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A week of conspiracy and confusion; the row over the Board of Deputies' elections

The Board of Deputies went out to Gibraltar for a peaceful weekend - and returned to an extraordinary dispute over next month's election

    Board officers: vice-presidents Sheila Gewolb, Richard Verber, president Jonathan Arkush, vp Marie van der Zyl and treasurer Stuart MacDonald (picture of Gibraltar: Getty Images)
    Board officers: vice-presidents Sheila Gewolb, Richard Verber, president Jonathan Arkush, vp Marie van der Zyl and treasurer Stuart MacDonald (picture of Gibraltar: Getty Images)

    For its annual regional meeting this year, the Board of Deputies ventured further afield than previous destinations such as Sheffield or Exeter. When they set off for Gibraltar last week, deputies must have looked forward to a warm and peaceful weekend by the sea.

    Instead, as they left to come home on Sunday, the Board’s triennial elections had been plunged into a welter of feverish speculation, intrigue, talk of conspiracy and confusion.

    It was sparked by the sudden decision of Simon Hochhauser, the former United Synagogue president, to mount a last-ditch bid for the Board presidency.

    When Mr Arkush announced three months ago he would not be seeking a second three-year term as Board leader, Dr Hochhauser, a member of its executive committee, had quickly ruled himself out as a potential successor. 

    By the time he stepped on to the plane back to London from Gibraltar, he had been canvassing support among deputies in the local Costa Coffee shop and his team had been working the airport lounge, trying to secure the 20 nominations he needed to stand before Thursday’s deadline.  

    A former Board officer called it “the Costa coup”.

    Earlier on Sunday, at the Board’s plenary meeting, Mr Arkush had surprised some deputies by encouraging more candidates to come forward for next month’s election. 

    It was not as if there were a shortage of contenders, with three vying for the presidency — Board vice-presidents Marie van der Zyl and Sheila Gewolb and the vice-chairman of its international division Edwin Shuker — and six candidates for the three vice-presidencies.

    One deputy told the JC the president’s action had been “a complete disgrace — it showed disrespect for all the candidates”.

    Meanwhile, news of Dr Hochhauser’s change of heart began to spread. 

    Richard Sassoon, a deputy for the S&P Sephardi Community, said during the Gibraltar outing he and others had pressed Dr Hochhauser to reconsider his earlier decision not to stand. 

    “I know all three candidates and I like them all — I nominated one of them,” he said.

    But while “genuinely undecided” which of the three was best, he felt “Simon would be better”.

    Mr Sassoon said he and Dr Hochhauser discussed the idea of deferring the presidency for a few months in order to make it easier for Dr Hochhauser to rearrange his business affairs.

    Dr Hochhauser explained on Monday that he thought it “a good idea” for current president Jonathan Arkush to remain in office for six months rather than step down at the end of May, which would allow the incoming president to shadow him for a few months.

    The crisis over antisemitism in the Labour Party and Mr Arkush’s role in  representing the community made for “special circumstances”, Dr Hochhauser believed. 

    “It would be in the interests of the Board and the community for us to consider a longer period of handover, given the current situation.”

    Neither he nor Mr Sassoon could say where the suggestion for Mr Arkush o delay his departure originally came from.

    But as other deputies got wind of the idea, some did not like it. 

    Rumours began to circulate of a plan to defer the election for six months and the head of the Board’s constitutional committee, Tony Leifer, was asked for his opinion.

    Instead of responding directly, he first drafted a message intended to go to Dr Hochhauser. “There must be a danger that your candidature will damage the prospects of our succeeding in retaining Johnny for however long it takes to get satisfaction from the Labour Party,” he wrote.

    He advised Dr Hochhauser to make clear that if he were standing, it would be on the same basis as “everybody else”.

    Mr Leifer had prefaced his message by saying he was not good at forwarding text messages — all too presciently, as it happened. Instead of reaching Dr Hochhauser, the message turned up in the inbox of another deputy, provoking uproar.

    The text seemed evidence of a plan to keep Mr Arkush in place, supported by the head of the Board’s constitutional committee. Contacted by the JC for an explanation, Mr Leifer declined to comment.

