Marie van der Zyl’s Rosh Hashanah message: The story of a flourishing community
Last year, my Rosh Hashanah message told of the way the Jewish community came together to proclaim in a loud and firm voice, “Enough is Enough” on antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Since then, the antisemitism crisis has not gone away. However, our campaign against those who pursue this most ancient form of racism has had great successes, notably the suspension of serial offenders including Chris Williamson and Peter Willsman and the expulsion of Jackie Walker.
There is understandable anxiety in our community about the way racists within Labour have been emboldened to express their disgraceful views by the indifference, and at times the collusion, of the party’s leadership. However, as I have been saying since I assumed the presidency of this great organisation in 2018, there is another story to be told.
This is the story of a longstanding community that has lived peacefully in the UK for centuries; a community which, since we were allowed back into this country by Oliver Cromwell, has had the freedom to practise our religion and live a truly Jewish life within a respectful society.
In return, our community has contributed great things, in the arts, in society, in business and in politics and science. We have produced major figures from Abba Eban to Amy Winehouse, from Isaiah Berlin to Mark Ronson. With the prevailing conditions of freedom and respect our community has flourished over the past centuries, and despite worries over the revival of mainstream antisemitism, most of us lead happy Jewish lives.
However, there is a reason that the Board of Deputies has existed since 1760; that is to protect those hard-won freedoms and to ensure that the Jewish community in all its forms and denominations, continues to flourish.
At the Board of Deputies, we are in constant campaign mode, challenging Labour antisemitism through advocacy in the media, and to those in Labour and outside who support us and can make a difference.
Of course, Labour’s antisemitism problem is not the only problem with which we are grappling. Brexit is an issue of enormous national significance, and it will impact on British Jews. We have been working with the Government to ensure that Jewish interests are safeguarded in all circumstances.
The Board of Deputies played a prominent role in campaigning for the terrorist group Hizballah to be banned in its entirety. The Government listened and responded last autumn by ending the artificial distinction between Hizballah’s political and military wings.
We continue to confront and challenge divisive and unhelpful boycotts of Israel. Through our Invest in Peace projects, where we bring Israelis and Palestinians to speak to interfaith audiences, we show that there are better ways to address and resolve differences over the conflict.
We made a significant intervention into the Government’s legislation on organ donation. As we moved from an opt-in to an opt-out system, we acted to ensure that Jews of all denominations were protected. We also obtained compromises from the Department for Education on relationships and sex education that will allow all parts of our community to teach according to their ethos.
We work to educate non-Jewish children and adults throughout the UK on the Jewish way of life. One way we do this is through our mobile exhibition, the Jewish Living Experience which is visited by thousands of children and adults.
We ensure high standard of religious education in schools through our Pikuach inspection service – ‘the Jewish Ofsted’ which is accredited by the Department for Education.
Our honorary officers and staff reach out to local councillors at Local Councillors Seminars across the UK, to ensure that they understand and are sympathetic to Jewish concerns.
Through Milah UK, for which the Board of Deputies provides the secretariat, we campaign for the right of every Jewish boy to be circumcised according to Jewish law.
Our contribution to UK Jewish life is crucial. We will continue to represent you in the coming year to ensure we continue to live freely and safely as Jews as we have done here for centuries.
May this Rosh Hashanah bring you, your families and all of Am Yisrael health, strength and peace.