Peace activist Wineman snatches Board presidency in close-run poll

New Board of Deputies head speaks Hebrew and has ‘strong views’ on Israel

By Simon Rocker, May 21, 2009
New Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman

New Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman

A former chairman of British Friends of Peace Now has been elected president of the Board of Deputies for the next three years.

Vivian Wineman, 59, the Board’s senior vice-president, emerged victorious from a record four candidates to succeed Henry Grunwald, who retires at the end of month after a maximum six years in office.

Mr Wineman, a commercial solicitor who represents Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue, finally beat former United Synagogue president Peter Sheldon by 131 votes to 64 in the third round, with Jerry Lewis in third place ahead of outgoing vice-president Flo Kaufmann, who was bidding to become only the second female president.

Mr Lewis picked up one of the three vice-presidencies — a position he has held before — with Paul Edlin returning for a second successive term and Jonathan Arkush, a newcomer to the top table, heading the poll as senior vice-president.

In a closely-fought presidential contest, the result remained unpredictable as 175 deputies took their seats for the final hustings at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers in central London, though pre-poll chatter suggested it would finally come down to Mr Sheldon or Mr Wineman.

Deputies drop their votes into the ballot box at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers

Deputies drop their votes into the ballot box at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers

A near contemporary of the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks at Cambridge, Mr Wineman fielded questions from the floor with quiet assurance. While entertaining “strong views” on Israel, he explained that at the Board: “I never make recommendations on what the government of Israel should do for its security. I am concerned that Israel should continue to be a democratic Jewish state.

“But as representatives of the Board, we must keep track of our community and if we start going out on a limb, taking a line on Israeli politics, even a line we are sympathetic to, we risk the danger of alienating our own community and damaging the Board.”

A founder of the British branch of the New Israel Fund, who speaks fluent Hebrew and has studied at yeshivah, Mr Wineman stressed both a commitment to religious pluralism as well as an ability to make overtures to the Charedi community, which is almost entirely unrepresented at the Board.

Mr Sheldon, who announced his candidacy for the leadership a year ago, was quizzed over whether he had enough Board experience, having become a deputy just three years ago. He was also challenged over his attitude to Progressive Jews.

There was a rare note of disharmony when former Reform movement head Andrew Gilbert challenged Mr Sheldon. As someone “who sees the non-Orthodox as the non-religious”, he said, “how can you honestly stand for the presidency of a cross-communal organisation?”

Mr Sheldon said: “I fully respect all the Progressive communities. I intend to work with all the communities. I am sorry that one person’s venom seems to be spread through the whole community to suggest that I won’t. I will.”

After first-choice votes were counted, Mr Wineman had a clear lead with 83 votes, over Mr Sheldon, 53, Jerry Lewis, 48, and Mrs Kaufmann, 35.

But without anyone gaining an outright majority, voters’ alternative preferences were then taken into account under the single transferable vote system.

Paying tributes to the “nice way” his rivals had fought their campaign, Mr Wineman said that he had “played a straight bat, really. I certainly wouldn’t have said I came in confident”.

When the meeting closed after a marathon four hours, the vice-presidential votes still remained to be tallied. Mr Arkush, a barrister and deputy for Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue, who won 61 first-choice votes, was elected on the first round, with Jerry Lewis (52 first-choice) and Paul Edlin (34) subsequently making the cut.

The unsuccessful vice-presidential candidates were Agnes Grunwald-Spier, who chairs the Board’s regional assembly, Anthony Feather of West London Synagogue and outgoing Board treasurer Clive Lewisohn.

Whereas Mr Arkush made it clear that he did not believe that diaspora Jews should publicly criticise Israel, the incoming treasurer Laurence Brass, who was elected unopposed, said afterwards: “I shall never agree 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.”

He was, however, “delighted” at Mr Wineman’s victory. “He and I share the same values on many issues,” he said.

More than 80 per cent of the 268 eligible deputies voted, some by post.

Mrs Kaufmann commented on her “Go with the Flo” website: “I regret that there is no woman represented on the leadership team of the Board for the first time in many years, nor is there a representative from the progressive wing of the community.”

Last updated: 11:34am, May 21 2009