As Vice President of The Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl holds a prominent position in regards to the concerns of the United Kingdom’s Jewish citizens today. The Board of Deputies, according to its website, “has been the voice of British Jewry and the representative of Jewish communal interests to government, media and others for over a quarter of a millennium”. Furthermore, it “remains to this day the only democratically elected voice of British Jewry”, shaping and safeguarding Jewish communal interests through ways including its work in schools and its exposure of antisemitism.
Marie begins our interview positively when I ask what it means to be Jewish in Britain today, though none can doubt from her words that there are clearly difficult issues for the Jewish community in this day and age.
“There is much to celebrate about being Jewish in Britain today,” Marie says. “We have a very vibrant and diverse community, and are integrated into all walks of life. At the same time we are not complacent – as any visitor to a Jewish school will discover, for example (security etc).”
It is hard to deny that Marie’s response has a small tinge of negativity to it, given her reference to “security”. It is unsurprising in a period where there has been rising antisemitism in Europe. In January, The Independent reported that 8,000 Jews left France for Israel in 2015, with the overriding reason cited being “a steady rise in the rate of anti-Semitism over the past 15 years.” Just a few days before, the spokesperson for Hamburg’s Jewish community, Daniel Killy, said that German Jews were “no longer safe” in Germany. What is Marie’s response to the crisis?
“In western Europe we have seen the deeply disturbing rise of attacks on Jews,” she explains. “A number of these attacks have been carried out by Islamists, including fighters returning from Syria. Unfortunately, there is a real issue of extremism which is poisoning community relations in a number of cities and countries. The Board of Deputies responds by advocating for governmental support on the issue, but at the same time we are also proactive. Our programme Nisa-Nashim brings Jewish and Muslim women together on a grassroots level, for example.”
“Malia Bouattia has not responded adequately to questions from Jewish students about her views”
When it comes to university life, Marie notes that there are difficulties specifically faced by Jewish students.
“Jewish students face a number of challenges, chief among them anti-Israel activity on campus which often directly impacts on their sense of wellbeing.”
In April, the National Union of Students elected Malia Bouattia as their president. The election was not without controversy, however. Bouattia attracted allegations of antisemitism, having co-authored a blog post for a Friends of Palestine campaign group in 2011 saying that “the University of Birmingham is something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education”. In response, Bouattia defended her claims, explaining in an article for The Guardian: “I want to be clear, again, that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is in no way me taking issue with being Jewish.”
However, Marie is firm in her response to Bouattia’s election when I press her about it: “Malia Bouattia has not responded adequately to questions from Jewish students about her views. She appears to believe she can neatly divorce Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel and that this shouldn’t have an impact on the wellbeing of Jews on campus. She has also made appalling remarks about a Jewish society on campus being one of the ‘challenges’ she faced.”
“The leadership of the Labour Party must take serious action against those accused of anti-Semitism and not give a platform to those who express anti-Semitic views”
lately. Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah and a number of members have all recently been suspended from the party due to allegations of antisemitic remarks. Peers have suggested that antisemitism is a big problem within the party: Lord Levy told BBC Newsnight that it existed across the political divide but seemed “more prominent” within Labour, while cross-bench peer Baroness Neuberger claimed Labour’s antisemitism problem was “attached to Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader”, adding that it was “an issue with the hard left”.
When I ask Marie for her response to cases of antisemitism within Labour, she is clear.
“The Board of Deputies has been very firm and vocal on this issue.
We have called on the leadership of the Labour Party to take serious action against those accused of antisemitism and to not give a platform to those who express anti-Semitic views. We have also called on Jeremy Corbyn to disassociate himself from anti-Semites and terrorist sympathisers. We have also called for a robust and vigorous enquiry by the Labour Party into issues of antisemitism within the Labour Party.”
My conversation with Marie has shown me that, far from being an outdated issue, antisemitism is still a huge problem within our society. Evidently, a concerted effort needs to be made to tackle it to ensure a society in which different beliefs and ideas are wholeheartedly accepted.