JVL Introduction

Breaking news: A proposal to censure the Senior Vice-President of the Board of Deputies Sheila Gewolb for singling out Israel – contrary to the IHRA definition of antisemitism – has provoked much mirth and chortling among the Board’s critics. You can find it reported in the Jewish Chronicle here: Deputies push no confidence motion against Board vice president for criticising Israel’s Nation State Law.

Some “concerned deputies” like neither the criticism nor the mirth as the following internal memo makes clear…

Dear Deputies,

We have decided to initiate the process for proposing a motion of censure against Jacob Lyons, the Deputy for Western Marble Arch Synagogue; and Martin Rankoff, the Deputy for Redbridge Synagogue.

On 27 September this year, Mr Lyons circulated (and Mr Rankoff seconded) a letter proposing a Vote of No Confidence (“VONC”) in Dr Sheila Gewolb, the Senior Vice-President of the Board of Deputies, who had stated in a press release about Israel’s Nation State Law that, “Whilst we celebrate Israel’s Jewish-ness, there is concern that some of the measures in this law are regressive steps“. In this letter, among other claims and propositions of dubious merit, Mr Lyons alleged that Dr Gewolb had: “Breache[d] the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism in “applying double standards to Israel by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.“.

This claim by Mr Lyons that Dr Gewolb is in breach of IHRA – and is, by implication, holds anti-semitic views – is deeply wrong and morally grotesque. The Nation State Law was the subject of fierce debate both inside Israel and by communities across the Diaspora, and was defended and criticised by leaders and organisations throughout the Jewish world. The head of the Anti-Defamation League, probably the most prominent and significant diaspora organisation fighting anti-semitism, said that “we are troubled by the fact that the law, which celebrates the fundamental Jewish nature of the state, raises significant questions about the government’s long-term commitment to its pluralistic identity and democratic nature“. While individual Deputies may agree or disagree with these arguments, the claim that in voicing this opinion Dr Gewolb was expressing anti-semitic views is not just false, but in fact severely damaging to the on-going fight against anti-semitism in the UK.

Deputies will recall that over the last few years, and particularly in the last few months, a broad coalition of communal organisations and figures (including the Board) have advocated heavily for the adoption of IHRA by public bodies and prominent institutions, most obviously the Labour Party. The unity and unanimity of purpose displayed in pursuit of this goal has been unprecedented: – organisations from the right and left of our community, rabbis from every denomination, political figures from every party and ideological alignment. Immense efforts and intense lobbying have been dedicated to the goal of widespread adoption of IHRA as a universal standard for defining and combating anti-semitism.

Time and again in the struggle to have IHRA adopted, our enemies have argued that it is not really about anti-semitism, but is rather an attempt by a conspiratorial “Zionist lobby” to restrict political speech about Israel. This malicious slur has been rebutted endlessly by advocates inside and outside our community. The Community Security Trust called this claim “a gross misrepresentation of what IHRA actually states, and implies that those who back IHRA do so in order to curtail freedom of speech, rather than to oppose anti-semitism“; and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a speech last month advocating the full and unamended adoption of IHRA by the Labour Party, that “We can criticise specific policies of Israel, we can support the cause of a Palestinian state and we can say with one voice that all racism practised against Jewish communities is wrong“.

The attempt by Mr Lyons to claim that Dr Gewolb is in breach of IHRA – and is, by implication, holds anti-semitic views – is not just deeply wrong and morally grotesque, but has already done severe damage to efforts to enforce and expand the reach of IHRA. It has been a gift to those who have – falsely – claimed that the entire purpose of IHRA was to restrict criticism of Israel.

For example, Mike Cushman, a prominent member of the so-called “Jewish Voice for Labour” and “Labour Against the Witch-hunt”, wrote in a post on Facebook shared almost 150 times that: “Board of Deputies Officers are now using IHRA definition against each other in an internal power struggle. If it can be misapplied there it shows the dangers it puts everyone else in for engaging in any criticism of Israel“. Julia Bard, a founder of “British Jewish Socialists” and a member of the “Jews for Jeremy” fringe groups, said “This is perfect material for us to show how repressive are the supporters of the IHRA definition!“. Having spent so much time and political capital in fighting for IHRA, it is shamefully that a small group in our own community has disrupted our communal unity and consolidated efforts in order to pursue their own factional interests.

We consider that a public debate on this motion would be deeply embarrassing and counterproductive to the communal unity and broad support which IHRA has until now enjoyed. Although there is no formal process in place for a Vote of No Confidence in an individual Deputy, a “Motion of Censure” is a standard parliamentary procedure to express disapproval or criticism of conduct (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censure). We consider that by their actions Messers Lyons and Rankoff have brought the Board into disrepute, and damaged the on-going fight against anti-semitism. We therefore seek your provisional support to bring a motion of censure against them, should their VONC reach the fifty signatures necessary to proceed.

We deplore the use of a VONC as an adversarial tactic, and seek to return to the spirit of collegial goodwill which have characterised the Board’s activities in previous years. As we wish to operate in a spirit of communal unity and goodwill, at the present time we are not signing our names to this document – just as the current supporters of the VONC (other than Lyons and Rankoff) are not known. However, we ask the following:

– we implore Messers Lyons and Rankoff to withdrawn their VONC

– we ask Deputies to not lend your support to the VONC at this time

– we ask Deputies who have signed the VONC, to write to Messers Lyons and Rankoff and withdraw your name in the spirit of communal unity.

– to write to this email address (in complete confidence) pledging your support for a motion of censure in the event that the VONC proceeds.

In the event that we receive more than fifty responses, we will publicise this fact, but will otherwise not take any action unless the VONC proceeds, at which point we will circulate a formal Motion of Censure for signing. We sincerely and genuinely wish that this step does not prove necessary.

With regards, and in a spirit of communal unity,

Concerned Deputies