For the last two years I have been LJY-Netzer’s representative on the Board of Deputies: the body designated by Act of Parliament as the official representative organisation of the UK Jewish community. And this is my report.
Meetings of the Board happen eight times a year and are an opportunity for the representatives from each constituency to learn about the work of the Board, vote on decisions and hold the executive (a President, three Vice-Presidents and the Treasurer) to account.
After a summer of Israeli military action and rising anti-Semitism, the Board chose to spend its time at the September meeting debating a motion proposed by the executive to support the joint statement made in August between the Board and Muslim Council of Britain. The statement condemned anti-Semitism and Islamphobia, as well as claiming that the targeting of civilians was against Muslim and Jewish religious tradition. This was too controversial for members of the Board: there was a full debate lasting forty minutes with over fifteen speeches.
Some context to this situation may be needed. In 2012, the last time the executive and Deputies were elected, there was an increase in the number of organisations sending deputies including small groups like LJY-Netzer – and a related concerted effort to reform the Board. This substantially reduced the average age of the deputies and reduced the influence of a core group of right-wing Deputies who had been sitting on the Board’s important committees for decades.
This, and the election of the first Reform woman as Senior Vice-President, promoted a growing gulf between the right-wing Deputies and the Board’s executive. In February 2012 the executive won a vote to work with Oxfam (an organisation considered anti-Semitic by a large number of Deputies). A few months later the Board was rocked by discussions about a merger with the Jewish Leadership Council, a body was set up in the early 2000s to represent the Jewish community – circumventing the Board. Over the summer the Board’s defence of Israel was regarded by some as inadequate. This exacerbated the divide between right-wing Deputies and the leadership.
The latest round of outrage concerned this joint statement with the Muslim Council of Britain, to which there were three main objections. The Muslim Council of Britain includes affiliate members that may have ties to extremist groups; the statement treated Islamphobia and anti-Semitism as equally bad; and the passage about civilians’ deaths could be interpreted as criticising the IDF.
Many stood up in the debate and argued that we live in a multicultural society and should welcome contact with other groups. Others pointed out the benefit to us of a strong statement against anti-Semitism. Others wondered, who does not mourn the loss of innocent life?
The motion passed with 75% of the vote on a 55% turnout, an overwhelming victory that would have been impossible three years ago.
In the next few months, the Board will be voting on whether to accept LJY affiliate Yachad as a partner. This will bring the same conflict to the surface yet again. In the summer the Board will face its general election (as will Britain!)
The Muslim Council vote shows that the Board has come a long way in recognising the world and community around it. However, it also shows that the Board still has some way to go.
By Sam Alston