Jeremy Corbyn's financial impact on our communal structures could be catastrophic

Lionel Salama warns the community has its head in the sand


GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 22: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meets with asylum seeker brothers Somer Umeed and Areeb Umeed at Possilpark Parish Church on August 22, 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland. Jeremy Corbyn met with asylum seeker families in Glasgow threatened with eviction by Serco and called for such services to be delivered by public bodies. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

January 03, 2019 12:37

It’s the start of 2069. There is still no consensus amongst communal organisations on how to mark next year’s 1,000th anniversary of Jewish presence in Britain… some things never change.

Invited from France in 1070 by William the Conqueror to support his cashflow, we’ve enjoyed good times here, prospered and made significant contributions to all walks of British life, to a scale that is disproportionate to our size. 
But as I leave this reverie on our future, I am more doubtful than ever that our children and grandchildren will be celebrating this milestone. 
My mood is obviously coloured by the prospect of a Corbyn government.

Last week’s JC leader, pointing out the problems for communal charities if major donors leave, confirmed what I have felt for some time: earlier this year, I wrote an article for this paper, The prospect of a Corbyn win should be ringing alarm bells for Jewish charities.

All of this has made more urgent a series of conversations I have been having with some major donors, lay leaders and charity professionals about the need for consolidation. Our community has too many organisations to support and it’s unsustainable. Everyone agrees with the prognosis but no one seems able to administer the medicine: radical surgery.

Many of those I have spoken with also acknowledge that, in the event of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, enough members of our community will leave to put a significant proportion of communal funding in doubt. As one major donor put it, “98 per cent of the funding is coming from two per cent of the community”. That’s not an unbelievable guesstimate: 5,000 people (let’s say 1,000 families) providing the overwhelming majority of communal funding. Indeed it might actually be an over-estimate of the number of families providing this extraordinary support.

So, it doesn’t take many of them to leave, to decimate the generosity we have relied upon for decades. 

We have been far too complacent, failing to invest in developing wider donor support and engagement. It’s like a business without a strategy for growing its client base, instead precariously assuming that the same clients will go on buying forever — and in this case, that they will be prepared to spend more and more. Did no one think there might just be a rainy day? Apparently not. A few weeks ago, I talked with a professional fundraiser at one of our major charities who said that it had no contingency plan for a Corbyn government.

But even if you think that the spectre of Corbyn is overblown, the viability of our community is still very much in danger. 

First, this unique funding structure is unlikely to be sustained. There are already signs that the historic bond of giving first and so much to Jewish causes is breaking. In conversations with North American Jewish community representatives, I’ve already heard the alarm bells ringing. As one philanthropy adviser explained, a trillion dollars will transfer between the generations in the next 25-30 years and there is profound concern that those inheriting will not support Jewish causes in anything like the same way that those who made the bequests did.

I’m told some of this trend is already being felt in the UK. The explanation lies in the second threat to the future of our community.
Twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Lord Sacks put the issue of Jewish continuity on the communal agenda. I was involved in the advertising campaign that promoted the issue, which resulted in £12m of funding and the absorption of the initiative into the JIA (now UJIA). With hindsight, it was probably a mistake for both the initiative and its new parent. The former has struggled to deliver any serious impact, as the latter has struggled to marry these additional objectives with its historic support for Israel.

In some ways, this is because of generational differences. The older one, happier to support the Israel it understands and is familiar with; the younger one, acutely aware that the more serious challenge actually lies in Jewish continuity here.

A recent study amongst European communal leaders and professionals, carried out by the American Joint Distribution Committee, concluded that the biggest perceived threat to the future of European Jewry is not antisemitism but disengagement from Jewish life. There is one great exception to this: the Charedi community. According to JPR, by 2030 half the children born will be from this group. For the rest of us — the mainstream community — the prospects are bleak: at best, a stagnant birth rate. Add to that the disengagement theme and you have a recipe for disaster.

It also doesn’t help that many of our communal offerings seem stuck in a time warp, slow to respond to the need to change. The explosion in Jewish secondary education is a fantastic success but why are we only now coming to terms with the need to ensure knowledge of Israel is ramped up before teenagers arrive on campus? And when they get there, are we really doing enough to support them? UJS is 100 years old this year but lacks the funding to make the necessary impact at what, for many, is the final frontier.

Time on campus has always been important but it is now of fundamental significance. Lose them at university and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconnect with them later. We need a major focus on preventing disengagement because a lack of involvement in Jewish life and its institutions will also be a direct challenge to future funding. A much broader and experimental menu than currently on offer is needed, all the way from the age of 12 to probably 32.

According to New Philanthropy Capital, our community has a total annual budget of £1bn. Would a company with such an annual income operate without a strategic plan for sustaining its position? And if such a company were faced with threats to its continued existence, wouldn’t we imagine it responding quickly, looking for ways to innovate, to stay ahead of the game? 

We are not short of good communal leaders but this leadership has more successfully manifested itself on the financial front — fabulously so — than in strategic thinking. Some might say this is because British Jews are an inherently conservative bunch, loath to act until it gets really serious. Last summer’s strong response to the rising tide of antisemitism in the Labour Party being a case in point.

Fortunately, our American cousins are already on the case. Recognising the profound challenges to the future of their community, some enlightened individuals have started to bring the principles of the business world into the Jewish charitable sector. Organisations such as Upstart are seeking to inspire the development of innovative ideas, to find new ways of engagement. Of particular interest, is the way in which the concept of Jewish risk capital is being developed.

Like the commercial world, funding is being provided for a number of new communal ventures on the understanding that there is a high risk of failure. Precisely because this isn’t funding the status quo, it attracts some traditional donors hungry for innovation and helps to bring on board new ones who won’t fund the established institutions.

This new thinking is certainly worthy of our exploration. Indeed, we rarely connect with the rest of the Diaspora to learn from their experiences. Jews in London, Paris, Sydney and San Francisco are all facing similar challenges. Simple technology could enhance this connection and perhaps we could also find some Jewish risk capital of our own and create an environment where those with innovative ideas for our community will bring them forward?

Hillel’s ‘If not now, when?’ has often been used as a call to action, most famously for the Soviet Jewry Campaign. But we cannot afford ourselves the luxury of waiting, we must take action now. We’re calling it Achshav — the Hebrew for ‘now’ — and we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lionel Salama is co-founder of HOPE, a brand consultancy for organisations which make a social impact

January 03, 2019 12:37

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