Shuls need to discover democracy

By Simon Rocker, April 25, 2008

The level of debate in our organisations has dwindled to nothing

Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, recently suggested that Jews outside Israel should be entitled to vote in Israeli elections. At a stroke, diaspora Jews would be converted into honorary Israelis, and armchair Zionism would take on a whole new meaning.

As ideas go, it is barely a starter, since it is hard to see why Israelis should offer a stake in the choice of their parliament to non-citizens who neither pay taxes to the state nor, by and large, have to live with the consequences of the decisions made by its politicians.

But in one respect at least, Kantor’s proposal has merit. It would inject some life into the placid world of Anglo-Jewish politics.

Imagine synagogues transformed into political theatres where the leaders of Likud and Kadima pitched for votes in live video hustings. Or members of the Pensioners’ Party stomped around Jewish Care homes in a bid to whip up support. Or followers of the Green Leaf — legalise marijuana — Party tried to peddle their narcotic dreams to the Board of Deputies.

Anyone looking for the drama of democracy in action, however, will simply have to make do with the US elections this year — “US” as in United Synagogue. The triennial race for the leadership of Britain’s largest synagogue organisation is now on. As yet, we do not even know whether there will be an electoral contest come July, and the current president, Simon Hochhauser, has still to declare whether he is seeking re-election. All one can say for certain is that a first black US president is highly unlikely and a female one impossible, since the rabbis will not yet permit it.

Indeed, it is hard to recall an election for any major Anglo-Jewish body in recent years that has generated any kind of excitement (students excepted). The last was probably the United Synagogue presidential elections nine years ago — but that was due to a large extent to one candidate (Malcolm Cohen) challenging the eligibility of the other (Peter Sheldon).

Hope for a keenly fought contest between two equally strong candidates with distinctive manifestos or a duel of ideas, and you are likely to be disappointed.

But leadership elections are not the only area in which communal democracy has gone limp.

Beyond choosing their leaders, it is not clear what part the average member of the United Synagogue council or the Board of Deputies actually plays in their organisation. Increasingly over the years, decision-making is confined to a small executive circle, with the ordinary members left with little more to do than rubber-stamp it.

Can any one remember a policy debate of any consequence, or a resolution which has encouraged a passionate exchange of views? In recent months, the main talking-point among members of the United Synagogue Council is their sense of existential crisis: “What is the point of us being here?”

To be fair to the US, the neutering of its council has been the result of constitutional changes imposed by the Charity Commission which concentrated more power in its honorary officers at the expense of the council membership as a whole. Somehow, the US has to find a way to revive the role of ordinary council members in determining policy, or the council will slip further into the irrelevancy that is already producing poor attendances.

The agenda of Board of Deputies plenary sessions, meanwhile, seems to grow thinner by the year. Admittedly, there have always been meetings where one would struggle to stay awake even if attached to an amphetamine drip. But from time to time, genuine debates used to take place on real issues: was it right for members of the Board to meet representatives of the PLO at a time when such contacts were banned by the Israeli government? Should British Jews consider themselves an ethnic minority?

Jewish organisations now seem so anxious to preserve consensus that they are almost running scared of controversy, fearing to raise any issue where there may be differences of opinion lest it exacerbate communal tensions. Whereas American Jewish groups have spoken their mind, for example, on the possible partition of Jerusalem, here a discreet silence reigns. The life is slowly draining out of our debating chambers. If argument is the fuel of democracy, the tanks are running close to empty.

Simon Rocker is the JC’s Judaism editor

Last updated: 4:15pm, May 13 2008