Toxic, weak and chaotic at the Board

The JC Essay


By Jerry Lewis, May 17, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter
The Queen is shown the Codex Valmadonna I  book by  (from left) Vivian Wineman, Maurice Ostro and Lord Sacks at multi-faith reception to mark the Diamond Jubilee

The Queen is shown the Codex Valmadonna I book by (from left) Vivian Wineman, Maurice Ostro and Lord Sacks at multi-faith reception to mark the Diamond Jubilee

The departure of Jon Benjamin as CEO of the Board of Deputies is not only welcome it is also, I believe, much overdue. He is one of the nicest guys around but the introduction of fresh blood at the Board cannot come soon enough to improve effectiveness across the organisation.

Against a background of rising antisemitism, growing anti- Zionism and ongoing attacks on shechita and brit milah, the need for a pro–active Board has never been greater. Yet it has become increasingly irrelevant and has been outpaced by the Jewish Leadership Council. Not, as many suppose, because the JLC's members want to run our community but because, under the Board's current lay and professional leadership, it has left so many gaps - black holes, to be more precise - that, were it not for the quick-reacting JLC team, would have left our community in a far worse place.

Fitting the JLC and the Board onto the same stage was always going to be a difficult juggling act. In my periods as a Vice President and Senior Vice President of the Board, I was opposed to the JLC, fearing it would eventually dominate the communal scene and diminish the role of the Board.

Former Board President and senior JLC office holder Henry Grunwald ensured in his own way that the two organisations worked in parallel. But they rarely worked together.

The CEO’s departure affords a wonderful opportunity to reconstruct the Board

And he made two strategic errors that lost the Board key roles: hiving off the protection of shechita to Shechita UK; and the creation of the London Jewish Forum to tackle the Livingstone threat. Both should have remained under the Board's auspices.

Jon Benjamin's departure coincides with what can best be described as a calamity in other staffing at the Board. Two key departments have no experienced personnel. Four key staff have left over the last month; another is due to go on maternity leave next month.

Staff morale is already very low; the atmosphere has been described as 'toxic'.

Junior staff are paid such ridiculously low salaries that, within a year or two, they move on to a better level of remuneration. Such short-sightedness wrecks continuity and gives no encouragement to those who wish to make a career in our community. We lose talented young people.

I have held my counsel until now and admit I did not do enough when I was a Vice President, until May 2012. But I can keep quiet no more. The President, Vivian Wineman, and his team are presiding over the rapid disintegration of what was once an organisation of which I and so many others were immensely proud. Any Deputy close to the Board will be witness to the alarming signs of chaos, verging on disaster.

Small wonder the Jewish Leadership Council have surveyed the situation and are taking urgent measures to plug the numerous lacunae.

For a start, the President pays scant attention to constitutional guidance and precepts designed (by me amongst others) to protect the Board from unwelcome influences, such as restricting speakers at debates to just two minutes, ignoring the standing order that allows for four.

Individuals are appointed to posts, expenditure is approved without adequate scrutiny and the Board signs up to campaigns which, according to its rules, should follow a debate and the agreement of all 265 Deputies. But communication is poor or non-existent, and attempts to ascertain information can hit a brick wall.

For years there has been harmony between the various segments of the community represented at the Board. Henry Grunwald and I worked scrupulously to ensure that no sector or denominatio was disadvantaged in our decisions and work. That is now changing. One wing - Reform - is now trying to assert itself and throw out the careful balance on which the Board depends. The President has allowed this.

Worse still is the atmosphere at the top. The Board are proposing a Code of Conduct for Deputies, a move I championed for 30 years. It will deal with a host of issues. But as far as I am concerned, the most important section relates to bullying. In my last years as a Vice-President, I sensed an uncomfortable climate amongst staff.

As for a President who has verbally attacked his own colleagues at the Jewish Leadership Council: this does such harm to the very relations that need to be encouraged and improved. Little wonder that those same - usually very generous - individuals have tended to shun the Board's requests for donations.

The Board used to have ten committees on differing subjects (Israel, international, shechita, education, parliament etc) each of which elected their own chairman. They were knowledgeable and experienced and constituted the Executive. About 40% of Deputies were thus 'involved' in the Board.

Then management consultants were called in, who failed to understand the representative and democratic nature of the Board. Now only 50 Deputies are involved and there are just four divisions of 12 people. The four Honorary Officers are elected separately and appointed by the President to head a Division, with little regard for their abilities or knowledge.

Add to that a Chief Executive who had what might politely be described as a hands-off management style and one quickly sees a recipe for disaster.

Judge for yourself. When a delegation led by the JLC goes to meet a minister, it is serviced with a briefing document listing all the participants, the issues to be raised, who is to lead on each issue, descriptions of who they are to face on the other side of the table and on occasion a draft statement to be agreed at the conclusions of the talks.

In all my time as an Honorary Officer, not once was I given even a single such note. Hopeless.

No wonder we do not operate as we should.

Another example. I was asked by the President to work on a scheme for Israel and other advocacy. With my experience in Westminster, Whitehall and the media I had the ideas and know how. But even though a budget and an intern were provided, every attempt to get the scheme off the ground was frustrated.

The Board is in a complete mess. It is a relief, although no way to run an organisation, that the JLC repeatedly steps in to provide cover for our failures. The Honorary Officers of the Board will deny all this but the JLC and many others who try to deal with the Board have been aware for a long time that it is no longer 'fit for purpose'.

When Mick Davis addressed the Board - and was treated despicably by Deputies - he could not have been clearer. The JLC sees itself primarily as a strategic body. It was constituted to allow key communal organisations to deal collectively with risks and deliver solutions.

From a position of having opposed the JLC, due principally to its undemocratic set up, I have now turned 180 degrees. It is a vital piece of our communal architecture.

Out of the shambolic situation the Board is now in, the best move we can now make to save it is to secure an immediate merger of the two civil services. That will automatically cut out rivalry and enable those who know what they are doing to get on with the real work - and to do so under the imprint of the Board.

This will need goodwill from both sides and carefully worked on safeguards to retain the democratic and representative nature of the Board. There will need to be properly elected committees to set out policy which, via accountable, transparent procedures, a revitalised staff can implement. Talks are now underway - but without the vast majority of Deputies being involved in any changes.

The CEO's departure and the serious situation facing the Board today afford an opportunity to reconstruct the Board to work in partnership with the JLC, with staff able to work in a professional atmosphere, properly rewarded for their endeavours in a framework that adheres to the principles of accountability, openness and transparency, retaining the democratic and representative aspects of the Board to be combined with the professionalism and well resourced JLC. It could be a winning combination.

There is a place for both organisations to work alongside each other. Each of us have a role to play but, for the Board to continue, it now has no option but to share resources and staff with the JLC.

I desperately want the Board to survive but the only way left is for a rapid merger with the JLC at staff levels and a new democratic structure for the combined organisation. I am prepared to work for that. I hope Deputies will respond to the call to enable this to happen as soon as possible.

Jerry Lewis was Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies until May 2012

Last updated: 8:45am, May 17 2013