It was on a snowy mountain top overlooking his favourite Lake District view last week that Jonathan Arkush made up his mind.
The president of the Board of Deputies took many members by surprise when he announced last Friday that he would not be seeking a second three-year term this spring. If he had stood, it was widely assumed re-election would have been a formality.
But he had confided in family and close friends at the start of his time in office his belief that “six years in this role is too long”, he revealed this week.
“The record of second terms for Board presidents, if you go back, is never as good as the first. I think there comes a point where you are just out of fresh ideas and people get a bit tired of you.”
He has always preached that communal leaders “must not cling on to jobs. You need new blood to bring about a process of change. I thought I ought to follow my own advice.”
With two terms as vice-president chairing the Board’s defence division already under his belt before the presidency, nine years was “a long time”.
Before that, he had endured 14 years of hard campaigning to set up the state-aided Hertsmere and Yavneh Jewish day schools in his local Borehamwood and Elstree area. “I still have the scars on my back from that,” he says.
Due to turn 64 in June when he leaves office, he is still “fit and raring to go” in search of new opportunities, though he has nothing specific planned yet. “I have absolutely no aspirations to carry out any more communal roles. What could be better than being president of the Board — it’s the communal role par excellence,” he said.
He stresses he is not relinquishing office for professional reasons, though he admits it has been a “stretch” to juggle his work as a courtroom barrister, mediator and deputy Chancery master with the demands of the Board, which “must occupy a good 50 per cent of the time”.
One thing he will now have more freedom to do is to progress his “longstanding aspiration to make aliyah”, which began with his first visit to Israel with the youth group Sinai when he was 17. “It has become an increasingly urgent personal priority,” he says.
In an email to deputies explaining his reasons for stepping down, he said he believed he had “gone a long way” towards fulfilling his manifesto aims, among which were enhancing the status of the Board, promoting a more robust defence of Israel and working with other faith groups to foster tolerance.
He has been touched by the many “heartwarming” messages he has received over the past few days. Even those who disagreed with him have acknowledged the “clear leadership” the Board has offered under his direction, he says. There was “no doubt the Board’s profile and its game have seen major advances. I think the Board used to be quite softly spoken. I do not believe it should be shouting — or whispering. We should be speaking up with clarity for the community on the issues we care about it.
“What I have always tried to do was reflect the consensus view of the community. That’s easier said than done. On Israel, sometimes it is not clear where the consensus is.”
At the last Board meeting, some deputies openly dissented from his recent statement welcoming President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but debate, he says, is “good — I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
During his term, he believes the “anxiety level” within the community has fallen in some areas and risen in others. While the kind of unease felt at the large anti-Israel demonstrations and reporting of the Gaza War of 2014 has subsided, it has increased at the incidence of antisemitism “moving closer to the centre of the political world”, he observes.
Although he would “prefer not to point the finger at any part of our politics, I do not think it is possible to avoid highlighting the problems with the Labour Party”.
Patience is wearing thin at the “endless delay” over the disciplinary hearings for Ken Livingstone and others. There must come a point, he says, when even groups like the Jewish Labour Movement or Labour Friends of Israel feel “it’s over” for Jewish links with the party.
After his meeting with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn two years ago, he said, he had made it clear the Board was “open for business on the basis of honest dialogue. They have not taken it up. To me that speaks volumes”.
He believes Mr Corbyn and close advisers such as Seamus Milne “have made a deliberate choice to hold the Jewish community in contempt”.
Still, if Labour were to offer another meeting, “it would be the right thing to do for the community to talk with the Leader of the Opposition. Had they reached out, I would have responded.”
Relations with the Muslim community, however, are improving, he believes. He has gone out to mosques and Muslim groups all over the country.
“I think my message to Muslims has resonated — in particular ‘don’t look at us and we shouldn’t look at you through the prism of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Park it. Let’s just respect each other’s sincerity and focus instead on the things on which we have a major common agenda.’”
He has also found a “major change” for the better in relations with the Jewish Leadership Council since Jonathan Goldstein took over from Sir Mick Davis as its chairman. “There has been an enormous leap forward,” he says, “there is much less duplication”.
The JLC is focusing now on strategic issues such as care for the elderly and “not day-to-day politics,” he explains. “Many times the JLC has let the Board lead the comment for the community and has not rushed in as it sometimes did before.”
As a result, the idea to unify the JLC and the Board — frozen for three years — is back under discussion, though “at a very early stage”. Both he and Jonathan Goldstein believe some form of unification is achievable in time.
Stepping down was “one of the hardest decisions I have ever taken,” he says.Would he reverse it if no credible successor came forward? “I don’t see that happening,” he said. “I am confident we will have candidates of calibre.”