The video you’re watching in this post is from August 2018 and it’s of Marie Sarah van der Zyl, the current and 48th President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She’s being interviewed by i24News – a right wing Israeli news channel. In the interview, Van der Zyl claims, repeatedly, that Jeremy Corbyn had been “spending more and more time with terrorist and extremists” and “with people who threaten the security of Britain”. She seconded one of the presenter’s outbursts that supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are “a cult” and said that “Jeremy Corbyn had declared war on the Jews at home”. According to Van der Zyl, Jeremy Corbyn’s “hatred of Israel and Zionism runs so deep” and “he cannot separate that from anti-Semitism”. In other words, in her opinion, anyone who has an issue with Israel or Zionism ‘is’ an anti-Semite. When asked if Theresa May had spoken out, Van der Zyl immediately sang the praises of the Tory party, claiming that “The Tories have always shown themselves to be friends to the Jewish community”, despite the fact that the Tories have a far worse record with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia than Labour.
This interview threw up a lot of questions for me… Who are the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who do they really represent and what are their objectives? I decided I’d try and find some answers to these questions and found myself going on a bit of a surprising journey through history and stumbling across some shocking revelations that I’d now like to share.
The Board of Deputies (BoD) are self-appointed representatives of all British Jews. Established in London in 1760, the first deputies appointed to the board were from the Sephardi congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The Ashkenazi Jewish congregation appointed their own “Secret Committee for Public Affairs” shortly after. The two groups met frequently and by the 1810s they amalgamated into ‘the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews.’
The BoD are affiliated to the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Part of the WJC’s mission statement is “countering anti-Semitism and the de-legitimization of Israel; and continually supporting the State and People of Israel in their struggle to live in peace with their neighbours”. They are also affiliated to the European Jewish Congress (EJC). Amongst the objectives of the EJC’s primary is the mission “to promote a balanced European policy towards Israel and the Middle East, and to assist in the construction of a healthy dialogue between Europeans and Israelis”. Another objective of the EJC is to prevent “nuclear terrorism”.
One of the first Presidents of the BoD was Joseph Salvador (1766 & 1778), who has been referred to as the only Jew to serve as a director of the British East India Company. Although it’s not proven Salvador was a director, he did invest a lot of money in East India Company stocks and was active in Company politics in the 1760s.
A notable early President of the BoD was Sir Moses Montefiore (1835–1838) who was a financier, banker, activist, philanthropist and the Sheriff of London. In 1860, Montefiore founded Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish settlement to be built in Palestine, outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. In fact, the Montefiore family were diplomats and bankers across Europe and appear to have held the presidency of the BoD for most of the 19th Century.
Another prominent President of the BoD was Sir Stuart Montagu Samuel (1917–1922), 1st Baronet (24 October 1856 – 13 May 1926), who was a British banker and the Liberal MP for Whitechapel between 1900 and 1916.
Lord Rothschild (Lionel Walter), 2nd Baron Rothschild, a British banker, politician, zoologist and member of the Rothschild family was president of the BoD between 1925 and 1926. Rothschild was a prominent Zionist leader and it was Rothschild who received a letter, issued by the British government in 1917, announcing its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. This statement is better known as the Balfour Declaration and was passed to Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
So, a cursory glance at past presidents of the BoD reveals a long line of Zionists, quite a few financiers and a healthy crop of Liberal, Conservative and Labour MPs.
As explained, the current and 48th President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews is Marie Sarah van der Zyl, a lawyer specialising in employment law. As a claim to fame, back in 2012, Van der Zyl defended Stringfellows nightclub by arguing that the claimant, a lap dancer, was self-employed. Van der Zyl once boasted “the only difference between me and a Rottweiler is that a Rottweiler eventually lets go”. Marie Sarah van der Zyl announced her bid for presidency of the Board of Deputies in March 2018. Her campaign was focused around tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, taking on Jeremy Corbyn and protecting Jewish rights – specifically the right to circumcise male children and slaughtering animals in accordance with Kosher traditions. In an article in the Jewish News at the time, van der Zyl exclaimed that British Jewry was “at a critical point” and pledged to “defend Israel’s legitimacy and its centrality to Jewish identity”
Simon Rocker did a piece on Marie van der Zyl in the Jewish Chronicle back in May 2018. In the article, van der Zyl explains how her grandfather, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport, made Aliyah (‘moved to the land of Israel’) in 1969 and how this gave her a “great passion for Israel”. Later in the article, in response to Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, she remarked how she believes it is “Israel’s right” to choose its own capital. It’s worth noting that the Board of Deputies offices share the same address as the United Jewish Israel Appeal (1 Torriano Mews, London NW5 2RZ).
