In a few weeks, the triennial election for the Presidency of the Board of Deputies of British Jews will be upon us. For many, it will be an occasion of numbing irrelevance despite the quality of the candidates. The current state of the Board is deeply depressing for all committed and concerned British Jews. And yet at a time when other ethnic and religious minorities look to the Board as a model for communal self-definition, it is pertinent to ask why should there be such widespread apathy and disinterest in a body which purports to represent Jewish interests to the outside world? Part of the answer is undoubtedly the composition and policies of the Board which few informed people can relate to. Other reasons can be discerned, but the essential problem lies in its unrepresentative structure and its historical roots.
Ironically, modem Anglo-Jewry’s genesis in 1656 owes more to Roundhead munificence than to the studied tolerance of the established order. One hundred years separated the reconstitution of the community during Cromwell’s Puritan Republic and the founding of the Board of Deputies. It was only when Anglo-Jews felt secure both in the permanence of religious and cultural life as well as in their role as Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion that they voiced their rights as citizens. Even so, they knew their place in the order of things as an accepted minority and mindful of the cruelty of less liberal regimes were content with their lot.
From the outset, the Board projected itself as “the representative body of Anglo-Jewry”. Such pomp and circumstance was welcomed by the British authorities who required a conformist central address. Yet the Board is not the Board of Deputies of British Jews—and never has been. It is more the Board of Deputies of British Synagogues—with a few additional organizations to cover the Zionists and the secularists. It is significant that the formation of the Board in 1760 coincided with the start of the Haskalah (the Enlightenment). The pattern was set at an early stage. While the Board preached loyalty to His Britannic Majesty, both the French and American Revolutions were in progress.
The influence of those historic watersheds fractured the world of faith and gave rise to a plurality of identities. It separated Judaism from Jewishness. If Jews associated with one another, they did so on the basis of a shared identity. The seal on the hermetic world of the kehilla was irrevocably broken and the power of the rabbis greatly diminished. To proclaim “I am a Jew!” became essentially a voluntary statement—a question of choice despite discrimination. Even though the Board partially absorbed these new forces, it never recognized them and continued to act as almost a pre-Haskalah synagogal body Both its sense of being English and its desire to maintain some semblance of the old control caused it to propagate the illusion of a Jewish Parliament—an illusion accepted by even its most vociferous critics. Yet Deputies were not directly elected by the people in national polls, they were simply representatives of synagogues and organizations.
The Hebrew University’s Peter Medding believes that a more accurate model for communal organizations which label themselves “representative” are “peak associations”—a free association of voluntary bodies. The true model for the Board, he points out, is the Confederation of British Industry, rather than the House of Commons.
Medding comments that this pattern of several tiers of communal organization provides a negative filtering process such that
the views, ideas, goals and aspirations of the Jewish grassroots and rank and file reach the top, if at all, only as interpreted and presented by various sub-leaders who presumably have their own personal and institutional interests to promote, which must clearly influence their transmission of the views of their constituencies.
To be fair, the Board’s Parliamentary pretensions were formalized in a pre-Zionist period when an anglicized quasi-aristocracy held the reins of power. But the traumatic events of this century forced dramatic changes in the Board’s outlook and by default limited its influence. The response to the Shoah and the guilt of Anglo-Jewish survival gave rise to a rival centre of power—a growing fraternity of fundraisers. In addition, it is clear that the upward social and economic mobility of Jews in recent times has accentuated the significance of fundraising in communal endeavour. As Geoffrey Paul, the former editor of the Jewish Chronicle, pointed out in a recent issue of Manna, the fundraisers occupy a position of central authority in the community. Thus in the post-war period, there seems to have been a considerable shift of authority from an elected Board of Deputies—de-spite the defects of its structure—to well-meaning but unelected fundraisers.
In essence, giving to a worthy Jewish charity or to an Israeli institution has accorded a taxation function to the fundraisers even within a voluntary association and by extension a governmental responsibility to determine direction and priorities. The needs of the State of Israel and a determination to combat creeping assimilation through education provided foci for fundraising in the life of the ordinary Jew. Indeed, for some, giving a donation may be a definition of Jewishness, a recognition of belonging. Some sociologists have even utilized this yardstick in their analysis of the contemporary Jewish scene. Indeed, the very act of giving money to Israel psychologically helped many British Jews to cope with their genuine anxieties during the Gulf Crisis. It was their response to the powerlessness of the Diaspora.
