Fiasco sheds light on New Order

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 14, 2011

On this page on July 29 I offered an analysis of the lecture given to the Board of Deputies by Mick Davis, UJIA chair and chief trustee of the Jewish Leadership Council. I explained that in his address Davis had mapped out the New Order that he and the JLC intended to impose upon British Jewry. I declared that in this New Order the JLC (and not the Board) was to play the principal role in the shaping and implementation of communal policy.

Fearsome indeed were the epithets that fell upon me. Sundry individuals contacted me to say that my remarks, and in particular my characterisation of the New Order, amounted to "a load of rubbish". One northern lady, who claimed she was generally well-disposed towards me, insisted nonetheless that I really had got hold of "the wrong end of the stick".

But I believe my analysis was spot on. For proof I can do no better than direct your attention to the recent goings-on in Manchester, where the well-meaning efforts of one rabbi to fly the flag for Israel have resulted not merely in his personal marginalisation at the hands of the JLC, and not merely in the supersession, by the JLC and Davis, of the functions and authority of the Deputies; they have resulted in the overturning of a status quo that has for 40 years defined the relationship between the Board and the various religious denominations it represents.

The story is, in essence, a simple one. At the end of last year a report by the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute identified the UK - in particular London - as a "global hub" for those intent on delegitimising the Jewish state. Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, of the Orthodox Whitefield synagogue in Manchester, determined to do something about this. He began to contact sponsors and speakers with a view to holding a "Big Tent for Israel" conference in Manchester later this month, from which it is hoped strategies will emerge for countering the dangers the report identified.

It has been hijacked by those with a different agenda

The mere fact that Rabbi Guttentag took this initiative, without having obtained the prior permission of those who seem to think their prior permission must always be sought for events of this nature, was enough to trigger a spiteful campaign against it. Then something very sinister happened: the spiteful campaign was hijacked by those with a very different agenda, namely to force Guttentag (a vociferous opponent of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism) to accept an equality of status between Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious representatives at the event.

Some will argue that Rabbi Guttentag was mistaken in his reluctance to share platforms with non-Orthodox rabbis, particularly where Israel is concerned. I have some (only some) sympathy with this. But that's not the point. The point is that last month Davis sent Rabbi Guttentag a breathtaking letter, threatening that if he did not agree to this equality of status then the JLC, along with the UJIA, the Union of Jewish Students and the Board, would find it "very difficult" to participate in the conference. The threat built on one issued by Board president Vivian Wineman. But in so doing it told us something very significant about what the New Order really means.

In his letter Davis had the effrontery to refer to the constitution of the Board, and to the fact that following the famous "Clause 43" controversy of 1971 that constitution was amended to give a consultative status to non-Orthodox religious leaders. So it was. But the fact remains that irrespective of any such consultation the Board is obliged to follow - and to follow absolutely - the guidance of its two ecclesiastical authorities, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations (Lord Sacks) and the spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy).

I do not know whether Lord Sacks has been consulted regarding Board participation in the Big Tent event, or been asked whether the Board should withdraw if invitations are not extended to non-Orthodox rabbis. I do know that Dr Levy has not been so consulted. Wineman is clearly obliged to consult them on this matter. But Davis is not, because the constitution of the JLC imposes no such requirement.

So now that the de facto lay leadership of British Jewry clearly resides within the JLC, the 1971 compromise has been effectively torn up.

Last updated: 11:44am, November 14 2011