UK Jews thank Pope Francis for his friendship and support
By Linda Bordoni
Marie van der Zyl told me she is proud to be the second woman President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews since 1760. That’s since the establishment of the Board when seven deputies were appointed by the elders of the Sephardi congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to form a standing committee and pay homage to George III on his accession to the throne.
Today, the organization is the voice of the British Jewish Community, the first port of call for the government, the media and others seeking to understand Jewish interests and concerns. One of the main efforts the Board is involved in today is in opposing the threat – and the reality - of antisemitism, a phenomenon, Marie explained, that has found fertile ground in social media and that has led to horrific acts of violence and intolerance.
The precious signed copy of a first, signed edition, of “History of the Great Synagogue”, by renowned British Jewish historian Cecil Roth, was the gift Marie and Michael Wegier, the Board’s Chief Executive, chose to give to Pope Francis in gratitude for his ministry of inclusion, his message of fraternity and his recognition of Catholic-Jewish friendship.
I offered my services as “translator,” but Pope Francis listened carefully to Marie as she thanked him for promoting Catholic Jewish relations and for his efforts towards Holocaust Remembrance. He personally answered his guests in English, assuring them of his prayers and asking them to pray for him as well!
The Board of Deputies of British Jews
Afterward, I asked Marie to tell us more about the organization she heads: “We are the democratic representative body of UK Jewry” she explained, representing the full diversity and spectrum of British Jews. Part of the Board’s mission, she said, is to “represent ourselves to government and to the media and anyone else who wants to understand anything relating to the Jewish community.
She told me 180 Synagogues are members of the Board of Deputies and 48 communal organizations. It is engaged in advocacy in a spate of issues that relate to the Jewish community, she added, and is also committed to working for the protection of refugees.
The main fields of its activity, however, are the fight against antisemitism, interfaith dialogue, religious freedom, education, Israel and the Middle East and International advocacy. Its members, she said, “have a lot of interaction with members of the UK Parliament,” including meetings with the PM and the Opposition.
Jews in the UK
There are about just under 400,000 Jews in the UK, and the Board of Deputies includes the whole range of Jewish communities from the liberal and progressive Jews to the Orthodox, including one representative of the Haredi, ultra-Orthodox community.
Marie said that since Sir Keir Starmer was elected as the leader of the Labour Party, the Party itself has undergone a huge transformation to try to end antisemitism within it, but she said: “it is ongoing work.”
The Board, she stressed, is engaged in fighting antisemitism in politics, on university campuses, within the intelligentsia, and in recent years, within the context of social media.
She noted that the rise of hate speech and of hate crimes often derives directly from hatred online and “this presents a huge challenge in the UK” and has led to actual physical violence against Jews.
Collaboration with Catholic Bishops
Marie upheld the work the Board is doing in collaboration with members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences and with the Catholic Education Service “to have a united front. We engage in the teaching of Judaism in Catholic schools, and this has been something that's been very, very important.”
She also highlighted the good relationship between the Catholic and the Jewish communities and said “we wanted to thank His Holiness for everything the Catholic Church has done through Nostra Aetate to improve Catholic Church relations, and all he does today, including work for Holocaust Remembrance in the UK and elsewhere.”
Marie also wanted to make quite sure, she said, that the Pope knows “we bring good wishes from all parts of our community and, we are pleased to say that we know he's also met with the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, a few years ago.”
“Combating hatred and prejudice, I know, is something that the Pope very much believes in. He is very supportive of the Jewish community and this is very appreciated,” she said.
Marie van der Zyl concluded with a reflection on the importance the Pope and her own community place on interfaith relationships, noting that the Board also has a healthy relationship with Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
“Rising antisemitism in the world, leading to recent terror attacks in the US and in the UK, have caused huge concern, and it's very important to thank His Holiness for speaking out against antisemitism as he has done.”