    Paul Edlin, a former Board vice-president and current executive committee member, commented: “They are trying to facilitate the candidacy of Simon Hochhauser by changing the constitution to allow accession in six months’ time. If this is the case, it would be shocking disregard of the democratic process.”

    Dr Gewolb and Mrs van der Zyl, after meeting on Monday night following their return from Gibraltar, issued a joint statement to say they were “shocked and saddened at the furore”.

    They pointedly added: “As women, we are both more than able and capable of leading the Board for the next three years and have demonstrated this ability by the dignified and measured way we are facing this new challenge.”

    Dr Hochhauser further clarified his position, saying he would move “night and day” to rearrange his business commitments in order to be ready to take up office if elected in May.

    Meanwhile, Mr Sassoon, having previously nominated one candidate for president, sought guidance from the Board whether it was permissible to endorse a second.

    The constitutional advice from Mr Leifer, sent early on Monday morning to Board chief executive Gillian Merron ruled this out: “There is no reason why a deputy should not nominate two or three, but not more, persons for vice-president. 

    “Although the constitution is silent on nominating more than one person for a single job (president or treasurer), it makes no sense and makes a nonsense of the support which a nomination gives.

    “My advice is therefore to reject a second nomination by a deputy for a single post.”

    But a few hours later, Mr Leifer had apparently changed his mind and believed multiple nominations legitimate. Guidance went out to deputies from the Board on Monday, telling them they could nominate more than one president and more than three for the vice-presidencies.

    Some deputies suspected it to be an attempt to boost Dr Hochhauser’s campaign.

    Amid rising tensions, Mr Arkush tried to squash the row, sending a sharp email to a number of leading deputies on Tuesday morning ahead of his critical meeting with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn later that day.

    “Our community is facing a clear and present danger from antisemitism in our politics,” the Board president wrote. “It is real and it threatens us all.

    “We do not have the luxury of silly stories and election conspiracy theories. These must now stop. It is up to all of you to put an end to the nonsense of the past 24 hours. I have no doubt that when you come to reflect on it you will appreciate how silly, damaging and inconsequential it was.”

    He warned: “Any election candidate who continues to indulge in it will be very exposed in hustings.”

    But his intervention prompted a strong retort from Adrian Cohen, the chairman of the Labour Friends of Israel and a prominent supporter of Mrs van der Zyl.

    In a response supported by veteran deputy Andrew Gilbert — a backer of Mr Shuker — Mr Cohen said: “I’m aware as much as anyone of the serious nature of the threats facing our community. None of us on this email list need to be told this and it certainly, speaking for myself, insults me to the core.

    “The silliness did not come from the candidates. They didn’t invite more candidates days before the deadline for nominations, they didn’t suggest cancelling or deferring the elections, they didn’t change the rules on nomination four days before the deadline.

    “They are not to blame for this unfortunate situation. They are the victims in this and you are victim-blaming and now threatening them in relation to conduct of the rest of this election.

    “Rather than being self-righteous and accusing people here who have given their lives to defending the community, I think you should reflect before you allow any further damage to what should have been a fair election.”

    But there was another twist to come. On Wednesday, with just a day before the closure of nominations, a fresh circular went out to deputies from Ms Merron, reversing the guidance issued to them on Monday.

    The constitution, she said, was “not clear about whether deputies can or cannot nominate multiple candidates, and for which positions, and this needs review. 

    “Nevertheless, we must be consistent in our processes and so in line with the guidance issued when nominations opened, deputies may only nominate one candidate for president, three for vice-president and one for treasurer, and not multiple candidates.”

    She added there had been no plan to delay the May 13 election and said neither Mr Arkush nor senior vice-president Richard Verber — who has also chosen not to stand again — sought an extension to their period of office.

    A Board spokesman explained the latest guidance followed advice from Mr Leifer, who had reverted to his original view to reject multiple nominations.

    Why he did that, the spokesman did not explain. But Mr Cohen may have one answer. He said he had consulted a QC with expertise in the area, who was clear that changing the nominations procedure mid-way through a campaign was invalid.

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