Later that year, in an article in the Jerusalem post in December 2018, Van der Zyl said that she believes that the Board of Deputies exists “to promote a sympathetic understanding of Israel”. The journalist interviewing her, Josh Dell, wanted to ask Van der Zyl about a recent demonstration by Charedi Jews who decided to protest outside the Board’s annual dinner and affirm that the “BoD do not represent 50,000 Charedi Jews” in this country. Dell remarked, after his interview with Van der Zyl, that he was “left acutely aware of just how difficult it is to attempt to represent all sections of a Jewish community, even one as relatively small as the 290,000 in Britain”. He goes on to cite a poll undertaken in 2015 by City University London (commissioned by Yachad), that found that 68% of British Jews felt a “sense of despair” every time settlement expansion in Israel was announced. The BoD have come under severe criticism from Yachad more than once. In 2018, Yachad presented a letter signed by over 500 British Jews criticising the BoD for “deeply misrepresented” their views when the BoD criticised Hamas for “repeated violent attempts at mass invasion” while completely failing to call for Israeli restraint or acknowledging that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) acted disproportionately in killing scores of Palestinians. The ‘Liberal Judaism’ movement (formerly known as the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues and who, as of 2010, became the fourth largest Jewish religious group in Britain), also said “the Board’s credibility as the voice of British Jewry depends wholly on its willingness to listen to, hear from and reflect the values of all sections of the community”.
In a response to the BoD’s recent demands that the Labour leadership candidates must agree to sign up to their 10 ‘pledges’, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) have responded by advising the candidates that the BoD have no right to claim to speak for the British “Jewish Community”, especially given that Charedi Jews (approx 20% of the British Jewish population) do not recognise their authority. They also point out that they can’t claim to represent the 50% of all British Jews who happen to be secular either.
JVL have publicly rejected the BoD’s 10 demands, explaining that they severely undermine justice and the disciplinary and legal process for anyone accused of anti-Semitism. They point out the demand calling for “prominent” offenders to never to be readmitted into the party was “political vengefulness” and a ploy to claim important scalps, after all “how can it be just or appropriate to specify different penalties for people depending on how well known they are or have become?”. JVL also explain the BoD’s demand that they be given access to details of ongoing disciplinary cases undermines confidentiality and is particularly unacceptable, especially as allegations do not establish guilt and they point out that this would also contravene data protection laws.
JVL also rejected the BoDs demand that Labour outsource their disciplinary process to an independent provider, explaining that this would effectively mean handing over control of who is/isn’t entitled to be a member of the Labour party to an external body, which would completely strip Labour of its autonomy and effectively neutralise Labour as a political party.
In Nov 2018, Van der Zyl wrote an article in the Jewish Chronical in which she praised Louise Elllman, Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, John Mann, Ian Austin and Margaret Hodge as “Labour heroes”. She also criticised the paper for allowing “a comment piece on Cable Street from Jeremy Corbyn” and boasted that the BoD have shown, with the ‘Enough is Enough’ demonstration and the ‘vigil for Pittsburgh’, that they have the power to “turn out.. hundreds or thousands with just 24 hours’ notice” and that they can “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” until Labour are prepared to repent and change.
However, there are clearly a number of Jewish communities and Jewish organisations in Britain who do ‘not’ wish to be represented by the BoD and statistically speaking, the figures seem to suggest that this would be a significant majority of British Jews. Jewish Voice for Labour explain that a potential 70% of British Jews do not feel represented by the BoD which makes the BoD’s demand that any engagement with the “Jewish community” must be through “main representative groups” impossible! In fact, neither the BoD nor the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), both highly vocal groups who do not support Labour and who have repeatedly maligned the Labour Party, could claim themselves to be “main representative groups”.
I should also mention that the chief executive of the Board of Deputies is Gillian Merron, the former Labour MP for Lincoln (1997 to 2010) who held a number of prominent positions in the Blair/Brown governments, such as Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Secretary to the Cabinet Office, Minister for the East Midlands, Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Minister of State for Public Health). Merron was one of 98 MPs named in the June 2009 MPs expense claims exposé, having claimed £929,339 in expenses over a 7yr period. Merron was appointed Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in July 2014 and was the external affairs officer on the board of Liberal Judaism, between July 2012 and May 2014.
