Over the last few weeks, the JC and its editor Stephen Pollard in particular, has run a series of articles criticising me and the Board of Deputies for our engagement with Labour. These have varied between saying we are too strong, and then too weak, on the subject. I have the utmost respect for this newspaper and its editor, but they have got this wrong, and I am glad to have the opportunity to put the record straight.
Two weeks ago, in his leader column, Mr Pollard took issue with the strong language I used in relation to the current challenge of antisemitism facing Jews around the world. This seemed a strange critique coming from a newspaper that has not been averse to bullish language on the subject. Indeed, it often exalts male Jewish leaders who do so, whether my predecessor Jonathan Arkush, my colleague Jonathan Goldstein, or our previous Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Stephen Pollard himself has even had occasion to backtrack on language he felt was too strong. So why is it that when men say these things, they are ‘tough’, and when I say them, I have apparently ‘lost the plot’?
Having been accused of coming across ‘too strong’, I was surprised to find myself this week being accused of being ‘too weak’, in an article published just before Shabbat. The apparent ‘cause of concern’ is that we invited Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner to our Parliamentary Chanukah Reception, having also invited Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to our annual dinner a couple of weeks’ ago.
Like me, I imagine that JC readers will be surprised that this particular criticism would come from a newspaper that, just one week ago, hosted a comment piece on Cable Street from Jeremy Corbyn, trailed on its front page. This would appear to be something of a double-standard.It also misses the context that Ms Rayner is part of a line-up which includes representatives from all the main parties, including a senior Cabinet minister, Liberal Dem Leader Sir Vince Cable and SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford.
It is true that there are some in the community seem to have adopted the ‘grand strategy’ of calling Jeremy Corbyn names in the Jewish media, refusing to speak to him or anyone around him and ... well, that’s it, actually. They think you can fight a culture of racism by sticking out your tongue, crossing your arms and stamping your feet. That may sound cathartic, but it is unlikely to be an effective way of winning the argument.
Readers of the JC will be pleased to know that the Board of Deputies has a more sophisticated approach. Whether with the Enough is Enough demonstration or our vigil for Pittsburgh, we have shown that we can turn out the hundreds or thousands with just 24 hours notice. Over the summer, we showed how we could keep this issue of antisemitism on the front pages day after day, week after week, exacting a severe political and reputational cost for continued failure.
However, we are not unreasonable. We set out our concerns to the Labour leadership clearly and rationally, and our door remains open to the possibly of repentance and change. While that may seem unlikely, we continue to build relationships right across the political spectrum to be ready whatever changes in circumstances or leadership, now or in the future.
Pursuing the communal interest is why the Board of Deputies and our colleagues at the Jewish Leadership Council have continued our engagement with these and other Shadow Cabinet members like Angela Rayner, Emily Thornberry and Andrew Gwynne in recent weeks and months. To put it simply: it is impossible to advocate for Israel if you won’t speak to the Shadow Foreign Secretary, or to speak up for Jewish schools if you refuse to speak to the Shadow Education Secretary.
Furthermore, in attending our events, the leading Labour figures are not treated to a chorus of approval for their Leader or Party, but rather have to listen to me and others making our criticisms absolutely plain. They hear my praise of Labour heroes like Louise Elllman, Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, John Mann, Ian Austin, Margaret Hodge and others.
One of Mr Pollard’s wilder assertions is that we have ‘betrayed the victims of antisemitic abuse’. Given the unrelenting actions of the Board of Deputies in challenging antisemitism, this is utterly absurd. It is also deeply offensive. It is no secret that, having been on the front line of this issue, many of us at Board of Deputies, have ourselves been frequent victims of antisemitic abuse from Labour sources, which the JC has itself covered. While hyberbole may help to sell newspapers, it is deeply wrong and irresponsible to blame the victims for antisemitism, and I hope that the JC will reflect on this.
Whatever insults journalists hurl, there are three things people should know about me:
Firstly, I did not become a partner in a law firm by being a ‘soft touch’. It has been said of me that ‘the only difference between me and a Rottweiler is that a Rottweiler eventually lets go’. I take that as a compliment.
Secondly, while some people think that my slightly raspy voice is a sign of weakness, what they don’t realise is that I survived a cancer which meant I lost one of my vocal cords. At one stage, the doctors feared I would never talk again. Well, now I am the leader elected to speak for the UK Jewish community. What appears to be a weakness is actually a sign of my strength.
Thirdly, my role at the Board of Deputies is a voluntary one which I do at the expense of paid work. I do it because I care deeply about this community and will do everything to sustain and protect it. Whether on our brightest day or in our darkest hour, you will find me leading from the front.
I will use all these attributes in continuing to take Labour to task over its appalling record on antisemitism. To engage with Labour, or not to engage, is a sensitive question that requires a nuanced approach. Cutting all links may sometimes be tempting, but it is not effective leadership. One thing is for sure: engagement does not mean concessions, and we will continue to fight until we have eradicated the scourge of antisemitism from our politics.
Marie van der Zyl is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews