Standing on the Sidelines


The Board of Deputies of British Jews is a traditional animal. It is a creature of great longevity and the respectable backbone of Anglo-Jewry. It defends Jewish interests and is regarded by the outside world as the legitimate voice of the Jewish community. Despite its hard work and manifest good intentions, there is still room for advance.

Since it is a body of constituent institutions rather than independent individuals, it is primarily a reactive body. This is highly emphasised in the political arena where a distortion of shechita or an Arabist remark by a government official may need a pointed reply. The nature of the Board’s composition invites monitoring and reaction as its main functions. Innovation and new directions are low priorities. Sometimes single issues may loom large such that they grow into separate committees or affiliated organisations. The Eretz Israel Committee and the National Council for Soviet Jewry are pertinent examples.

In the eighties, there has been a significant intellectual ferment within certain sections of Anglo-Jewry. Like Soviet Jewry and Israel, single issue causes have flourished into fully fledged Jewish campaigns. In politics, JONAH (Jews Organised for a Nuclear Arms Halt) or Netivot Shalom (Paths to Peace) have impressive organisations and have staged large meetings. E.P. Thompson and Monsignor Bruce Kent have spoken to large Jewish audiences at JONAH meetings. Shulamit Aloni and Avraham Burg have similarly enthralled large gatherings of Anglo-Jewry with their eloquence and intelligence on the Middle East conflict. Well known communal figures have participated in such activities. Yet the work of these groupings is reported in brief detail in the Jewish press. Such reports are often inaccurate or misconstrued due to lack of familiarity with unconventional Jewish subjects. In education, there are many interesting projects such as alternative cheders and chavurot. YAKAR or the Spiro Institute for the Study of Jewish History have produced brilliant programmes in their respective fields. Today there are even emerging Jewish theatrical groups.

All of these organisations have one common factor—none are members of the Board of Deputies. For numerous reasons—apathy, psychological reaction to an established communal body or irrelevance to the needs of the group—none shows any desire for membership. On the surface, neither does the Board overtly encourage them to apply. Although spasmodic private attempts by senior members of the Board are sometimes made to enlist specific groups, it is pertinent to note that many youth groups do not actually belong to the Board. Whereas Young Herut and Young Mapam are represented, Habonim, one of the largest Chalutzik associations, is absent.

Certain criteria are stipulated for Board membership. One is a membership quota of 200. This arbitrary figure excludes minority interests and suggests that groups in Anglo-Jewry should be formally organised. The appearance of all these groups in the early eighties is symbolic of the decentralisation—and, in some situations, the decline—of a number of Anglo-Jewish organisations. Quite a number of these groups are organised as a collective which articulates direction and purpose and organises programmes. Such organised events often attract a large following. Although membership may be formalised at a later stage, the issue of attachment is often unimportant. A good example of this is the Thirty Fives, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, which has organised committees up and down the country in the cause of aiding our Soviet brothers. Yet they too are not members of the Board. In contrast, there are many shuls and organisations who certainly cannot boast a membership of 200. They remain in apparent perpetuity as respected components of the Board. Moreover as others have pointed out one can be a member of umpteen Jewish organisations and thereby be represented those umpteen times through the relevant deputies at the Board. Such multiple representation in both undemocratic and illogical. Yet someone who is a member of a minority interest group is effectively excluded.

It is clear that even if the Board does not recognise this process of decentralisation, the Community at large is becoming aware of these alternatives in Anglo-Jewish life.

It is also significant that although the Board carries out many important functions to the best of its ability—it does not possess a cultural department. When a British section of the World Jewish Congress cohabited with the Board as a representative body of Anglo Jewry, a WJC cultural department existed. When the Board became the sole representative with the closure of the WJC British section, all official cultural and literary work vanished. In recent times, there have been signs of a cultural reawakening. Bnai Brith, for example, recently organised an excellent music festival whilst the Manor House is exhibiting a display of Jewish Ritual Art this month.

One light which continued to burn was that of the Jewish Quarterly, edited over three decades by the late indefatigable Jacob Sonntag. It is significant to note that recently the Quarterly’s readership has substantially increased. The Quarterly symbolised the Jewish sense of inquiry and investigation which perhaps is the common thread uniting all the newly spawned groups. The writer Frederic Raphael once commented on Jacob Sonntag and the Quarterly:

“What other publication attempts so consistently a serious—rarely solemn—tone or, within so apparently restricted a province, sustains one’s belief that important things are indeed important and that it is still possible to confront great issues with dignity and intelligence? … What is it to be a Jew today? ……The Jewish Quarterly escapes parochialism because it insists, in an age of ideology and malice, on taking the broadest possible view from what may seem to be the narrowest of angles.”  These words would undoubtedly be accepted by all these new groups as espousing their own aspirations for their own projects. Even though there is no cultural department, the Board is planning a festival of Anglo Jewry which contains an arts component. Clearly they too are being influenced by these new waves.

It could well be argued that the emergence of these creative forces would do well to continue to work and experiment outside the Board. This means that the Board would remain as it is, primarily a body that reacts to situations and certainly not an innovative one. This would be a great pity. As the representative body of Anglo-Jewry, the Board must be just that and therefore concerted efforts should be made to involve these new forces. They might well question policies and challenge the leadership, but they will provide the best basis for revitalising the Board in a true sense and leading it into the 21st century.

New London Forum November 1984

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