Interview: Jonathan Arkush

The new Board of Deputies president sets out his priorities


The day after his election as president of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush was walking through the jewellery district of Hatton Garden to his chambers near the Royal Courts of Justice. "People were stepping on to the pavement who were complete strangers to me to shake my hand," he recalled. "I was overwhelmed."

The 60-year-old barrister and part-time judge, who takes office next week, says the greetings show that people care about the Board. Almost 670 people watched his election live online on the Sunday before last, while 862 revisited it on video.

Although some in the community may regard the Board as the institutional equivalent of an old dog that should be put out of its misery, the 47th president of the 255-year-old representative body believes it is in rude health.

"I have received nearly 500 messages from all over the world," he said. "It's clear to me from the warmth of those messages that they understand the important role of the Board and they give it their support."

A co-founder of the Student and Academic Campaign for Soviet Jewry, he has been a communal activist for more than three decades. He has risen through the Board's ranks, becoming a deputy 30 years ago and serving as its vice-president for the past six.

Complete strangers came up to me to shake my hand. I felt overwhelmed

Still, he hesitated before deciding to go for the presidency. "It impacts on one's family," he said. "It's a tough job. There will be occasions whenever what I do, I'm going to get a load of criticism. Inevitably you ask yourself, do I need this? In the end, you get into a position of responsibility and the opportunity or the calls come, and you feel a certain sense of duty."

While some have argued that the role should be full-time, that would only be possible, he says, if its occupant were paid. But he disputed the suggestion from outgoing senior vice-president, Laura Marks, that it still required full-time attention from a volunteer. "You would be immediately disbarring from eligibility some of the most effective candidates," he said. Previous presidents such as Henry Grunwald and Eldred Tabachnik combined the position with their legal day jobs and he intends to do likewise.

As vice-president, he headed the Board's defence division at a time of growing concern over security and anxiety about Israel. He will continue to have "zero tolerance" for antisemitism and give no quarter to boycotters. More generally, he aims to be a defender of faith.

Believing religious groups to be "part of the glue that holds British society together", he said that he was "determined to make it a priority to promote the rich, positive contribution that they - including but certainly not limited to the Jewish community - make to British society. I believe the contribution is underestimated, underplayed and even derided in some quarters".

That contribution deserves more respect and the secular world ought to lay off the attacks on faith practice, such as circumcision or religious slaughter of animals, which have become "too regular and too virulent" he said.

A priority too will be Muslim-Jewish relations, which is "an issue for British society" as a whole. Whereas the vast majority of Muslims are anti-extremist, he was concerned, he said, by some elements "that look as though they are turning away from the path of integration into society around them. And this is deeply destructive of community cohesion and poses threats to our society".

Jews had 2,000 years of experience of living as minorities, he observed, while for Muslims from most countries, this was a new challenge. "We've shown a way of how you can be completely British and not compromise one iota of one's adherence to traditional religious practice."

Some sections of Muslim society, he said, "harbour what [al Jazeera journalist] Mehdi Hassan called their 'dirty little secret' of antisemitism. There is far too widespread ignorance about Jewish people among some parts of Muslim communities and ignorance leads to prejudice. So we must counter the ignorance.

"I am proposing that Jews and Muslims between them organise a roadshow which travels to all parts of Muslim communities to project what we're all really about. I am prepared to stand there and have British Muslims ask me anything they want. I want to dispel if I can some of their ignorance and therefore I hope any prejudice that may exist.

"It's a Jewish-Muslim roadshow, so let Muslims also come and answer questions in Jewish communities. I have proposed this to notable Muslim personalities and it's received a very good hearing."

Although the Board came under fire last summer for signing a joint statement against antisemitism with the Muslim Council of Britain, he maintains a pragmatic approach despite some in the community who believe it should be shunned. "If the organisation was dedicated to extremism, of course I wouldn't want to sit down with them for a moment. But undoubtedly there are some distinguished Muslim figures, some of whom may have connections with the MCB, and we should sit down and work with them."

While the Board also incurred criticism last summer over its response to the Gaza conflict, he believes the problem lay mainly in a failure to tell the Jewish public what it was doing rather than a lack of action.

But he believes they "would have felt better if there was a rally. A rally doesn't change anything outside, it doesn't stop antisemites being antisemitic, it just makes people feel better about themselves. Looking back on it, the Board did not feel there was enough buy-in from the communal organisations for a rally, so it didn't hold one. I don't think the Board will make that mistake again. If necessary, in future, we'll go it alone".

On Israel, he does not expect to depart from the traditional policy of support.Any reservations about Israeli policy would be communicated "privately" through diplomatic channels "except in the most extreme circumstances".

He will draw on a broad knowledge of British Jewry as a resident in one of its fastest-growing areas, Borehawood and Elstree in Hertfordshire, who has chaired his local synagogue and helped to establish a Jewish primary and secondary school there. While Orthodox in allegiance, he has liberal views and supports partnership minyans (where women can read from the Torah).

His immediate task will be to find the Board a new home since, in autumn, it has to move out of the offices it occupied only a few months ago. Long-term, he will have to pick up merger talks with the Jewish Leadership Council.

"I don't think it makes sense to have two public affairs bodies," he said. "It's fair to say the public affairs body that has the trust and confidence of the community is the Board."

He emphasises that the "overwhelming bulk of our community… expect nothing less than a leadership which has a democratic mandate".

The Board, he believes, needs to be a more civil place with debates conducted in a more respectful spirit. "There is a problem sometimes with the way we communicate with each other," he said. "All of us, me included, under the stress of events, can slip off the path of good standards. We need to address it and I intend to."

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