Marie van der Zyl visits Belsize Square: AGM guest speaker

July 5th, 2023

We were delighted and honoured to welcome Marie van der Zyl OBE, president of the Board of Deputies, as guest speaker at this year’s Annual General Meeting on 15 June. Marie is only the second woman, and the first member of a Reform community, to have been elected president.

In her comprehensive and detailed address, she reminded us that the Board is the first port of call for the government, the media and others who need to understand the Jewish community’s concerns and interests. It has representatives from 180 synagogues and 49 communal organisations. With that many points of view, often differing, Board plenary meetings ‘can be challenging’, but where possible a consensus is reached on important issues and ‘there is more that unites us than divides us.’ This unity is the envy of many other faith communities.

As president, she has many official functions. She had the honour of representing the Jewish community at the Queen’s jubilee and at her funeral as well as at the King’s coronation. The Board is one of the 27 ‘Privileged Bodies’ of the United Kingdom, so when the King acceded to the throne she attended Buckingham Palace to present the Board’s loyal address.

But there are also difficult times. The first controversy that hit her in her presidency was the situation with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. She said that he brought antisemitism from the fringes of society right into the heart of the main opposition party. This was a very tough time, but Jewish community organisations came together for the common good. In reply to a later question, she said that she had worked with Labour and that the party had been taken out of special measures by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but that at a local level there were still concerns and that to get rid of the culture of antisemitism is ‘very, very difficult – it may never go’.

During her presidency, the Board has remained very active in countering other instances of prejudice. Following the George Floyd murder, the Board’s Commission on Racial Inclusivity produced 119 recommendations. They campaigned for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be proscribed. They tackled the BBC on its reporting of the attack on a ‘Chanukah bus’ in Oxford Street, the complaint ultimately being vindicated by Ofcom, resulting in a BBC apology. Last year, on behalf of the Board, Ms van der Zyl successfully brought a Church of England Tribunal case against a vicar who had circulated antisemitic social media posts and ‘engaged in conduct that provoked and offended the Jewish community’. A board scheme supports people experiencing prejudice in universities and at work.

Building relationships across communities remains a major part of the Board’s activity and educating non-Jewish people is an important component of this, with a travelling Jewish Living exhibition and responsibility for the Judaism section of a GCSE Religious Studies textbook. Good communication is maintained with both the Church of England and the Catholic church.

Ms van der Zyl took several detailed questions and in conclusion said that the Board is a team of volunteers, dedicated to the community, and ‘if we weren’t here, you would certainly notice’.

Belsize Square Synagogue’s three Deputies are Deborah Cohen, Peter Strauss and Dilys Tausz. They are happy to be contacted if members have issues that they wish to bring to the Board’s attention.