Tony Leifer, head of the Board of Deputies’ constitution committee, has moved to explain last week’s extraordinary wrangle over the process to elect the organisation’s new officers.
The Board of Deputies changed its mind twice in the space of two days, first advising deputies it was permissible to nominate more than one candidate for president but then reversing that guidance and stating only a single candidate could be endorsed after all.
The decision to enable multiple nominations attracted criticism from supporters of other candidates, who saw it as helpful to the campaign of former United Synagogue president, Simon Hochhauser.
Dr Hochhauser announced his candidacy to succeed Jonathan Arkush just four days before the nomination deadline last Thursday.
The other three candidates for president, Edwin Shuker, Marie van der Zyl and Sheila Gewolb had declared their candidacy last month.
In an email sent today to candidates and to the Board’s executive, Mr Leifer said its chief executive, Gillian Merron, told him on Sunday a “significant number” of deputies were “pushing for an answer” on multiple nominations.
Initially, he believed nominating more than one candidate "did not make sense,” he said. “On further consideration, however, I thought that my first view was restrictive, when there was no restriction in the constitution and I expressed myself accordingly. This second view was put to deputies.”
But the change was criticised, he said, prompting Mrs van der Zyl to write she had “seen now how the election rules were unilaterally changed to suit the standing of a candidate’s needs”.
Explaining his decision to agree to multiple nominations, Mr Leifer stressed: “I did not have Simon’s or any other individual’s interest in mind when I gave the advice.”
He went on: “Because there was dissatisfaction with the advice I had given, I sought the views of the whole of the constitution committee. Their majority view was that we should go back to the original position and that was put to deputies accordingly.
“At no point did I discuss this matter with Simon Hochhauser and, as I say above, neither did I have his or anyone else’s position or interests in mind.
“My advice to the effect that deputies should be allowed to nominate more candidates than there are positions to fill may not have been good but it was given with the intention of giving all deputies wider scope to make nominations and was given in good faith.”
Mr Leifer acknowledged last week he had considered an enquiry from Dr Hochhauser over whether it was constitutionally possible for Mr Arkush to stay on as president for some months, rather than step down at the end of May, in order to deal with the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party.
That scenario could have been helpful to Dr Hochhauser, who had been concerned about sorting out his business affairs in time to take up the presidency if he were elected next month. He has since indicated he would stand on the basis of being ready to take office at the end of May.
But Mr Leifer has been under pressure to explain comments he made in an text message, which he intended to send to Dr Hochhauser but which he misdirected to another deputy.
There was, he wrote, a danger Dr Hochhauser’s candidacy “will damage the prospect of our succeeding in retaining Johnny for however long it takes to get satisfaction from the Labour Party”.
In his email today, Mr Leifer explained: “The reference to ‘our succeeding’ was intended to refer to the advice I had given earlier in the day about how the president might delay his stepping down and, as is apparent from the context, not intended to help Simon in any way.
“My view was that if the current dialogue with Labour was to be dealt with by Jonathan as president and that was what deputies wanted, steps should not be taken which might adversely affect this occurring.”
Mr Leifer said: “Far from conspiring to advance Simon’s position, I was concerned only with the welfare and benefit of the Board and the community.”