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The Board of Deputies still has questions to answer in the row over its elections

The rumpus over next month's Board of Deputies election was farcical at times, but there was a serious issue underlying it

    Members of the Board of Deputies at their regional meeting in Gibraltar (photo: Board of Deputies)
    Members of the Board of Deputies at their regional meeting in Gibraltar (photo: Board of Deputies)

    For Jonathan Arkush, it was probably the most important week of his presidency of the Board of Deputies, when he had a crunch meeting to discuss antisemitism in the Labour Party with its leader Jeremy Corbyn. So it must have been galling that this very week the Board should descend into a deepening row over the election to choose his successor.

    While some of the antics in recent days may have been the stuff of “the silly season,” the issues were not trivial. By mid-week, before the Board performed the second U-turn over its election rules in as many days, the possibility loomed that next month’s election could well have been the subject of legal challenge.

    The Board of Deputies’ credibility, and its claim to represent the community, rests on in its democratic mandate. Its democratic structure may be imperfect and have plenty of room for improvement. An important and growing section of the community, the Charedim, are conspicuous by their absence. Still, the Board represents a broad swathe of British Jewry, and more so than most of those who attack it.

    But that makes it all the more important the election process for its leaders is fair.

    In my younger days, I regularly reported on the Board’s monthly meetings and would groan whenever the word “constitutional” came up; it was the prelude to interminable argument over whether sub-clause A should take precedence over sub-clause B. But the significance of constitutional niceties was demonstrated this week.

    When nominations opened last month for officers, deputies were told they could endorse one person for president, three for the three vice-presidencies, and one for treasurer.

    On Monday, just three days before the deadline for nominations, the Board changed its mind and told deputies that they could nominate more than one person for each post.

    Two days later, however, it had backtracked and ruled out multiple nominations.

    The change would not have been academic. To be nominated for office, candidates need to secure the support of at least 20 deputies. Anything which made the nomination process easier would obviously help candidates entering the contest late in the day and scrambling to beat the nomination deadline.

    On Sunday, the former United Synagogue president Simon Hochhauser, who had earlier ruled himself out of the running for presidency, had a change of heart and decided he would make a bid for it.

    His team were also exploring the idea of Mr Arkush staying on as president till the end of the year rather than step down a fortnight after the election at the end of the May, on the grounds that this would enable him to continue to be involved in the Board’s dealings with Labour. The arrangement would have been helpful to Dr Hochhauser, who was concerned about sorting out his business commitments in time to take office if he were elected next month.

    (I am told the idea would, in practice, have been a non-starter. It would have required a constitutional motion to go to the Board and to be passed by a two-thirds majority, but the deadline for putting constitutional motions to the next meeting in May would have elapsed before there was any possibility of submitting it.)

    Whether it was a member of Dr Hochhauser’s campaign team who dreamt up the idea of prolonging Mr Arkush’s tenure or someone else, we don’t know.

    What we do know is the head of the Board’s constitutional committee, Tony Leifer, says he discussed the idea with Mr Arkush on Sunday.  But whether Mr Leifer let on that the idea would be beneficial to Dr Hochhauser, or whether Mr Arkush already knew about this, we don’t know.

    Meanwhile, at least one of his supporters asked the Board whether it was possible under the constitution to nominate more than one president.

    On Monday morning, Mr Leifer seemed pretty clear - he rejected multiple nominations as “nonsense”.

    Just a few hours later, he apparently changed his mind and deputies were notified by the Board they could endorse more than one candidate per post.

    Did Mr Leifer consult others in the Board and if so who; or take external advice before the new guidance was issued? We don’t know.

    Not surprisingly, supporters of the other three presidential candidates were not best pleased.

    But by Wednesday, the Board had undergone another rethink and told deputies they should stick to the original procedure, nominating only one person per post.

    What prompted this second volte-face is not hard to guess.  A supporter of one of the candidates had obtained legal advice that changing election rules during the election was invalid. The Board, clearly, did not want to risk a trip to the courts.

    Deputies will be entirely justified in pressing their leadership for a fuller explanation of these, at times, near-farcical events. But with little more than two weeks to the actual election, the focus now will be on the campaign and what the candidates have to offer.  May the best woman - or man - win.

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