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Should there be a Jewish Inclusion Rider?

What would happen, for example, if every man offered a role in a Jewish communal organisation insisted that the organisation accurately reflected the demographics of our community?

    Frances McDormand, winner of the best actress award at the 2018 Oscars
    Frances McDormand, winner of the best actress award at the 2018 Oscars (Hahn Lionel/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images)

    It’s award ceremony season. Baftas. Grammies. Oscars. Usually, these events are synonymous with couture gowns and lavish after-show parties.But in recent years, they have become associated with something slightly more gritty.These ceremonies have become a showcase, sometimes a launchpad, for a variety of political agendas. From Time’s Up to Me Too, it’s clear that the celebrity mainstream has embraced the power of the political slogan.

    And none more so than Frances McDormand, who won her second Best Actress Oscar this week, and, in her acceptance speech, taught us all a new phrase: Inclusion rider. Within minutes of her speech, the phrase was trending on twitter. News outlets spent the ensuing days explaining the term, and interviewing media researcher Stacy Smith, the woman who coined it.

    In a nutshell, the inclusion rider is a clause that actors can ask to be included in their contract, demanding at least 50 per cent diversity in the contributors to a film, be it performers or crew. The idea is that a film should accurately reflect, both on and off screen, the demography of the location in which it is set and/or made.

    What makes the inclusion rider such a powerful message is that it unequivocally states that we are all responsible for changes that need to be made. Championing the rights of minority groups is not the sole responsibility of those groups. Everyone is responsible for redressing the imbalance. The majority cannot stand idly by, and watch as minorities fight for inclusion. The mainstream has a duty to demand that inclusion too.

    Men run Jewish organisations

    As I, like millions of others, googled this new phrase, I wondered what an inclusion rider would look like in the Jewish community. And, in particular, how it would impact on the inclusion and representation of women. What would happen, for example, if every man offered a role in a Jewish communal organisation insisted that the organisation accurately reflected the demographics of our community? What would happen, if every male speaker at a communal event insisted that there were an equal number of female speakers? What would happen, if every time a man was invited to appear on a panel, he insisted that an equal number of women were invited too, finally putting an end to the depressingly ubiquitous "manel".

    Of course, I recognise that there are many, and complex, reasons why women are not represented in equal numbers on boards of management, or at communal events. I am often told that "women simply don’t come forward." This may well be true. But I also believe that the structure and operation of our community organisations tacitly exclude women’s involvement, and that, consequently, those structures need to be redrawn. At some point, the men in our community, especially those in positions of power and influence, must become stronger allies in women’s attempts to redress the imbalance. It’s not enough to outline the reasons why women don’t come forward. We need to remove the obstacles that currently bar their way.

    Even before McDormand’s magnificent speech, a similar thought was already percolating in my head, as I read about the disclosure of financial irregularities at the JLC. I’m not going to wade in on the ins and outs of that issue here. There are others, far better placed than I am, to do that. But I will say this. In the leaked emails that were published in the JC, one word stood out like a beacon. It was the word ‘Gentlemen’. If the Chair of a major Jewish communal organisation, and one that represents communal leadership no less, can send an email to its entire board of trustees, and address them as "gentlemen", we have a problem.

    I should point out, of course, that two of the 12 current JLC trustees are women. And I have no reason to doubt that the ten male trustees are anything other than hardworking volunteers who give up hours of their time in much needed, and often unappreciated, communal work. I have no hesitation in saluting their contribution.

    But that doesn’t detract from the fact that women remain woefully under-represented in our communal organisations, especially in leadership positions. The JLC, CST, Jewish Care, the Fed, the Board of Deputies, I could go on. All are currently chaired by men. Only the UJIA has a female chair (its first - Louise Jacobs).

    In fairness, it’s clear that many in our communal organisations recognise that we have a problem. Working committees and strategy meetings and all manner of workshops have tried to address female under-representation. Nor is this a problem exclusive to large communal organisations. The solution cannot be miraculously found by the boards of management at the JLC.

    But I wonder if the Inclusion Rider might not be part of the solution? At some point, all of us, wherever we are and in whatever capacity we contribute towards communal life, have to ask the question, would I sign a Jewish Community Inclusion Rider?

    So to any men reading this, I ask the question. The next time you are invited to speak at a shul event, will you ask how often women are also invited to speak? The next time you are asked to become a trustee of a communal organisation, will you check how many women sit on the board before making your decision? When you appear on a panel at a communal event, will you ask if women are also on the panel. And if they are not, will you enquire why?

    In short, will you actively begin to be part of the solution?

    In this centenary year of women’s suffrage, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand deeds not words. And the Jewish Community Inclusion Rider might just be a good place to start.

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