‘Far-right’ row ahead of vote for new Board of Deputies president

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‘Far-right’ row ahead of vote for new Board of Deputies president

Progressive deputies denounce group backing challenger Jonathan Neumann against incumbent Marie van der Zyl in next month's election.

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Marie van der Zyl and Joanthan Neumann
Marie van der Zyl and Joanthan Neumann

A bitter row has erupted ahead of elections for the Board of Deputies leadership after the group planning a challenge to current president Marie van der Zyl was branded “far-right” in a briefing document.

The memo, prepared by a small group of Deputies as a strategy plan to be shared among the lay leadership of the Reform Movement, claimed that a “far-right wing caucus” was backing challenger Jonathan Neumann, of Shomrei Hadath Synagogue, in his bid to be elected president next month.

The document, titled Reform Deputies to Reform Leadership, also referred to a book written by Neumann that openly criticised the interpretation of tikkun olam, or “healing the world” made by the Jewish left. 

Neumann, a director of the Jewish Human Rights Watch group, claims in his 2018 book that “the Jewish left corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel”.

Jewish News has learned that Laurence Julius, deputy for Holland Park Synagogue, and one of the members of the so-called ‘gang of four’ who first sparked the challenge to the current Board president, reacted furiously having been alerted to the existence of the memo. 

In a warning emailed to six Reform deputies, Julius wrote that he had “been made aware of a highly divisive and very nasty communication” and labelled the allegation that the caucus is far-right “libellous”.

He added: “I would appreciate if you could ensure that the smear is not repeated and the document is withdrawn and that you personally dissociate yourself from this message.” 

But Jewish News understands those behind the document have no plan to retract the memo.  

They point to senior figures in the rival caucus, including the Manchester-based lawyer Robert Festenstein, who represents Prestwich Hebrew Congregation.

After appearing  in a video put out by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – who is also known as Tommy Robinson – on YouTube in 2017, Festenstein, another Jewish Human Rights Watch director, denied that the far-right activist was his client. 

He said: “I was interviewed by Mr Robinson in connection with a matter where I am instructed by a client who has a potential dispute with Sunderland City Council. Mr Robinson is not my client. I have no association with him.”

The pro-Neumann group has sent all supporters a list of their five main principles – including banning any criticism of the Israeli government, calling all forms of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) antisemitic, and suggesting the Board should not get involved in issues that do not impact the community.

In further explanation of these principles, it claims: “This caucus does not have political opinions.. Our members have a range of views, including support for, opposition to and agnosticism towards a two-state solution.”

The caucus leaders also claim their principles “accord with the views of the overwhelming majority of Anglo-Jewry”.

The Reform deputies urge their supporters to back current president Marie van der Zyl in the Board election next month. They also urge supporters to back David Mendoza-Wolfson for vice-president in a poll that will be held under the single transeferable vote system.

The rival caucus is backing Gary Mond, the Jewish National Fund’s Deputy, for vice-president. 

Jewish News has approached Neumann and Julius for comment. Deputies linked to the Reform Movement refused to comment on the briefing document and its use of the term “far- right”.

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