Is talking behind closed doors better than protesting out loud?

The Board of Deputies presidential candidates debate lobbying tactics at the latest hustings


Board of Deputies hustings; candidates Michael Ziff, Amanda Bowman, Phil Rosenberg and Sheila Gewolb with (centre) United Synagogue president Michael Goldstein (photo: Richard Verber)

Candidates to be next president of the Board of Deputies disagreed over whether quiet diplomacy was preferable to public campaigning in one of the few substantial differences to emerge during the lengthy campaign.

In their fifth hustings, this time organised by the United Synagogue and the S & P Sephardi Community at London’s Mill Hill Synagogue, the “gang of four” as one audience member dubbed them, were asked what they would do if the UK imposed an arms embargo on Israel.

Sitting vice-president, and head of the Board’s defence division, Amanda Bowman said she would call for an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, arguing that embargoes don’t work. But she added, she would “do it behind the scenes. It doesn’t necessarily need to be all over the newspapers”.

But Phil Rosenberg, former Board public affairs director, said he would oppose the embargo “very loudly — not in private, loudly and publicly. I think an arms embargo on Israel is blaming the victim… A ceasefire can’t mean that Israel ceases and Hamas fires — that seems to be what a lot of people are saying. We need to push back against that narrative.”

Board treasurer Michael Ziff also said he would seek meetings with the PM, senior ministers and party leaders as well as look to marshal support among friends of the Jewish community in wider society — although he did not go into whether lobbying should be behind closed doors.

Sheila Gewolb said “first port of call” should be the Israeli Ambassador to see what she wanted deputies to do.

The former Board senior vice-president doubled down on criticism she made during hustings last week, saying on Tuesday night that the Board’s leadership had been “invisible” in defending the community. “I stand by that,” she said.

She acknowledged the Board’s work in organising vigils for the release of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas, as well as guidance it had issued for Jewish pupils in non-Jewish schools and employees on dealing with the fallout from the conflict. But she said: “We have not been out there. We didn’t organise the march against antisemitism; we didn’t even support it.”

I don’t think anyone can imagine we are winning the war in the media

Rosenberg said the Board’s response to the march — organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism — had been an “own goal”. The Board had not got involved with the event “until very late in the day,” he said. “A number of us were there and it was a pity that decision couldn’t have been made sooner.”

Asked about countering media bias against Israel, he said he would set up a media rebuttal unit as well as a comprehensive review “to hold the BBC’s and others’ feet to the fire about the biased coverage”.

Gewolb said, “It is not just about being reactive all the time when we see these lies and this bias on the TV… We have got professionals on the staff and deputies with the skills to be able to start talking about why [the hostages] are still in captivity, talking about why Hamas are still refusing a ceasefire. These messages aren’t getting across and this is what we need to do.”

Ziff said he would assemble specific groups to deal with the BBC and other organisations. On the first day of his presidency, he said he would form “a presidency’s advisory group to allow us to bring in deputies with expertise and leaders in law, politics and the media”.

Bowman agreed that “we need a specialist group of people just working on the comms we need to do.”

She said: “I don’t think anyone can imagine we have been winning the war in the media over the last six months.”

The majority of Jews support Israel in Great Britain… and therefore we support Israel

One of the most challenging questions came from 19-year-old Noah, a Bristol University student, the youngest in an audience of 40, with another 20 watching online, who asked whether the candidates had any plans to “address the nuance of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and specific Israeli military action”. In contrast to the “intense polarisation” on campus, he wondered if there would be “space for measured discussion and criticism to allow Jews in this country to help shape Israel into the greatest and most just state” it could be.

Ziff emphasised: “The majority of Jews support Israel and are Zionists in Great Britain. We are the Board of Deputies of British Jews and therefore we support Israel. That is the number one. It is really important, that message.”

Gewolb said: “We can’t influence Israel government policy”. That was for those who had the vote in Israel, she added.

Bowman said the Board’s remit was to stand up for “the security and standing of Israel”. Deputies had a wide range of views around Israel and while they could debate as much as they liked, “whether or not we agree or disagree with the way Israel is pursuing the war… this is not our role”.

Rosenberg said: “I don’t think we should be frightened about diversity or debate.” But while he embraced debate, he said he would look forward to pushing ahead on issues where there was unity, such as campaigning on behalf of the hostages or for the proscription of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the UK.

When the candidates were asked what they felt to be the strongest aspects of each other’s campaign, Gewolb pointed to the respect they had for each other. She believed everyone would agree that so far “we are having a good campaign — we’re still upright, vertical and breathing, so that’s a good sign.”

Rosenberg said: “Sheila, you represent change and I think we need change. Amanda represents competence and I think we need competence. And I think Michael represents experience and I think we need experience.” But he added — to audience chuckles — “if you want all three things, change, competence and experience, you might do well to vote for me.”

Bowman said she admired “Sheila’s tenacity — for 40 years she has been going up and down the country educating young people about Judaism and that’s a really strong thing…

“I admire the fact that Phil has loads of ideas. I love the ideas; I just wish I knew how he was going to put them into practice. I’ve worked with Michael for the last 18 months, so I know that Michael has a real sense of the community. He’s been up and down the country, into shuls, so he understands the shuls and what deputies are looking for and he has enormous experience within the community.”

Ziff saluted Gewolb’s “outstanding work ethic”, Bowman’s contributions to the Board’s work and Rosenberg’s ideas.

Ziff said there would be “three great people who will be disappointed” at the end of next month’s election and suggested it might be an idea to hold the vice-presidential poll a month later so the defeated presidential candidates would be able to stand for the office.

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