Capitulation of the Deputies

'What goes around comes around" - so they say. I began writing this column 11 years ago. My debut appeared in the issue of March 1 2002. The topic I had chosen for my inaugural essay was the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The subject-matter had been triggered by a silly contretemps involving the Board, its then president (former headteacher Jo Wagerman) and the Chief Rabbi, whose attempt to involve himself in a Holocaust Memorial Day event in Manchester had annoyed her. This was because it seemed he had - through an innocent oversight, no doubt - omitted to seek permission. 

This story had reached the press through the leak of an internal Board memo. That leak had been accompanied by another, involving a protest from Mrs Wagerman to the Home Office, which had thoughtlessly declined to front Home Secretary David Blunkett as the principal government "guest" at an HMD gathering. 

I dismissed these incidents as side-shows that were unimportant compared with the actual needs and concerns of British Jewry at the time. Of the Board itself, as it functioned at that period, I wrote that I could not think "of an organisation more irrelevant to the contemporary well-being of British Jews". 

I was reminded of that on reading, on the front page of last week's JC, about the extraordinarily convoluted condemnation of the Board by its former vice-president, Jerry Lewis.

The Board, Lewis wrote, is "in chaos." He denounced Board president Vivian Wineman and his team for "presiding over the rapid disintegration". He also blamed Wineman's predecessor, Henry Grunwald for "two strategic errors" - namely, hiving off shechita defence to Shechita UK, and creating the London Jewish Forum to confront Ken Livingstone.

Lewis concluded by saying that although, as vice-president he had felt himself unable to support the Jewish Leadership Council (which, he might have added, arose from another Grunwald initiative), he now proposed to throw in his lot with it, because it had stepped up to the plate and was "taking urgent measures to plug the numerous lacunae" created by the Board's present and recent leadership.

Nowhere in Lewis's article was there any mention of the undeniable fact that the Board does not, as presently constituted, represent anything approaching the totality of British Jewry. Lewis needs to remind himself that the Charedim, the fastest growing section of British Jewry, with their very high birth-rate, are not part of the Board (or, indeed, of the JLC) and do not wish to be.

Shechita UK was created partly in order to address that "lacuna". Grunwald was right to sponsor its birth, a decision vindicated by the excellent work it continues to do.

As for the London Jewish Forum, let's be frank: this is a peripheral piece of theatre that played no part whatsoever in the gratifying defeat of Mr Livingstone in last year's mayoral contest.

But the JLC is a quite different creature. It has money. Therefore it exercises power. And that - surely - is why Lewis has now done a U-turn and is calling upon us all to support it.

I have on more than one occasion devoted this column to the JLC, and to the communal ambitions of its leading light, Mick Davis. The JLC originated a decade ago as an attempt by Henry Grunwald to engage with the moneyed classes. The initiative was entirely honourable. Even I supported it, to a point.

The fact is, however, that under the weak leadership of Vivian Wineman, the JLC has been permitted to usurp the Board. As I wrote in 2011, Davis is intent upon imposing upon British Jewry a "New Order", in which, by design or circumstance, the JLC will appropriate the functions of the Board.

I believe the current plan, for the Board to share with the JLC its staff and resources, has no other purpose. Lewis hopes this will happen "as soon as possible," so that "a new democratic structure for the combined organisation" can emerge.

If Lewis seriously believes that Davis and his wealthy cronies are actually interested in democratic structures, then he is a bigger fool than I ever imagined could be the case.

Last updated: 9:45am, May 27 2013