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Jonathan Goldstein: Setting a high bar for British Jewry

“I do not believe Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite." says JLC chair Jonathan Goldstein, "I think the Labour leadership does not understand the harm its behaviour its causing our community.”

    Outside No.10
    Outside No.10

    If you want to know the answer to the all-important question of what kind of Jew is Jonathan Goldstein, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council — an Arsenal Jew or a Tottenham Jew — his office soon reveals it. Proudly displayed on the wall is a signed left boot from Spurs and England striker Harry Kane, acquired at a charity auction.

    Sir Mick Davis’s successor as head of the umbrella body for 32 Jewish organisations makes his living on the fifth floor of an impressive Mayfair block.

    Models showcase some of the buildings erected by the property company, Cain Hoy, of which he has been chief executive since April 2014.

    His own path matches a trajectory familiar to other Jewish families, from East End to West End. His mother’s father ran a coat factory in Brick Lane; his father’s father had a dress business in Aldgate East.

    “We used to go as kids and the highlight was going down Petticoat Lane with my grandmother,” he recalls.

    “She used to turn up every Friday with a bag of roasted peanuts. That was our Shabbat treat.”

    Now 51, he is the middle brother of three — Michael is chairman of JW3 and was recently elected president of the United Synagogue, Daniel made aliyah 10 years ago — who grew up in Ilford and attended the local Jewish primary school. “Community and family were at the centre of everything.”

    His father’s parents were strong supporters of JNF and the Jewish Blind Society while his maternal grandfather was a founder of Ilford United Synagogue.

    “My dad has always loved shul,” he says. “The first thing he would ask any kid who came to our house wouldn’t be where he came from but ‘who is your rabbi’.”

    An English teacher’s doubts about his intellectual discipline led to Mr Goldstein initially being rejected by all five universities he applied for.

    He was, he admits, “a bit of a chatterbox” at school. But he got down to his A-levels well enough to achieve grades that finally persuaded Manchester University to accept him for law. A gap year in Israel was beyond the family purse.

     

    His Jewish commitment was already evident in his chairing the Jewish Society during his first year. But a “defining moment” came with his brief membership of the Labour student movement.

    “All they talked about was [the massacres of Palestinians at] Sabra and Chatila and the demonisation of Israel within the left-wing world was beginning to build up in a real crescendo. It was not a home in which I felt comfortable.”

    After law school, he practised with solicitors SJ Berwin and then Olswang, before he became chief executive, overseeing a rise in turnover from £14 million to more than £90m. He moved into property when Gerald Ronson recruited him.

    He first met Mr Ronson’s wife, Dame Gail, when they sat on the board of Jewish Care. He had joined a committee for the charity some years earlier along with Steven Lewis (now chairman of Jewish Care) and Louise Jacobs (incoming chairman of the UJIA).

    His parents had always taught him and his brothers “to be involved. They made us feel empowered, that we could do anything. We didn’t come with any sense of entitlement. We believed we had something to contribute rather than that it was our right. We had to earn our stripes and work our way”.

    Mr Ronson, the Community Security Trust chairman, has been “a very strong influence on me. I have learned a lot from being with him commercially and charity-wise.” Although “Gerald’s directness fazes a lot of people,” Mr Goldstein says, “they are an amazing couple, truly exceptional people” who are “driven for the cause of the Jewish people in Britain and in Israel which they have made their life’s work”.

    Three years ago he left Heron because “I needed to see if I could do it on my own”, although he retains some business interests with his former boss.

    He and his wife Sharon had many years earlier moved to north-west London from Essex to be closer to her place of work as a doctor.

    In between, he was adding to his record of “macheritis”, as he puts it: a trustee of Camp Simcha, chairman of Kerem School, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Trust since 2015.

    But it was five years ago that he emerged into the higher echelons of community leadership when he was asked to chair the JLC’s new education division, Partnerships for Jewish Schools.

    As the father of two girls and two boys, Jewish education has been close to his heart. During his tenure, he took charge of the JLC’s investment in the redevelopment of the Ilford Jewish schools campus and presided over a rise in Pajes’s annual budget to nearly £1m.

