Those expecting blood on the streets at the presidential hustings for the Board of Deputies triennial elections were to be disappointed.
At the JW3 hustings on Tuesday night, all the candidates — Edwin Shuker, Marie van der Zyl, Sheila Gewolb (both Board vice-presidents) and Simon Hochhauser — stepped aside from the constitutional wrangling of the previous weeks, as to who was entitled to stand under what rules.
Instead, each offered their vision of the next three years with them in the presidential chair, presentations watched with some interest by former Board president Vivian Wineman, who was in the audience.
The hustings followed a BBC Question Time format under the chairmanship of Stephen Pollard. But — to considerable audience laughter — he declared his role redundant as candidate Sheila Gewolb appeared to take over proceedings.
First she asked Edwin Shuker “is this the answer we rehearsed?” and then — when the candidates were each invited to ask a question of one of their competitors, asked Simon Hochhauser to provide three reasons why deputies should elect her as the next Board president. (Mr Hochhauser duly did so, with some grace).
Each candidate pointed to their background and experience, both inside and outside the Board. Employment lawyer Marie van der Zyl overcame cancer as a young mother; Sheila Gewolb, who stopped formal education when she was 16, announced that she had turned 70 but brought with her a lifetime of practical “low-key” communal work, adding “this is my time”; Edwin Shuker spoke of his experience as a 16-year-old refugee from Baghdad, his command of Hebrew and Arabic and his knowledge of the Middle East; and Simon Hochhauser is a technology specialist who is the former president of the United Synagogue.
- Marie van der Zyl: Next generation must have voice they deserve
- Simon Hochhauser: I have the skill, vision and motivation to lead
- Edwin Shuker: Our community leaders must listen, not just talk
- Sheila Gewolb I’m a relentless advocate for our community
All the candidates acknowledged the major challenges that face any incoming president of the new Board, not least making it a relevant organisation to the community. Edwin Shuker pledging to bring “empowerment and excitement to the Board if he were elected, said that as a new deputy he had been asked to fill out a “skills form” and that he had “waited to be tapped for what I could offer. I am still waiting”. Sheila Gewolb said that much more use had to be made of the talents of deputies, and spoke of the challenges of tackling antisemitism across the political spectrum.
In an urbane presentation Simon Hochhauser said that he was used to appearing on broadcast media in his business life and that he could “marshal the facts in a way that only someone experienced can produce”. Mr Hochhauser is already chair of Milah UK which fights to protect Jewish male circumcision.
The temperature of the discussion became more heated when audience member Sharon Klaff, who runs an organisation called Campaign for Truth, challenged Marie van der Zyl with having ignored a report it had produced about the attitudes of the Islamic community which has bought the Golders Green Hippodrome for use as a mosque. Ms Klaff claimed that the community had links with Hezbollah and Islamic extremism; but Ms van der Zyl said that not only had she read the report in detail but that she had visited the centre and spoken to three religious leaders there.
Edwin Shuker was more forceful: “I have no quarrel with the mosque. I went to see them, I sat with them. If there is real evidence that they want to harm us, we will act. But they bought the centre in a public auction and they have done nothing illegal. I will defend the right of every citizen to live and pray as they wish.”
Other issues raised for concern were the continuing one of Labour antisemitism; organ donation; and child sexual abuse. The candidates have already taken part in hustings in Glasgow and Manchester. The ballot takes place on May 13.