JLC merger off the table for both Board of Deputies presidential candidates
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JLC merger off the table for both Board of Deputies presidential candidates

Incumbent Marie van der Zyl and challenger Jonathan Neumann clashed over allegations of 'dirty tricks' during fiery Jewish News hustings

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

A fierce head-to-head between the two candidates for president of the Board of Deputies led to allegations of “dirty tricks” and an unexpected rejection by both contenders of a merger with the Jewish Leadership Council.

This is the first challenge to a sitting president seeking a second term since 1964, and in a fiery hustings held on Tuesday evening, moderated by Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer, neither incumbent Marie van der Zyl or challenger Jonathan Neumann was ready to give ground.

Both candidates are lawyers — and it showed, as each carefully set out their positions. Mr Neumann scored an early “hit” as he devoted almost half of his opening remarks to expressing sorrow over the tragic deaths at Israel’s Mount Meron, particularly sending sympathy to the family of the young British man who died, Moshe Bergman.

But if this played well with his supporters, then Ms van der Zyl was ready to recite highlights of her achievements during her three years at the helm of the Deputies — including, as she mentioned at least three times, her pride in the fact that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had blamed her for his loss of the Labour whip.

Neither Mr Neumann nor Ms van der Zyl was anything more than lukewarm about the prospect of a merger between the Board and the JLC, despite continuing financial constraints in the community. Mr Neumann believed that while it was important to “minimise duplication”, the two were organisations with “a mix of collaboration and competition” — having the JLC in place, he said, kept the deputies “on our toes”.

Ms van der Zyl said that having two bodies was a feature of “communal architecture” that perhaps would not have existed if Anglo-Jewry were starting from scratch, but she felt that both the Board and the JLC complemented each other, particularly during the pandemic.

Jonathan Neumann

Mr Neumann ran into trouble when he was challenged about his 2018 book, To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. “This is a book about American Judaism and the politicisation of that community”, he said, claiming that his book had become misrepresented by people who he didn’t think had actually read it.

He added: “It is deeply unfair to suggest that I am talking about Progressive or Orthodox or any of the mainstream denominations of Judaism. This is the sort of misrepresentation we’ve seen through this campaign. I’ve committed to running a positive campaign, my vision of the future of the Board and it’s a shame that people who are not interested in what I have to say are trying to demonise me and trying to scare people into not voting for me. I have representatives supporting me from across the Board, and I have every confidence that I will be able to represent every part of the community if I am elected.”

The increasing right/left polarisation of the community was addressed by both candidates, as questions were asked by deputies about the wisdom of accepting Yachad onto the Board, and about attacks by Na’amod on the new Israeli ambassador. Ms van der Zyl, promoting herself as the first woman to stand twice for president, declared: “There has been a lot of publicity about the voting caucus and people voting on political lines”.

Marie van der Zyl

She said that when the latest applicants to join the Board — including Maccabi and Jami, the mental health charity — had been made public, deputies had been contacted and urged to vote politically, which she deplored. “There is certainly a great polarisation — we have to engage in debate with respect. I think constantly wanting to vote on all aspects of the Board’s business doesn’t necessarily produce the right results, because we are not a parliament on opposite sides, we are together as a community. We have to learn to love each other and embrace each other.”

Separately, the Alliance of Jewish Women held the first equality hustings for candidates for the posts of treasurer and three vice-presidents of the Board. The contenders were asked what they had previously done to challenge harms against women, to promote gender equality, and to ensure more women’s voices were heard both at the Board and in the community.

Three short films outlining the candidates’ views have now been released. They were supported by Sally Patterson, the Board’s Equality Champion, and deputies from all women’s organisations represented at the Board: Judith Flacks-Leigh (Jewish Women’s Aid), Flora Frank BEM, (Emunah), Dr Liora Malki-Epshtein (WIZO) and Ella Marks (League of Jewish Women).

Watch the full recording of the hustings here:

 

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