An opponent and a gentleman

With the passing of Malvyn Benjamin the Jewish community in general and the Board of Deputies in particular have lost one of their most attractive and articulate representatives.

I encountered Malvyn first when I began my career as a community activist. We were at the very opposite ends of the political spectrum. He was a spokesman for Herut and at one time a Vice President of Likud UK,  whereas I was a supporter of Peace Now. On a political level, the sparks flew but on a personal level the chemistry worked from the very beginning. For my part, I could not help but be drawn by his avuncular charm. I would tease him over the fact that one of his five daughters worked for a progressive NGO in Israel. There was hope for him yet, I claimed. For his part he told me I was the acceptable face of Peace Now. He hoped, I think, that my own daughters would lead me to moderate or rather abandon my views.

Our paths crossed again, later, when I joined the Board of Deputies. There he was already a distinguished Deputy who represented his synagogue, Hendon United, for a record sixty five years. During that time he served on the Israel Committee and then the International Division, which replaced it, making many interventions in Board debates and activity. Noteworthy was the eulogy, which he delivered at the Board, on behalf of King Hussein of Jordan. His speech had all his usual wit and erudition and was a fitting memorial for a monarch, who apart from helping a Jewish peer with the washing up, after a secret dinner in his house with Shimon Peres, also met with six Israeli Prime ministers before signing the Peace Treaty with Israel in 1994.

His time at the Board was the culmination of a long career of political activity. As a student he was chair of the Inter Universities Jewish Federation (IUJF) the forerunner of UJS. He then was involved with the Liberal party forerunner of the current Liberal Democrats. He was a liberal parliamentary candidate on several occasions. Sadly on each such occasion he was unsuccessful thus depriving the House of Commons of an energetic and articulate MP as well as a vigorous champion of Israel and of Jewish causes generally.

On Israeli politics, however, his inclination was to the right, being a supporter of Herut and then Likud. I recall one private conversation he had with David Owen the former foreign secretary and like Malvyn at this time a liberal democrat. We were discussing the evacuation from Gaza in 2005 and Malvyn suggested that as innocent Jews were being uprooted from their homes how would we feel if innocent Arabs, were also to be uprooted from theirs. This point has been made many times since but is not one with which people on the other side of the divide, including David Owen, would agree.

Malvyn, however, always retained his civilised approach. He once described me as the most Jewish President of the Board by which I think he was referring to my strong ethnic background and my having lived in Israel. In fact, however, our backgrounds were not so dissimilar. He was educated at Dulwich College and then St Paul’s School both distinguished public schools. I went to a very similar if, slightly, less distinguished, school. The ideas of respectful debate and freedom of speech were part of our upbringing. Sadly these seem to be disappearing in the present community. With the issues facing us at present there are bound to be disagreements and all parties must accept that theirs is not the only view. The notion that the community should have one view on politics is, therefore, nothing short of absurd. There are, however, many voices trying to claim that. At the recent hustings for Board of Deputies elections one questioner asked that ordinary Deputies – not  Honorary Officers or members of its executive – expressing a point of view with which, he, the questioner, disagreed, should be censured. Sadly no one replying had the courage to condemn such a blatant attempt at infringement of freedom of speech. I don’t think Malvyn would have gone along with that. It is time that the Board and the community accepted the reality of pluralism in politics, as they have long accepted it in religion.

Malvyn had a rich hinterland outside communal activism, but his greatest joy was in his five daughters. They survive him as does Elayne his ever loyal and supportive wife of nearly fifty years and his twelve grandchildren. Late in life Malvyn was diagnosed with amyloidosis a debilitating condition with which he struggled with his customary courage and humour and about which he wrote a moving account. Fittingly he was honoured in his eighty fifth year by Jewish News as one of their one hundred and twenty 80 year olds-a celebration of the community’s octogenarians.

It was a fitting climax to a long life. May his memory be for a blessing.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
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