Board chief: MCB link was an act of 'leadership'

Interview: Gillian Merron


The new chief executive of the Board of Deputies, Gillian Merron, has stood by the Board's controversial joint statement with the Muslim Council of Britain in her first interview since taking office.

The former Labour minister, who joined the Board the day after the launch of Israel's operation in Gaza, said that, "the thing about leadership is about making judgments. Not everyone is going to agree."

While she understood some people were uncomfortable with the initiative, she argued: "At a time of heightened anxiety, to work with the Muslim community to make a joint statement against antisemitism was unprecedented. The reception, including from government, has been positive. [Communities Secretary] Eric Pickles wrote this week welcoming that kind of stance."

Criticism over the wording of the statement as well the Board's decision to co-operate with the MCB - an organisation it previously shunned - has come on top of wider grassroots dissatisfaction with the reaction of Jewish leaders to antisemitism and hostility towards Israel. But Ms Merron felt "very strongly this is a time to stand together, not to pull ourselves apart".

She said she is to carry out a review of the response to the events of the past two months. "I'll be getting out and about across the community to invite a constructive discussion."

While grassroots campaigns were "absolutely valid", they had not rendered the Board irrelevant. "I don't think it's either/or. There is a role for an organisation like the Board, that also represents the grassroots." No one had "a monopoly," she stressed. Some work was "done very publicly, some less publicly. What matters is whether it works."

She and colleagues were due to meet the BBC next week to discuss its coverage of the war; the British Retail Consortium had been briefed on the impact of boycotts on British Jews.

The Board had also "equipped and encouraged" people to write to MPs: "Representation to members of parliament is vital. If they don't hear from constituents, it's not an issue. MPs also influence their leadership. If the leadership believe the public mood is going a different way, they may go a different way. We should remember, the government's overall position stayed pretty steadfast and very much in support of our position. That's not by accident."

But asked if she had picked up the phone and remonstrated with former political colleague Ed Miliband over the Opposition Leader's criticism of Israel, she said: "Is this the point I say 'you might think that but I couldn't possibly comment'?"

The Board and other Jewish organisations are now planning a longer-term campaign centred on its newly launched "Jewish Manifesto" ahead of the General Election. The 40-page document is "a major piece of work that contains "clear policy asks - that's my hand on it." It calls, among other things, for politicians to refuse contacts with Hamas until it recognises Israel, opposition to boycotts and support for coexistence projects.

She believes a "line was crossed" in recent months when attacks on Israeli policy slipped into action which intimidated Jews, such as the removal of kosher goods from shops: "It's not like Operation Protection Edge stopped and everybody went back to normal. I think the ground has shifted."

The pre-election campaign might include the public rally announced by Board president Vivian Wineman.

As for whispers of a planned demonstration outside the embassy of Qatar over its support for Hamas, she said "there is nothing to report".

While the arrival of an experienced politician at the Board was widely welcomed, some questioned whether it signalled a leftward tilt in the organisation, given that its public affairs director Phil Rosenberg is a Labour councillor. "I have to laugh at that," she said. "The Board is avowedly apolitical, there is no one who is a greater guardian of that than me. "

The fallout from Gaza may have dominated her first weeks in office, she said, but it was important to remember that the Board still had "a day job" to do in education, interfaith and other areas.

Based in London, she retains a home in her former Lincoln constituency. The small Lincoln community "remains very important to me. I hosted a Kabbalat Shabbat at my house a month ago. I get a sense of belonging and peacefulness from that."

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