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Time is not on the Board's side

November 24, 2016 23:28

The recent contest for the presidency of the Board of Deputies struck me as one of the most civilised and enlightened in the Board's history. The hustings were well conducted and threw up some fundamental issues that affect the Board itself as well as the wider and pressing concerns of British Jewry. Chief among these was the problem of communal leadership.

Why do I characterise this as a problem? Because British Jewry can boast no undisputed statesman or woman, only politicians with varying degrees of media skill and communal experience and respect. A statesman or woman rises well above the hurly-burly of political life and strife, addressing him or herself instead to the disinterested promotion of the public good and, for that reason alone, is more or less universally respected. In my humble opinion, the most recent president of the Board who fitted that description was the late judge Israel Finestein, who held the office from 1991 until 1994, whose knowledge of communal affairs (and their history) was encyclopaedic, whose oratorical powers were considerable, and whose conduct of Board business was exemplary. Shmuel Finestein gave to the office a gravitas and a presence. Whether or not they agreed with his views, all respected him.

It remains to be seen whether Jonathan Arkush, who was elected to the presidency of the Board last Sunday, will rise to this level. And of course the Board now, in 2015, inhabits a world vastly different from that which Finestein confronted. Among the issues that Arkush will have to deal with are the resurgence of a home-grown anti-Jewish discourse with roots deep in the fabric of Anglo-Muslim society; the presence in Scotland of an avowedly anti-Zionist internal government (and in Westminster of 56 Scottish National Party members with an identical agenda); the ongoing threat to the autonomy of faith-based education; to say nothing of the rise of the Jewish Leadership Council as a well-oiled rival to the Board (a circumstance that I cannot imagine Judge Finestein would ever have tolerated).

We have to ask, therefore, whether we can afford the Board presidency to remain a part-time, unpaid position.

This question was raised by Laura Marks at a hustings meeting earlier this month. While journalist Alex Brummer and barrister Jonathan Arkush both gave assurances that, in spite of their professional commitments and work-loads they would be able to devote whatever time was needed to the office of Board president,

The dangers facing Jewry are more acute than since 1930s

Laura Marks was adamant that the role demanded a full-time commitment. "This is not being the chair of a regular charity," she explained. "This is being the [leader of the] representative body of the British [Jewish] community. You need to be at the beck and call of the community."

To the best of my knowledge there has only ever been one, full-time salaried (in effect) president of the Deputies, namely barrister Neville Laski, who held the office from 1933 until 1939. As that doom-laden decade wore on, and with the rise of Nazism abroad and fascism at home (to say nothing of events in Palestine), Laski found that his onerous and stressful responsibilities as president were eating very significantly into his legal practice, which was suffering as a result.

It has to be said that Laski's own growing addiction to alcohol certainly did not help matters. Be that as it may, moneys raised secretly on the initiative of the industrialist and United Synagogue vice-president Robert Waley Cohen enabled Laski to give up his own legal career in order to concentrate on Jewish communal defence; he was, to all intents and purposes, the full-time president of the Board.

I have every confidence that, as president, Arkush will not spare himself in dealing with whatever lands on his desk. But we have it on the authority of persons immeasurably more erudite than me that the dangers now facing British Jewry are more acute than at any time since the 1930s.

That being the case, we do have to ask whether the presidency of the Deputies can any longer be regarded as a part-time position, to be fitted around some other full-time career, or be filled by a person of great wealth and/or substantial leisure.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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