A History of the Board of Deputies, 1760-2010

Sweeping the Board — after 250 years

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 15, 2010
Milling in millinery to celebrate Board’s 250th

Milling in millinery to celebrate Board’s 250th

By Raphael Langham
Vallentine Mitchell £35

The writer of an official history faces multiple dilemmas. Should the history be focused narrowly upon the institution, or seek to place the institution within some wider context? Should the institution's archives dictate the shape of the history, or should a broader range of original sources be consulted? Above all, should the history be sanitised and celebratory or frank and critical?

In writing an official history of the Board of Deputies, Raphael Langham assures us that he was given total freedom. So the fact that he has written a narrowly focused account, based heavily, though selectively, upon the Board's own archives, and that his stance is decidedly more uncritical than critical, should be laid at his door. Langham must also take responsibility for a historiographical decision that does not serve him well: each chapter is divided into thematic sub-headings, which vitiate the narrative flow and results in unnecessary repetition.

The London Committee of Deputies of British Jews, founded in the 18th century, evolved in the 19th as an instrument of communal control. During what Langham rightly terms "the Montefiore era, 1828 – 1874", an alliance was formed between Moses Montefiore, the Sephardi lay leader of British Jewry, and Nathan Adler, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi; both used the Committee ruthlessly to impose their will. But, given Langham's methodology, this theme gets lost. A more serious omission is the story of the often stormy relationship between successive Chief Rabbis and lay leaderships of what became, in 1913, the Board of Deputies.

It is often forgotten that the Board has two ecclesiastical authorities (Sephardi and Ashkenazi), which have not always seen eye to eye. One landmark example is the great shechita controversy of 1987-90 - not mentioned by Langham.

The nearer Langham comes to the present day, the more disinclined he is to confront the issues that matter. The establishment of the Jewish Leadership Council, in 2003, is a case in point. Why was it established? What does its establishment tell us about the peripheral status of the Board in the 21st century? These questions are not answered in this book, for they are not asked.

Geoffrey Alderman is a JC columnist

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011