    “At some point in 2016, Mick [Davis] had a chat with a couple of us and said he was stepping down and would we consider putting our hat in the ring. Sharon and I discussed it. We knew it would be very time-consuming. But in life, you have to take opportunities when they are in front of you.”

    He welcomed the prospect of an electoral contest as good for the JLC’s democratic standing but was voted in unopposed in May.

    British Jewry, he believes, is at a time of “generational change. When you look around the charities today, we are in a new world. The community is being led by a group of 50-year-olds and I do think there is a real opportunity to change things.”

    There is far greater scope for collaboration between organisations, he thinks. The new leaders “have known each other a long, long time. I think we all understand the collective good is the most important thing.

    “Sometimes in the past 20 years, I think we have had too much bickering, too much noise, too much antagonism between the organisations. I really don’t want to be in that game.”

    His manifesto contained the headline pledge of encouraging charities to save £10m a year through closer co-operation. “I’ve always thought ‘have a target — give yourself a number to shoot at’.”

    He has set up up a commission charged with making recommendations for greater efficiency, with members including former BT boss Lord Livingston, Suzi Wolfson of PWC, Andy Rubin (son of Pentland chairman Stephen Rubin) and former Jewish Care chairman Stephen Zimmerman.

    The JLC itself is not exempt from the need to up its game in this respect, either. While a merger with the Board of Deputies, mooted four years ago, is not on the current agenda, Mr Goldstein acknowledges “there has been far too much antagonism between the two organisations in the past five to seven years.

    “I have developed and am developing a really excellent relationship with [Board president] Jonny Arkush and I think we are committed to deepening it to a much greater extent. He needs to be commended for having done a good job as president. I do not attempt to make pronouncements when I see Jonathan do it.”

    But one area where Mr Goldstein has pronounced is his deep concern over relationships between the Jewish community and the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party.

    “I do not believe Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite. I think the Labour leadership either does not understand or chooses to ignore the harm its behaviour its causing our community.”

    At the heart of the problem is a demonisation of Israel within the party which “we would by any measure define as antisemitism,” he says.

    “The disappointing fact is the Labour leadership, and you have to look at Mr Corbyn himself in this regard, doesn’t take up the opportunities to reach out to our community and make us feel comfortable.”

    There are still Labour MPs who “deserve our support” and the Jewish Labour Movement has done a “good job” in raising its voice within the party — though he disagreed with the decision of JLM chairman Jeremy Newmark to stand as a candidate in the general election against the Conservative Mike Freer.

    “Jeremy ran on a mandate that said ‘you are not voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, you are voting for me to represent the local views of the community’. This is not an argument he is going to be able to run at the next election.”

    Meanwhile, we have to “stick to our guns and carry on saying what we believe. We do not need to be cowed by anyone”.

    Keen to make the community “louder and prouder” on Israel, he will not be emulating his predecessor Sir Mick, who from time to time defied consensus and voiced misgivings about the Israeli government’s commitment to the peace process. “I don’t believe it is my role to take a political position in public about the way in which the government of Israel is operating,” Mr Goldstein says.

    While the JLC is co-ordinating the ongoing Balfour centenary celebrations, it soon hopes to announce plans for “a big shebang” to mark Israel’s 70th birthday next year.

    Also under way at Pajes is the creation of a modern Jewish curriculum for Jewish schools to plug a gap in knowledge. One of his daughters, who led an FZY Israel tour, told him she was “surprised — they didn’t really know very much”.

    He adds: “If I believe in anything, it is about Jewish continuity. As I have got older, the epithet before the word Judaism is less important to me. What’s important is we all identify and get our children and youth to identify.”

    Having promised to try to increase diversity, he has asked Keshet, the group which promotes greater awareness of LGBT+, to make a presentation to the JLC early next year.

    He also seeks a better understanding of the preoccupations of the Charedi population.

    Less than six months into his four-year term, he asks to be given time to make his mark.

    “I won’t meet every challenge, I’m aware of that. But if you don’t set high bars, you don’t give yourself a chance.”

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