Can the Board speak for us all?

As the Deputies come up to their 250th anniversary, they will need to address communal doubts and criticisms

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 9, 2009

What does the future hold for the Board of Deputies of British Jews as it approaches its 250th birthday?

It is being said that, for the first time in its history, the Board’s leadership is now left-of-centre — not in any narrow, party-political sense but rather as a measurement of the leadership’s perceived position in relation to a range of communal issues.

Over the past few years, the Board has been on the receiving end of criticism on the ground that it is a mouthpiece for the government of Israel, and that it can always be relied upon to defend actions and policies of particular Israeli governments in an unthinking, jingoistic way.

When Independent Jewish Voices was launched at the beginning of 2007, its founding statement contained this scarcely-veiled rebuke: “The broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole.”

As a matter of fact, the Board has rarely been an unquestioning friend of Israel. In 1956, for example, at the time of Suez, its then president identified himself publicly with those who were heavily critical of Israel’s attack on Egypt.

But, whatever its past history, the Board has now elected as its president Vivian Wineman, a former chairman of British Friends of Peace Now and a founder of the British branch of the New Israel Fund.

In Zionist terms, the NIF is an unashamedly left-wing body. While few would quarrel with its commitment to fight “inequality, injustice and extremism”, it is worth recalling that it has befriended some very controversial causes and organisations, including the Arab Association for Human Rights, which is widely regarded as a body ultimately dedicated to the delegitimation of the Jewish state and which enthusiastically attended the notorious Durban conference of September 2001, conceived as an international instrument to further these ends.

As if the election of Vivian Wineman was not enough, the Board now has as its treasurer Laurence Brass, elected unopposed.

“I shall never agree,” Mr Brass told the JC, “to give unquestioning support to the policies of the Israeli government at all times. While I am fully aware of the responsibilities of public office, I do not propose to suspend my commitment to human rights or sacrifice the principles on which I have campaigned for many years in order to blindly echo the Board’s official line.”

But it is not only in relation to Israel that the Board has attracted communal criticism. On a range of domestic issues, it has been taken to task for acting as the mouthpiece of the Chief Rabbinate and the United Synagogue.

The constitutional position is that, on religious matters, the Board must follow the advice given to it by the Chief Rabbi and the religious authority of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. But it must also consult with the religious authorities of other congregations.

Even as I write, the Board is busying itself in a quest to garner support for the clear wish of its honorary officers that it should declare itself as (in effect) a third party should the recent JFS judgment be taken on appeal to the House of Lords.

This initiative is surely premature, since, following that judgment, a formal Order has (at the time of writing) not yet been made. But, that aside, the religious authorities that operate within the Jewish communities of the UK are simply not of one mind on this matter.

Has the Board taken the trouble to consult (I wonder) affected parents, including the father of “M”?

And I might add that the statement put out by the Board, that the effect of the judgment is that “Jewish schools will not be able to give preference to applicants on the basis of their faith,” is simply untrue.

It is, I suppose, only to be expected that the Board’s new leadership will wish to position itself as the articulator of communal consensus. But if it tries to force the issue, its honeymoon period is likely to be very short indeed.

Last updated: 3:49pm, July 9 2009