Things are better, but not by much

By Simon Rocker, December 30, 2009
Rising star: the Chief  Rabbi, Lord Sacks

Rising star: the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks

When the Institute for Jewish Policy Research appointed a commission to investigate who speaks for British Jews, “the nervousness in some establishment bodies was palpable”, recalled JPR’s then director Antony Lerman.

The very commission was seen as a challenge to venerable institutions such as the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbinate. The report it issued in 2000, A Community of Communities, duly reflected discontent.

It found a “persistent and increasing grumble of complaint that the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies were unrepresentative”. In a diverse group, no single organisation or leader could “speak on behalf of the entire community”.

Whatever its criticism of the established order, it was hardly a recipe for revolution. The Chief Rabbi has not been hauled into early retirement, the Board is celebrating its 250th birthday next year. Yet there have been changes.

The most significant initiative was the launch of the Jewish Leadership Council in autumn 2003. Successive presidents of the Board had long tried to woo the main bankrollers and power-brokers in the Jewish community but who had kept aloof from what they saw as its cumbersome bureaucracy.

The Board’s then president Henry Grunwald knew that some of the charity leaders could only be kept sweet if the JLC were independent. He gave the council a democratic fig-leaf by becoming its chairman.

Still, ask an ordinary Jew in the street what the JLC does and they will probably scratch their head. It is partly consultative, formalising lines of communication that were loose or sporadic before. It has a representative role: while it remains mainly the Board’s responsibility to knock on the doors of ministers, the JLC sometimes comes hustling into the room.

Perhaps the commission’s most surprising finding was that “extremely few respondents felt that British Jewry should regularly make representations to the British government on Israel’s behalf”, believing this should be the preserve of the Israeli Embassy. This flies in the face of considerable communal opinion which wants Anglo-Jewish leaders to be more assertive in defence of Israel.

The commission pointed to the demise of the British Israel Public Affairs Committee (Bipac) in 1999. But only a year later, the outbreak of the second intifada led to the creation of Bicom, an organisation to put Israel’s case primarily to journalists: while it remains independent, its chairman and main sponsor, Poju Zabludowicz has a seat on the JLC.

None of the shifts in Anglo-Jewry over the past decade could be called radical. But in 2007, Independent Jewish Voices, aided by generous publicity from the Guardian, emerged to challenge the pro-Israel consensus.

It could be “the most serious challenge to the Jewish establishment since the creation of the state of Israel”, declared Antony Lerman — a view that looked far-fetched then and further-fetched now. IJV remains a protest group, whose signatories number hundreds, rather than thousands, and is yet to develop a fully-fledged agenda or programme.

If there is one figure whose star has risen it is the Chief Rabbi, now Lord Sacks, who has defied the expectations of some of his critics and consolidated his reputation as the country’s leading Jewish religious spokesman. He has largely managed to keep on the good side of non-Orthodox leaders.

While he can command headlines with warnings of a “tsunami of antisemitism”, for instance, his political interventions have been few and far between.

But the Chief Rabbi has gone some way towards changing communal realities.

In 1997, he assured the then head of London’s strictly Orthodox community of his determination to remain “the sole religious representative of the community vis-à-vis the outside world, in respect of interfaith relations, Israel etc”. He would accord the non-Orthodox no gesture of recognition, he said.

Four years later, he agreed to the appointment of the first non-Orthodox Jewish co-president of the Council of Christians and Jews — a move steadfastly resisted by his predecessor Lord Jakobovits.

Early this year, the Reform president was joined by Liberal and Masorti ones, too. Remarkably, the war drums remained silent on the Orthodox right.

When rabbis from different streams of Judaism took part in Gordon Brown’s Chanucah party two weeks ago, it was a sign of official recognition of religious diversity among British Jews.

Last updated: 1:50pm, December 31 2009