There is a course running at the new JW3 centre on “Great British Broigeses” about the quarrels that have blazed through Anglo-Jewish history. Recent differences between the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council don’t quite rank as a Premier League dust-up — no struggle over ideological or religious principle, more a case of institutional turf wars and egos, but it does raise a serious question about democracy and the Jewish community.
This summer, after years of underlying tension, the two organisations agreed to explore the possibility of unification. But hardly had talks begun when trouble broke out.
The Board announced that it was going to act as the secretariat for a new political committee, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, launched earlier this month. Fearful of the initiative being subverted or squashed, the Board had decided not to tell the JLC or any other organisation what it was doing in advance. The JLC was livid. In September it pulled out of scheduled talks on unification. But now the process is back on and although another meeting was cancelled this month, it was, I’m assured, only because one or more of the key players was away on business.
Having floated the idea of unification — the word “merger” is frowned on — both organisations stand to lose face if they cannot pull off a deal. Many people do not see why British Jewry — or rather mainstream British Jewry — needs more than one leadership/representative/umbrella body, call it what you will.
Whatever complaints the two organisations may make about each other, it is time to lay them to rest. The Board may have long felt that the JLC was encroaching on its representative work and wondered, for example, exactly how hosting parliamentary lunches with MPs, or taking interfaith delegations to Israel, fell within the JLC’s remit. JLC leaders, in turn, may have viewed the Board too often as ineffectual and inert.
Over the next few months, a first step towards improving relations is surely a greater deal of collaboration at the professional level. Since both the Board and the JLC are now without permanent chief executives (the Board has an interim chief of operations and the JLC an interim chief executive — see Profile below), they find themselves in a state of transition. The two organisations should jointly draw up an agenda of the issues likely to confront the community over the next couple of years, and then sort out who is responsible for covering what.
That should create some positive momentum. If the unity plan ultimately were to fail to come off, at least the advantage of a closer working relationship would remain. In the meantime, the complicated business of trying to work out a unified structure for a new body can begin in earnest.
Draft proposals currently envisage a bicameral model, with one “chamber” for heads of organisations (resembling the JLC) and another consisting of grass-roots representatives (resembling the Board), who will jointly elect a president.
It goes without saying that any such arrangement will require compromise. Deputies will have to recognise that charity leaders who commit significant money (and time) to the communal enterprise will want a say in how it is spent. The JLC will have to swallow the idea that there is no point having a grass-roots forum unless it has some influence over policy.
Yet there is a broader question of how representative a representative body is supposed to be. The Board can still lay claim to the authority of a democratic mandate (unlike the JLC, although some of its members, such as the chairs of synagogue movements or the Union of Jewish Students are directly elected).
But the Board’s democratic reach goes only so far: its membership by and large excludes a growing constituency of strictly Orthodox Jews, on the one hand, and a large number of secular Jews on the other. No one has so far come up with an institutional framework that spans both Satmar Chasid and unaffiliated secularist.
A new organisation could yet herald a radical departure. In theory, information technology could make it feasible to have a president elected by a community-wide poll on a one-Jew-one-vote basis.
Even if it were to prove logistically possible, however, I suspect that there would be a critical sticking-point: the wrangling to decide who is a Jew, and therefore who is entitled to vote, would probably take us into the next century.