INTERVIEW: Phil Rosenberg on his eight action-packed years as the Board’s Public Affairs Director

By Simon Round

Phil Rosenberg leaves the Board of Deputies this week after eight years as Public Affairs Director. He can look back at a career during which the organisation achieved a level of national prominence unparalleled in recent times.

However, Phil had an inauspicious beginning in the role.

While his appointment made the front page of the Jewish Chronicle, the headline of the story was not what any new recruit would want to read. “Board in Chaos”, it announced. The line announcing Phil’s arrival was buried in the final paragraph.

Since then, things have turned around quite dramatically. He explains: “What I tried to do with the four Chief Executives and four Presidents I have served was to turn that ship around and transform us into a fighting fit unit. The Board was a key component in the fight against Labour antisemitism and in other areas the Board is showing more leadership and is more influential than it was before.”

The traumatic events surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party were certainly central to Phil’s time at the Board of Deputies, and doubly troubling for someone who was at the time serving as a Labour councillor in Camden. While the organisation gained national and international coverage for its opposition to antisemitism in the party, he recalls that the Board gave Corbyn every opportunity to disassociate himself from his actions and statements before he became leader.

“There was much anxiety in the community when we saw that Jeremy Corbyn was actually becoming a credible candidate for the leadership in 2015. This started an explosive, some would say scary, chain of events. However, we decided that we had to try to engage constructively when he was first elected. Some were saying ‘why bother to engage?’ but had we attacked from the beginning we wouldn’t have stored up credibility of at least trying to engage in good faith for when we needed it later.

“We worked very hard to have a constructive partnership. The then President and CEO, Jonathan Arkush and Gillian Merron, went to meet Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 with a series of proposals. They asked him to show us he had changed. They asked him to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah and retract some of his previous statements. He said he would think about it, but, as we know, he didn’t do any of these things”.

The week following that meeting, what would become the Labour Party antisemitism crisis began with allegations about Jew-hatred in the Oxford University Labour Club. This was handled terribly by the Party and then the issue gathered steam with the storm surrounding Ken Livingstone’s Nazi statements, followed by the Chakrabarti “whitewash for peerages” scandal, then ultimately the controversy over an antisemitic mural in East London.

Phil says: “We had reached the end of our tether. We organised the Enough is Enough demonstration in Parliament Square together with the JLC, but we did so with a degree of trepidation. We really didn’t know how many people would come with a maximum of 48 hours’ notice – and in the week before Pesach too. Jews don’t normally turn out for these things in great numbers, so we thought if we could get 50 or 100 to show up that would be amazing. Eventually thousands came. It got a huge amount of national coverage, a lot of front pages and in the news bulletins. It was the key moment when we began to push back. We had another meeting with Corbyn along with colleagues from the JLC and CST, again with reasonable proposals. We gave it every chance, but Labour gave us nothing. We then began to come to the view that, for the crisis to end, either Corbyn’s mind had to change, or the leadership had to change.

Finally, following the General Election in 2019, Corbyn stood down and that was the cue for work to begin to ensure that, whoever his successor was, the antisemitism would be addressed. “We began engaging with the leadership candidates. We put out our Ten Pledges which were the things we thought Labour really had to achieve if they were to change things around. Almost all of the candidates signed up on the first day to the Ten Pledges, but it became its own debate in the party because some deputy leadership candidates refused to sign up. In the event, Keir Starmer was elected. He wrote to our President Marie van der Zyl on his first day in office and he met us on his fourth day.”

While Phil can clearly see the progress which has been made there are still battles to be won against left wing antisemitism. “There are still many people knocking about the grassroots of Labour with questionable views. Beyond that there are the challenges in some trade unions, NGOs and universities. We still need to sort that out before we can be said to have won the battle against antisemitism. Beyond that, we know that there have been incidents of antisemitism in all the main parties so we must remain on our guard. And of course, with 40% of recorded antisemitic incidents now taking place on social media, as Marie often says, ‘online is the new frontline in the fight against antisemitism’”.

The Labour crisis and the Board’s response to the attacks in Paris in 2015 and the Pittsburgh massacre in 2019, organising landmark commemorative events at very short notice, proved that the organisation had become nimble and speedy in reacting to important events. However, Phil feels that the Board’s proactive campaigning work has been equally important. He points to several issues on which Board of Deputies actions have had a decisive impact.

“We are much more proactive than we used to be. We have successfully campaigned to have Hamas and Hezbollah proscribed in their entirety and got the Coronavirus Bill amended to prevent compulsory cremations. We have introduced the Jewish Manifesto series for national and regional elections which gave us a blueprint of what the Board of Deputies would like the world to look like from the Jewish perspective. We, along with our partner organisation EcoSynagogue, were very active at COP26 with events involving an Israeli government minister and the Chief Rabbi. We now have three employees who are primarily based in the regions, a developing relationship in the Charedi community – including signing up the first Charedi Deputy in 50 years. And whereas our work was at one time only covered in the inside pages of the Jewish Chronicle, our media coverage has greatly improved to make us regular contributors to the national conversation. One year, we even saved Sukkot when it looked like all the Etrogs due to come into the UK were going to be impounded and we had to negotiate their release with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs!”

He also points to the Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish community, a huge, ground-breaking effort in terms of how black Jews, Mizrachi Jews and Jews of colour experience the Jewish community.

For someone who has spent so much time amid the turmoil of communal politics, Phil, who is in his mid-30s, is remarkably fresh-faced. He was even more so when he arrived for his first stint at the Board back in 2008, years before he stepped into the Public Affairs Director role. Having grown up in North London’s Jewish community in an observant Jewish family and having attended Jewish primary schools before enrolling at City of London School and later Oxford, Phil developed a passion for interfaith projects. At university he was Co-Director of an interfaith society called MuJewz and followed his passion into the world of work. He says: “After university I really thought I was going to get a sensible job maybe as a lawyer or a diplomat but then I saw an advert for a job as Interfaith Relations Officer at the Board of Deputies. I thought I could get paid to pursue my hobby and then after that maybe get a serious job. That was three amazing years. I then left and became director of the Faiths Forum for London, another interfaith body.”

Having decided that he might have bumped into the glass ceiling of interfaith employment opportunities, he began to look at the public affairs sphere, although not necessarily from a Jewish perspective. However, during a trip to Hungary where he witnessed first-hand the antisemitic activities of the far-right Jobbik Party, he decided he should really call the Board of Deputies to let them know what was going on. “As I was looking at my phone before I got on the plane home, I saw a job advert for Public Affairs Director at the Board. It felt a bit providential. I thought maybe I should come back.”

Now eight years later he feels that a large part of his legacy is the staff he has brought into the public affairs team, which, given the longevity of his tenure, is just about everyone. “I’m particularly proud that Daniel Sugarman, who is the new Public Affairs Director, and Dawn Waterman, the Education and Community Engagement Director, were both originally recruited by me into different roles in the organisation before their well-deserved promotions.”

Having left and returned twice before, Phil does not rule out coming back for a third time, although not as a staff member. He says: “It would probably be good if the Board and I have a little time apart now. But I really admire how Marie, the Honorary Officers and – in fact – all the Deputies give up so much of their time as volunteers to make a positive difference for the community. So, as someone with an interest and involvement in the Jewish community maybe I will return as a Deputy at some point in the future.”

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