Perhaps there could have been no other answer. Over the years, Israel has stopped being a real society, warts and all; for many Jews, it has been transformed instead into a symbol of Jewish identity and a focus for fundraising. Ideology, debate and opinion have been made unimportant. As a rule, the Board, as well as their philanthropic partners, have been willing to defer to the “good sense” of the Israeli leadership. Many accepted the viewpoint that they were uninformed about Israel since they did not live there and thereby had nothing else to contribute except their uncritical support and their money. “Fact-finding” missions and the religiosity of solidarity were iconic symptoms of this deideologization of the Diaspora. Professor Charles Liebman of Bar-Ban University incisively described this impoverishment of Diaspora understanding of Israel:
The truth is that, whereas Diaspora Jews now share the classic Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, they have no Zionist vision. Israel, perhaps, has a particularist Jewish meaning for Diaspora Jewry: it is important to the Diaspora for its Jewish survival. But Israel has no universalist meaning for most Diaspora Jews. It is not integrally related to the variety of visions Diaspora Jews may have of a different kind of world, a different kind of society, a different kind of social order. Hence, the Diaspora is not driven to press Israel into doing anything different from that which it is doing today.
Few who subscribe to Liebman’s view have concerned themselves with involvement in communal affairs. Is it therefore simply a question of money or status that determines leadership in the community? Economic security and time clearly are determining factors, but there are many outsiders who could contribute valuable ideas. There is a wide body of academics and writers—distant from the world of business and commerce—whose talents are underused and undervalued. They seem content to isolate themselves within academic life—and communal leadership is happy that they should remain there.
For example, Jewish academics have not been engaged in a serious fashion to conduct research to find out what British Jews think and what their requirements could be. In the United States, the American Jewish Committee has sponsored the National Survey of American Jewry for the past decade and the Federations employ teams of planners. The mere fact that nothing like this exists in Britain calls into question the very policies of those who plan for the future in this illogical absence of research.
At present, there is little likelihood that new faces will come to the fore. Candidates for leadership do not emerge from the ranks on the strength of their policies. Often they are prejudged to be eminently suitable before being co-opted by the existing leadership. The possibilities for change in the present system are thus regulated to an absolute minimum. As Peter Medding points out:
Without elections, it is difficult for potential leaders of different views, outlooks and policies to become members of the community’s leadership group or to re-direct the community’s energies. The talented and motivated can rise into the leadership only insofar as the entrenched incumbents permit them and not through mobilizing wider community support. The test for leadership then is highly personal and in no way democratic.
Decision-making is still a process which tends to be conducted behind closed doors. Where public discussions do exist, such as the Board’s monthly meetings, rubber-stamping and ratification of decisions already taken seem to be the overriding priority. Controversial issues are to be avoided and not grasped as a tenet of democratic discourse. They are often deemed “not to be in the communal interest”. Consequently, an aura of secrecy preserves control. Is it not surprising therefore that apathy is widespread?
And yet, in contrast, there is a concerted search for roots and identity which a proportion of the alienated post-war generation of Jews appear to be engaged in. The television series and book, A Sense of Belonging, testifies strongly to that phenomenon. Paul Morrison, one of the authors, for whom this project was a voyage of self-discovery, writes:
I have two pictures of Anglo-Jewry. One is a picture of a community turned in on itself, like a boxer in a crouch, defensively strong, and yet gasping for air. And the other is of a community unsure of its own true value and richness, looking on helplessly, unable to withstand the waves as they gently wash the castle away.
While the Board has been successful in areas such as defence and security, and lobbying Parliament for genuinely Jewish interests, there is still an urgent need for real reform, open representation and planned direction. The existing structures are based on an outdated and counterproductive understanding of the needs of the Jews of Britain. Difficult subjects such as outmarriage and assimilation remain buried. Each year, three thousand probably young Jews drop out. This rate of attrition is not only a commentary on the pull of assimilation but also on the lack of attraction of the public face of the community. Too many talented people have been driven away and the gates are fastened to prohibit their re-entry. Certainly, there is a need for a community chest, but there is also a need for a restructuring of our decision-making bodies, a domestic perestroika, which would integrate all who could make a contribution. Direct elections have produced a low turn-out when attempted in other communities, but it should not be beyond intelligent leadership to devise a more satisfactory system of election and appointment. The appointment of a “Royal Commission” to investigate and produce proposals for a new structure would be a step in the right direction.
The present Chief Rabbi believes that large sections of the community will eventually assimilate, leaving a hard core of Torah-true believers to carry on. An unpalatable thought, but perhaps it is the calamitous shape of things to come unless there are radical and far-sighted changes.
Jewish Quarterly Spring 1991