Communal leaders attacked over response to Gaza

By Marcus Dysch, August 14, 2014

Communal leaders were barracked at an angry town hall meeting on Wednesday night.

Attendees attacked the speakers representing organisations including the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council over their failure to counter the growing movement against Israel.

Board president Vivian Wineman was the target of the most vociferous criticism. Mr Wineman announced a solidarity rally next month but was told by audience members that it was “too little”. Hecklers shouted: “Pull your finger out”.

An audience member from Bournemouth asked: “Why have we not been led by the Board? Why isn’t the Board reacting and setting the agenda?”

Activist Mandy Blumenthal received a standing ovation when she said that she had called the Board to ask for help in her campaigning and her call would not be put through.

Around 700 people attended the event at JFS school in north-west London. For an hour they listened to speakers from the Board, JLC, UJIA, Bicom and CST explaining what action had been taken. Gillian Merron, CEO of the Board, said it had written to the Business Secretary describing the Department’s position as “bizarre”.

But when the floor was opened to questions the atmosphere quickly turned to anger with audience members repeatedly criticising leaders’ performance over the past month.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis told the audience: “I felt I must be here to express solidarity with Israel at this time. We have been enduring a very challenging time. We want to engage in positive action.”

Simon Johnson, JLC chief executive, said the organisation was keeping a “close eye” on the potential for negative motions at the three party conferences in the autumn. He said extra funding and resources had been made available to Luke Akehurst and colleagues at the We Believe grassroots organisation.

Mr Akehurst said the Board’s letter-writing campaign was “vital” and urged people to contact their MPs.

Mr Johnson said by combining efforts — with grassroots activism and high-level approaches from communal group leaders — it would be possible to beat the boycott movement.

He said: “You have a real role to play. The whole community can express its view. We will be better together. Play your part.”

Senior staff in a number of organisations have privately expressed concern at the slow speed and small scale of the response when hostilities escalated last month.

Meanwhile, regional Jewish groups have taken the lead in combating widespread anti-Israel sentiment.Sussex Friends of Israel is organising a peace rally in Brighton on Sunday, with speakers including Colonel Richard Kemp.

Neil Duncanson, SFI spokesman, said: “Communal leadership groups have made it clear they want to do closed-door meetings, letter-writing campaigns and lobbying. We are taking a different route.”

There was strong criticism of the absence of senior communal figures at a protest last week outside the Tricycle Theatre. Janine Greyman, a North London Reform Synagogue member, said: “They’re our leaders, they should be here.”

Mark Haringman, a former student leader, said: “I even contacted the Chief Rabbi’s Office to send a statement that we could read out at the protest, but they wouldn’t do it. It’s weak.”

Prominent lawyer Mark Lewis suggested communal leaders “couldn’t organise a p***-up in a brewery”.

He said: “If ever there was a group of lions being led by donkeys this is it. Our leadership has been invisible. The Sussex Friends of Israel have done more than the Board of Deputies.

“Hitherto unknowns in communal work have risen to natural leadership roles, stood up and mobilised.

“Who mobilised the communities in Leeds and Manchester to go to Bradford [and challenge George Galloway]? No one. We have to stand up as a community. If our leaders won’t lead us, then we need new leaders.”

Paul Charney, Zionist Federation chairman, said the community had “really come together fantastically in supporting Israel”, but admitted the ZF needed a “closer relationship” with other groups.

Last updated: 4:52pm, September 2 2014