Deputies' bloody Sunday?

By Simon Rocker, January 17, 2011

It is two months since UJIA chairman Mick Davis took the community by surprise with the vehemence of his critique of the Israeli government. He said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lacked the courage to advance the peace process, described some Knesset bills as offensive and warned that Israel faced becoming an apartheid state if there were no two-state solution.

His outspokenness was unprecedented in recent times for a lay leader in his position. So it was natural that members of the Board of Deputies - the council chamber of British Jewry - should want to have their say on the matter.

However, they have been kept waiting while the Board's administration tried to find room on its agenda, leaving them to grumble that the Board had time for lectures from outside speakers but not for its own rank and file to air their views. Finally, they will get their chance at the next meeting on Sunday,
when the Board has scheduled a debate on Israel, which will put its own policy under the spotlight.

According to the Board's constitution, one of its nine objectives is to act to advance Israel's "security, welfare and standing". There is nothing in the constitution to bind it to support the Israeli government of the day. In theory, the Board can take the view that Israel's standing is better served by an opposition party than by the ones in power.

But, in practice, its stance has boiled down to what one critic - Laurence Brass, now Board treasurer - once complained was the "slavish following of the Israeli government line". Three years ago, Brass failed to convince his fellow deputies to accept an amendment that would allow open criticism of Israel.

The Board has seen its role as to defend Israel from unfair criticism

The Board has seen its role as largely to defend Israel from unfair political or media attack but not - as Mick Davis has done - to articulate diaspora anxieties over Israeli policy. According to veteran deputy Jerry Lewis, a vice-president of the Board, "We are not voters, we don't have the right to speak on the individual policies of an Israeli government. Any issues of concern we have are raised privately in the appropriate manner."

But there is a problem with this diplomatic approach. How can a representative body be accountable to the wider public if its leadership only conveys what it thinks in private?

What issues of concern do the Board's leaders have? How far do they correspond with those of Mr Davis, who is not only chairman of the UJIA but also chairs the executive of the Jewish Leadership Council?

Sunday's debate is likely to expose persisting tensions between many deputies and the JLC. Even though the JLC and the Board's executive have recently moved to strengthen ties by setting up a joint liaison committee, the council has been unable to allay distrust among deputies who regard its very existence as undermining the role of the Board. So who calls the shots on Israel - the JLC or the Board?

Mick Davis may have spoken in a personal capacity, but the reaction suggests that much of the council is broadly in agreement with what he said. Potentially, this is challenging for the Board; whatever position it adopts, the government and other bodies it lobbies will have cottoned on that a significant section of the Jewish community shares Mr Davis's views.

The Board will probably try to stick to a consensual approach, taking up issues where it believes it has widespread support - for example in relation to the academic boycott, universal jurisdiction, campus extremism: but avoiding any explicit stand on contentious areas, such as settlement building.

However, there are hints that the Board recognises that some positions are more palatable to the outside world than others. Last month, it published a booklet, Zionism; A Jewish Communal Response, which is intended to explain to church members the importance of Zionism and Israel to British Jews. This was drawn up in response to the creeping influence of anti-Zionism and Palestinian liberation theology among Christians.

The contributors include three senior rabbis, Dr Tony Bayfield (Reform), Danny Rich (Liberal) and Jonathan Wittenberg (Masorti) - all of whom, incidentally, have been supportive of Mick Davis.

In his essay, Rabbi Wittenberg says that a two-state solution involves an end to settlement-building and also refers to "indignities and injustices encountered by many Palestinians".

Rabbi Bayfield says he is "horrified by some strands of Zionism which treat the Bible as an exclusive title deed" and that premature messianism has led a small minority of Jews in Israel to "claim far more than is just, never mind realistic".

The Orthodox viewpoint is provided by Dan Rickman, a long-standing supporter of Peace Now, whose doveish sympathies underlie his essay. (There is no contribution from an Orthodox rabbi - but that is another story).

This is Zionism portrayed, under the banner of the Board of Deputies, from a left-of-centre, rather than a right-of-centre, perspective. There is not a whisper about Judea or Samaria.

Last updated: 12:23pm, January 17 2011