Merron was also made Vice-President of the Jewish Leadership Council in Feb 2013 – an umbrella group for various Jewish community organizations, charities, Zionist and pro-Israel advocacy groups, who’s membership includes Lord (Michael) Levy, Sir Ronald Cohen, Lord Harry Woolf, Lord Stanley Fink, Sir Trevor Chinn CVO, Leo Noe and Lord Janner, as well as Conservative Party Treasurers Howard Leigh and Stanley Fink and the President of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation, Michele Vogel. Constituent members include the Zionist Federation of the Great Britain and Ireland and the Zionist Youth Council. The leadership have received a lot of criticism by other Jewish groups over the years as members appear to be self-appointed and unaccountable.
In December 2006, the Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews joined forces and formed the ‘Fair Play Campaign Group’, in reality a pro-Israel advocacy organization that coordinates activity against anti-Israel boycotts and other anti-Zionist campaigns. In December 2009, the Council declared their support for a change in UK law that would prevent the issuing of arrest warrants against Israeli leaders without prior consent of the Attorney General (advocated by Lord Pannick QC) and in June 2011, the council and the Board of Deputies met with Foreign Secretary William Hague to “discuss developments in the Middle East” where they expressed their “concerns about a potential Palestinian Authority move at the UN for recognition of a Palestinian state”.
The BoD has had its fair share of controversy. In 2003, they reproduced an extract from a US State Department report claiming the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund (Interpal) was funding terrorist organisations but when Interpal threatened to sue for libel the BoD retracted and apologised.
In 2005, Ken Livingstone, compared a Jewish Evening Standard reporter, Oliver Finegold, to a concentration camp guard, the BoD filed a complaint to the Standards Board for England calling on Livingstone to apologise. Livingstone, who had a “25-year running battle” with the paper’s owners responded… “there is no law against ‘unnecessary insensitivity’ or even ‘offensiveness’ to journalists harassing you as you try to go home”. Needless to say, the complaint against Livingstone was unsuccessful.
In 2014, the BoD were criticised by some conservative Jewish communities for putting out a joint statement with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) calling for peace, following a particularly aggressive Israeli military operation in Gaza. Although the statement had 75% approval from the board in 2014, they had a significant back lash from 25% of their membership and by December 2015 the BoD had distanced itself from the MCB.
In 2018, the BoD were forced to suspend the deputy for Finchley United Synagogue, Roslyn Pine, for six years for referring to Muslims as “the vilest of animals” and Arabs as “so evil” and saying how she “detests the creed of Islam” and believes that killing Jews and “destroying Israel” is a fundamental pillar of Islam. Even more shocking was that Pine claimed that every deputy at BoD held similar views “otherwise what is their purpose there?”. Oddly enough, while the BoD took the view that Pine had brought the Board into disrepute there doesn’t appear to have been a statement from the BoD distancing themselves from her remarks. This suggests they were only concerned about the public’s perception of the BoD and it exposes a weakness in their ability, or even desire, to challenge Islamophobia from certain right wing Jewish groups that they represent.
When you have a BoD that fails acknowledge, let alone deal with the rampant Islamophobia and racism from its own members, fails to apologise unreservedly for disgusting Islamophobic comments from one of their own deputies, aggressively supports Zionism, fights BDS, tries to block the arrest of Israeli criminals and then arranges meetings with a British Foreign Secretary in order to demand he apply pressure on the UN to stop them recognising a Palestinian state, then you know you’re dealing with an unaccountable organisation, with its own racist agenda.
Incidentally, it was around the same time as the BoD ‘suspended’ Roslyn Pine, that the President of the BoD, Van der Zyl, went on the i24 Israeli news channel to slander Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour membership and claimed that that Corbyn was “a threat to world security”.
It also turns out that any dissent, even within the ranks of the BoD, is simply not tolerated. In September 2018, the BoD took a no confidence vote against the board’s Senior Vice-President, Dr Sheila Gewolb, simply for criticising Israel’s Nation State Law. The BoD claimed Gewolb had “breached the IHRA definition of antisemitism ‘in applying double standards’ to the country”. The Nation State law basically rules that only Jews have a right to national self-determination in Israel. Gewolb was censured because she said that Israel was wrong and that “all people should be valued and Israel’s Arab and other minority populations should be a treasured part of society.” I think most people might struggle to find another country with a “Nation State Law” that privileged one particular religious group over another so claiming a breach of the IHRA definition on the grounds that Gewolb didn’t criticise any other country for doing the same was odd, to say the least. Members of the BoD even called for her removal, saying her statement “inappropriately meddles in the democratic process of another sovereign nation”.
Any Labour candidate for leadership now needs to consider, very carefully, what they are saying to the 3.5 million British Muslims in this country, the 2/3rd of all British Jews who happen to be secular or follow the Charedi faith and who do not subscribe to the agenda of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Labour membership and British voters as a whole, if they agree to concede to the BoD’s demands and they need to consider the potential consequences that might result if they do.