Board presidency challenger says he has experienced racism in Jewish community

Jonathan Neumann tells hustings of the "personal resonance" of Board's report on racial inclusivity


Jonathan Neumann, the challenger for the presidency of the Board of Deputies, has said he has experienced racism in the Jewish community. 

In the first hustings with serving president Marie van der Zyl - who is seeking a second three-year term on Sunday week - he said the Board’s recently published report on racial inclusivity had “personal resonance”. 

The seven-year deputy for Shomrei Hadath Federation Synagogue described himself as “half-Mizrahi”. 

“Despite the fact that I don’t look very Mizrahi, but also because of the way that I look, I’ve also witnessed racist attitudes by others, when they don’t think anyone is in the room,” Mr Neumann said. 

“How much more so our fellow Jews of colour and black Jews would have experienced it.” 

He called the report a “valiant” project and said many of its recommendations had “enormous merit”. 

The two contenders were quizzed by former Board president Jonathan Arkush at a digital meeting on Wednesday night organised by the United Synagogue and the S & P Sephardi Community. 

Mrs van der Zyl said the inclusivity report had been “long overdue and I am very sorry that any Jews felt discriminated against and badly treated and it’s about time now we do something about it”. 

She said that as president over the past three years, she had “stood strong, robustly defending our Jewish interests”, describing the campaign against antisemitism in the Labour party as the Board’s greatest success during that period. 

Its Ten Pledges – setting out what the Board expected to see from Labour – had framed the leadership debate to choose Jeremy Corbyn’s successor. “In his recent court case, Jeremy Corbyn even held me responsible for his losing the Labour whip,” she said. 

Asked about her worst failure, she replied: “I don’t think of anything as a failure”. If something did not happen, “I think we can all learn and improve”. 

Pressed by Mr Arkush on the recent failure of Board’s leaders to muster the requisite 66 per cent majority to pass constitutional forms, she said the votes had only narrowly been lost and the differences were “not so great”.

“I think it will be resolved with goodwill and further thought down the line.”

Mr Neumann highlighted concern about “the lack of opportunity” for ordinary deputies in the work of the Board and his belief that issues such as the campaign of support for the Uyghurs – which he described as “noble” – should have been brought to the floor of the Board first. 

Mrs van der Zyl countered that “everything that we do has gone through the executive. And deputies are very quick to say if they are not happy.” 

Mr Neumann was questioned about a pledge in his manifesto to heal “bruised relations” with the government. 

“The Board in recent years I think has spent an undue amount of its energy criticising government policy on a range of issues, many of which don’t directly impact the Jewish community, and I think it’s left some in government somewhat perplexed,” he explained. 

In response, Mrs van der Zyl brandished a letter from Boris Johnson to the Board about its Uyghur campaign. 

When the candidates were asked why not all United Synagogue congregations were sending their full complement of representatives to the Board, Mr Neumann contended that many ordinary Jews did not feel the Board reflected their priorities. “I think that has to change.” 

But Mrs van der Zyl claimed the reason was financial (organisations pay a representation fee for deputies). 

“We are in the middle of the pandemic and there is a lot of economic hardship and there is a huge impact on many charities,” she said. 

“Perhaps in the short to medium term, other competing financial demands are going to result in the loss of deputies and in these cases I recommend we enter into discussion with the community to understand their needs and see if we can reach an accommodation.” 

Mr Neumann was asked whether non-Orthodox communities would have a problem with him in the wake of the critique of the modern concept of tikkun olam he published three years ago - To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel

“It’s published in America only and the reason is because it is about American Judaism, it is not about British Judaism,” he explained. 

“It doesn’t attack any particular denominations, it analyses a particular phenomenon that is unique to American Judaism… and it deals with that phenomenon that is prevalent also in Orthodoxy as well as Progressive Judaism.”



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