Marie van der Zyl’s first weeks as the new president of Britain’s Board of Deputies of British Jews – the country’s EJC affiliate – have been nothing if not eventful.
After becoming serving three years as Board vice-president with responsibility for tackling antisemitism and interfaith relations and becoming only the second woman elected to lead the main representative body of British Jews in its 258-year history, van der Zyl seems unfazed by the challenges faced by British Jewry today.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party once again snubbed its nose at Britain’s Jews by announcing a new code of conduct which waters down the working definition of antisemitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Her tone may be a little softer than that of her feisty predecessor, Jonathan Arkush, but the Board’s new president nonetheless shows a steely determination not to let Corbyn off the hook.
“We need to see action, not words from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party,” she argues.
Referring to the main slogan of the Jewish community’s unprecedented demonstration against systemic antisemitism outside the parliament building this past March, van der Zyl continues: “Enough is enough. We meant that.”
Later this month, van der Zyl and Jonathan Goldstein, chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, are expected to meet with Corbyn to follow up the “disappointing” session the communal organizations held with the Labour leader in April.
“We have made a series of suggestions to Labour, and that represents the minimum — and that’s the absolute minimum — standards that we would expect,” she suggests.
“It is impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition. Its actions only dilute the definition and further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle antisemitism within the Labour movement.”
“Labour still has a long way to go and they need to stop seeming [like] they know better than us what antisemitism is and implement our recommendations without further delay,” van der Zyl argues.
As things stand, the party is trying to “hold itself to a lower standard.” Labour also pledged to tackle the backlog of disciplinary cases involving allegations of antisemitism, agreeing that two of the most high-profile – those of Ken Livingstone, and Jackie Walker, a former vice-chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group – would be handled within three months.
Van der Zyl is unimpressed by Corbyn’s characterisation of Livingstone’s resignation from the party in May as a “sad day” and believes the former London mayor “evaded being expelled.” “We still want to see what’s going to happen with Jackie Walker,” she adds.
Nonetheless, van der Zyl offers an olive branch. She thinks that “there is some hope Labour realises how serious the Jewish community is and the serious damage that’s been done to [its] reputation.” This was evident, she continues, in May’s local elections when the party polled poorly in areas of north London where there is a sizeable Jewish population.
“I really do want the Jewish community to be in a position where we can move on and talk about other things, but, ultimately, that’s going to depend upon Labour,” she says.