So is your voice being heard yet?

Ten years ago, a controversial report called for changes in the way the views of the community are represented to the outside world. What has changed over those years?

By Winston Pickett, December 30, 2009
The 2009 demonstration in Trafalgar Square supporting Operation Cast Lead did not represent the entire community — but did reveal that Israel is a burning issue

The 2009 demonstration in Trafalgar Square supporting Operation Cast Lead did not represent the entire community — but did reveal that Israel is a burning issue

A decade is a big distance from which to judge the impact of a report — especially when the circumstances that prompted it seem to have taken place in a different era altogether.

More than anything else, the Commission on Representation of the Interests of British Jews — formed by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) — and its Communities of Communities report were born out of a frustration and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The opening lines of the report captured some of the collective angst. Straddling diplomacy and candour, it pointed to “disenfranchised” segments of British Jewry — “from the strictly Orthodox to the Progressive” — particularly “women, the younger generation and the unaffiliated” who “do not feel the present representational structures meet their needs”.

Elsewhere the report was still more blunt. “There has been a persistent and increasing grumble of complaint,” the report said, “that the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies are unrepresentative and ineffectual.”

Small wonder, then, that as the commission lumbered on for 18 months, the perception grew that it would be highly critical, calling for a radical overhaul of centralised institutions.

That may explain why the final publication of the report seemed to have landed less with a bang and more with a thud, prefacing its findings with 10 high-minded principles for representation and ending with three recommendations that were rich in detail but thin on prescription.

For Stephen Chelms, the only member of the Charedi community on the commission, the report’s impact was minimal. “I think it’s safe to say it didn’t simply land on rocky soil, it landed on concrete,” he said.

Then again, Mr Chelms’s expectations were low, shaped by a less-than-successful battle to see his own report implemented years before the IJPR document was commissioned. In it, had he called for deep structural improvements at the Board of Deputies. “When working with the voluntary sector, change from the outside is virtually impossible.”

But another member of the commission, Maurice Helfgott, says now that it was the catalyst for deep changes in Anglo-Jewry, not least the creation of the Jewish Leadership Council and the London Jewish Forum — an observation corroborated by Adrian Cohen, then a lawyer and former chair of UJS, and now chairman of the LJF itself.

Following publication, Mr Helfgott gave a report on the commission’s findings to a group of 40 up-and-coming executives and Jewish professionals known as the “Cavendish Group”. A key member of the group, which included political consultant and public relations specialist Jon Mendelsohn, philanthropist Trevor Pears, lawyer James Libson and communal activist Lisa Ronson, was Douglas Krikler, who is now chief executive of UJIA.

“It may not have been a road map, but the report definitely influenced a group of key people who were engaged finding ways to best bring the community forward,” says Krikler, noting that the ad hoc Cavendish Group has now morphed into a semi-official “new leadership network” which acts as a conduit to the Jewish Leadership Council — and can also be seen as a response to the report’s call for more leadership development.

“I think it definitely had a positive effect,” said Carolyn Taylor, project developer for the Pears Foundation. “Just look at all the smaller grassroots organisations that have started since the publication of the report, as well as individual initiatives on a philanthropic level. ”

But of all the issues that former commissioners cite as demonstrating the report’s failure, it was its purported inability to tackle issues surrounding Israel that is most often raised.

Professor Margaret Harris concedes that the original remit of the commission was “not about the representation of Israel or, indeed, Israel at all”.

And yet, she says, the “environmental pressures” of the second intifada and two wars “makes it hard sometimes to separate out the representation of British Jews from the representation of the interests of the Israeli government”. For this reason, she says, the issue has become the focus of an “important debate within the community…spearheaded by, but not confined to, Independent Jewish Voices.”

Grassroots left out in the cold

If you were to ask, are British Jews better represented than they were a decade ago, then it would all depend on what you meant by “better”.

There is a difference between whether organisations are more effective in getting their message across, than whether collectively the views of British Jews are being more fairly represented by organisations that claim to speak for them.

Undoubtedly, the existence of the Jewish Leadership Council has improved co-ordination between leaders of mainstream organisations. That means that agreed decisions potentially carry greater weight by having the imprimatur of a larger number of organisations.

But there has been no great advance in democratic accountability by organisations doing more to consult grassroots opinion.

In theory, it would be possible to compile an electronic database composed of a representative sample of British Jews and regularly seek their views on any number of issues.

However, constituencies that feel unrepresented can still find it easier today to make their voices heard, thanks to the avenues opened by the electronic media. The Independent Jewish Voices initiative showed that any articulate group of Jews can stake a claim for attention in the public square, regardless of the attitude of established bodies towards them.

Simon Rocker

Her son, sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris, co-author with Ben Gidley of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, says: “Israel has become the burning issue in the 10 years since the report” — illustrated most recently by the lack of consensus surrounding the community’s rally during the time of Operation Cast Lead.

Former commission member Jean Gaffin, OBE, put it more starkly still: “Quite frankly, in my more than 70 years as a British Jew I have never felt Israel to be the contentious issue that it is now.”

If the report did not have Israel on its radar, it was not the fault of the report or the commission.

British Jews, like Jews around the world, had been lulled into a false sense of security by the handshake on the White House lawn and the visions of “the new Middle East”. The second intifada, Durban, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — all were about to happen. When the vitriol started flowing, the Jewish community spun into reactive mode with a makeshift media war room set up at Balfour House that eventually became Bicom.

Meanwhile a networking operation on issues of security and the rise of Jew-hatred in new forms became a catalyst for the All-Party Inquiry into Antisemitism.

More recent efforts have yielded a unified anti-Israel boycott campaign, an anti-BNP voter registration drive and the emergence of a Jewish human rights coalition at “Durban II”.

The fact that the community has risen to meet key issues could be said to be a result of the understanding that there is a multiplicity of views. We are a community of communities. The Jewish civic and voluntary sector is big enough, adaptable enough and mature enough to deal with the issues — and even vehemently disagree — and still get the job done. At least when we have to.

Dr Winston Pickett is former director of external relations for JPR who helped oversee the publication of Community of Communities. He subsequently served as communications director for the Board of Deputies

Last updated: 1:50pm, December 31 2009