “The majority of British Jews support Israel, but we are here to look after British Jews.”

He said it was important to provide education on Israel, bringing top-class speakers to communities around the country, particularly smaller ones.

Former Board public affairs director Phil Rosenberg said: “We can do a lot more to bring ourselves together on the things that unite us. We have seen that a lot with the campaign over the hostages. There is a huge degree of unity over that, regardless of where people are on the political spectrum.”

He added: “We can of course embrace debate and diversity, but when we come together unified around some of these core issues, we will do well.”

All the candidates backed continued involvement in wider social and civic issues, although when asked about refugees, they did not touch on the government’s controversial Rwanda policy.

Bowman said: “It was social action and social justice that got me into the Board in the first place”.

Gewolb said the Board should back the “laudable work” being done by the United Synagogue and others to support refugees.

Rosenberg, who was the Board’s first social action manager, said:  “Engaging in social action and social justice is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. It helps us build coalitions as well as living our values.”

Ziff, refering to the traditions of care and compassion in the community, said: “It is really important we get our deputies involved in other parts of society other than that of the Jewish community.”

In his opening statement, Ziff said that, “we are in the fight of our lives, the fight to ensure British Jews can continue to live without fear in this country, but more than that, a fight to ensure we can continue to flourish, contribute and play our full part in society.

“The frightening rise of antisemitism must be beaten. But let us remember the other fight — the cost of living crisis which has hit our community hard. Our wonderful charities struggle to raise funds, leaving families desperate. We must win the fight against poverty.”

Gewolb, who emphasised her work, talking about Judaism in schools around the country, said she had recently led an assembly in East Essex, where a little boy had identified himself as a “quarter Jewish”. He told her he was “very proud” of it but added: “I have to tell you, when we go to London, my mum says I musn’t tell people I am Jewish because there will be trouble.”

Gewolb said: “I could have cried.”

She told the hustings: “This cannot go on. We need to do more. The current leadership of the Board has not done enough.”

The community, she said, needed “to shout louder than our enemies”.

Bowman, who has headed the Board’s defence division, pledged as president to “continue to protect the freedoms, rights and security of British Jews at a time when the risks to social cohesion are so great and when events in Israel and Gaza feed polarisation and hate on our streets here in the UK”.

She added: “While the temptation might be to hunker down, I want us to look outward, beyond our community and to be active allies and build bridges across faith groups, across our communal organisations.”

While Rosenberg spoke of the “unprecedented challenges” after October 7, he said: “What is really important [is that] we don’t give way to defining ourselves by the negatives. We need to be out, loud and proud as British Jews, and we need to reach out to our neighbours and friends of different communities as well.”

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