Challenger's book sparks fiery clash at Board presidential hustings

Marie van der Zyl accuses Jonathan Neumann of demonising American Progressive Jews. He rejects claim that he has only a handful of Progressive supporters


Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl has launched a sharp attack on her challenger Jonathan Neumann, accusing him of having demonised American Progressive Jews. 

In a second night of electoral hustings – this time for Reform and Liberal Jews – she took him to task over the book he published three years ago in America. 

Entitled To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, the book is a critique of the idea of tikkun olam. 

“I have certainly not written any book demonising American Progressive Jews and then saying they are just American Jews, not English ones,” she said.

As president of the Board, “you have to have the confidence of every single denomination and having unity does not mean writing books trying to demonise a certain section of the community because that’s nothing but offensive to try and pass it off as anything else”. 

Mr Neumann, who represents Shomrei Hadath Federation Synagogue on the Board, defended the publication as “a best-selling book that’s published by one of the biggest and most reputable publishers in the world”. 

It was an analytical work which a leading Harvard University Jewish studies professor had praised as opening “a window to a conception of Judaism that’s broader, less partisan and spiritually richer than many American Jews have ever known”, he said. 

But pursuing her attack, Mrs van der Zyl contended: “I do not see how anyone can be president of the Board having written such a divisive book and then claim to bring unity. I find it absolutely offensive and I don’t understand why he doesn’t appreciate the offence caused and try to address that rather than to try and say it is a best-seller." 

Mr Neumann took issue with her claim that he had only a handful of Progressive supporters, saying half his campaign team were Progressive. 

But the chair of the meeting, Karen Newman, co-convenor of the Progressive deputies, said that tikkun olam was central to the Judaism of many Progressive Jews and that was what Progressive deputies found difficult to grapple with. 

Mr Neumann responded: “Britain and America, it is often said, are divided by a common language. Having written and been published in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, that is absolutely true. I have to write in a different style for an American audience. 

“And you can see that from the publisher’s title and the publisher’s subtitle of the book. They are in an American idiom. That is the style of American publishing. It is not the style of British publishing. And that is a difference.” 

He had spoken about the book to Progressive and unaffiliated audiences from New York to California. “I spoke on it at one of America’s flagship Progressive synagogues and the books that were on sale at that event sold out. People are interested in the debate.” 

The two will go head to head again on Tuesday in hustings held by the Board ahead of the election on Sunday.


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