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New Board of Deputies of British Jews president is youngest in its nearly 265-year history

Phil Rosenberg told JNS that the top three issues of concern to British Jews are “antisemitism, antisemitism and antisemitism.”

Phil Rosenberg (third from left), president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, poses with honorary officers of the group, from back left: Ben Crowne (treasurer), Andrew Gilbert (vice president), Adrian Cohen (senior vice president) and Jeremy Michelson (vice president). Credit: Courtesy.
Phil Rosenberg (third from left), president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, poses with honorary officers of the group, from back left: Ben Crowne (treasurer), Andrew Gilbert (vice president), Adrian Cohen (senior vice president) and Jeremy Michelson (vice president). Credit: Courtesy.

When Phil Rosenberg explains to JNS why he threw his hat in the ring to become president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews—the umbrella group that has represented the country’s Jews since 1760—he paraphrases Hillel, the rabbi of Mishnaic fame.

“Sometimes, you got to ask, ‘If not me, who?’” Rosenberg told JNS in a video interview from London. “I took a step forward, to lead from the front.”

At 38, Rosenberg is the organization’s youngest president in its nearly 265-year history. He was elected on May 12.

Rosenberg has the advantage in his new role of having served for nine years as the organization’s public affairs director, and he figures those who voted for him for the presidency welcome his “fresh thinking and new energy.”

Rosenberg also brings a love for languages—he studied Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic and Oxford University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem—and a passion for interfaith dialogue to his new role. And during an internship at the U.K. Foreign Office and a brief placement at the Defense Ministry, he got “an insider’s view about what happens in government.” 

He also has a sense of humor. In 2018, he had the chance to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. In the brief time he had with the pope, Rosenberg quipped in Spanish that the two shared similar religious headwear.

‘Love thy neighbor’

Rosenberg was previously a Labour council member for the London borough of Camden, and he is currently a political, international relations and media consultant at Fleetwood Strategy, a London public relations firm.

His run for Board of Deputies president was spurred by his “passion about the U.K. and the U.K. Jewish community within it,” he told JNS. “It is a fantastic place for Jews—has been historically, whilst in many, many respects it remains that way.”

Michael Wegier, the organization’s chief executive, said publicly that the group’s 300 deputies—each elected by his or her respective synagogue or organization—select the president that “they believe will most effectively advocate for our community to the government, opposition, media, other faith groups and the broader British public.” 

Phil Rosenberg
Phil Rosenberg, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Credit: Courtesy.

Those vying for the presidency to replace Marie van der Zyl, who is stepping down after two three-year terms, participated in campaign debates around the country, including in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and London, in front of various audiences, including Orthodox Jews, progressive Jews, Jewish students and Jewish women.

Rosenberg referred to the Torah command to “Love your neighbor” in his victory speech. He also discussed widespread Jew-hatred, he told JNS.

“We’ve had hard times. We’ve come through them, stronger. This will be no exception,” he said. “We need to make the right decisions and take the right actions to make sure that is the case.”

‘Some problems’

Martin Luther had his 95 theses that he is said to have nailed to church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. Rosenberg had a platform that he calls a “manifesto,” with 43 pledges.

He told JNS that the top three issues of concern to British Jews are “antisemitism, antisemitism and antisemitism.”

A significant amount of that Jew-hatred comes from radicalized Muslims, he said. Antisemitism has also been a problem on the far-left, “particularly with what happened to Jeremy Corbyn,” the Labour Party leader who expressed support for terror groups and failed to address antisemitism in his caucus.

Rosenberg told JNS that Labour parliamentarians who have been removed or who left on their own have recently joined the Green Party and the Workers Party. “We keep an eye on that,” he said. He called those people “more hostile and more concerning.”

The sitting government and the opposition have been “broadly supportive” of Jews, Rosenberg told JNS. “But we can’t take anything for granted. In the thick of civil society, media and social media, on the streets, we’ve had some problems.”

Phil Rosenberg
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (center) meets with Marie van der Zyl (second from left), then the new president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and (from left) Phil Rosenberg, Evelyn Yedd and Micheline Brannan on June 11, 2018. Credit: First Minister of Scotland.

Rosenberg aims to launch a commission on Jew-hatred in part to review laws, prosecutions, cultural institutions, universities, the media and social media. It will also probe what the group is doing to educate and connect “with different communities so that we create a series of recommendations to action about how we push back against the problem,” he said.

The large weekly antisemitic demonstrations are “an inflection point,” Rosenberg told JNS. Though many participants “are completely peaceful,” there have been “well over” 1,000 arrests on hate-crime-related incidents against the Jewish community, he said.

He wants to find ways to “hold together an increasingly diverse community.”

“When you’re under attack as we’ve been, or the sense of being under attack, it’s sometimes hard to celebrate how many wonderful things we have,” he told JNS. “We need to make sure that we can convey that to ourselves and very importantly, our next generation.”

He told JNS that half of the more than 272,000 Jews in England and Wales—as of the 2021 U.K. census—have some sort of involvement in Jewish communal life, such as synagogue membership.

Two-thirds of Jewish children attend roughly two-dozen Jewish day schools in the country. Just 3% of Muslim schoolchildren attend an Islamic faith-based school, he said.

Rosenberg, who has been involved in interfaith work, has received support for his directorship from moderate Muslims, which he calls “really touching.”

A local mosque invited Rosenberg and the city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan to attend an Iftar ceremony in March. When the two saw each other, they embraced.

“This was caught on camera, and I shared it and he shared it. It was a very nice moment of interfaith coming together,” Rosenberg said. “This is what relations should be like.”

But an “Islamist extremist organization” also posted the exchange, called him “Zionist Philip Rosenberg” and said that the Board of Deputies “fully supported Israel during its war of genocide against the Palestinians.”

Rosenberg said that the crisis of extremism and prejudice is shared among Jews and Muslims.

“If you look around the world, more Muslims are killed by extremists than anyone else,” he said, invoking the Islamic State, Iran and Hamas. “They’re grooming and radicalizing the young people in Muslim communities.”

He’s glad to have “a lot of friends and support from a very significant number of Sunni, Shia, religious, secular, other kinds of Muslim leaders,” he said. “I think we need to build an optimistic alliance to defeat the extremists together. That’s how we win this.”

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