A message to members of Britain’s Board of Deputies

Dear Deputies,

If you have not already nominated a candidate to be president of the Board of Deputies, it may be because, like me, you haven’t yet seen a candidate whose ideas you find convincing.

I certainly don’t feel confidence in those who have put their names forward so far, and so I am asking you to read a brief statement and, if you agree with my thinking, to nominate me. And please note: you have only until 5.30pm to do so.

First, on the question of antisemitism, I think the Board has shown poor judgement in its behaviour so far. For the president to speak the day after the 26 March rally in Parliament Square about “the victory we won yesterday”, of how “We will never be silenced” and how “We will go into Pesach with our heads held high” was premature and silly. It reflected the hysteria that the Jewish Chronicle has been stoking in recent years in response to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, whose honorary patrons are (unfortunately, for PR purposes) mostly Conservative, and the Henry Jackson Society, about which little is known in the UK.

The problem of antisemitism is certainly real, and seems to be getting worse, and is clearly something that Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum are either untroubled by or complicit with—but it is not something that systemically compromises our well-being (most of us have never had it so good), nor does it begin and end with the Labour Party. Antisemitism has an intellectual component that is associated with socialism in general and with academia, but also a visceral component associated with non-Western cultures, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle-East, and with nationalism. In short, it’s as much a matter of ignorance as of knowledge.

What the Board’s recent actions fail to take account of is that, first, our complaints are mostly baffling to the country at large—who’s actually been tangibly hurt by antisemitic name calling?—and second, that as far as anyone can tell, Jews are thriving and invisible and don’t look like victims in the way that more recent arrivals to the UK are, and third, that for most voters, there are far more urgent social issues that the country needs to get to grips with.

I’m concerned that for all the media attention that the current executive and the JLC have been seeking, we actually risk putting people off by looking self-obsessed and narcissistic—not least in the face of the massive injustice of there being millions of people with no obvious stake in this country, who are brought up to think of themselves as losers and then act accordingly, about whom no UK party does more than pay lip service. I’m concerned also that the publicity that our president considers a “victory” may even appear to be party political—as Momentum followers accuse us of being—in spite of our efforts to appear neutral.

The new president has to calm things down, behave with more maturity and gravity in respect of the Labour Party, but at the same time explore and overturn the love affair between the left and other systems of thought that treat us as toxic.

My second concern lies with what, since I’ve been a member of the Board, I’ve considered a hypocritical position on Israel. On the one hand, it seems to me that to be Jewish is to be part of a community that regards Israel as central to our definition of ourselves. The truth is that, generally speaking, as a community, we do all we can help Israel thrive. Israel is, we know, our last safe haven if conditions in the disapora were ever to turn, and it has to succeed.

We don’t vote for Israel’s government and we don’t pay tax there, so we’re not responsible for the State in the way that Israelis are, but we have the strongest affinity with the land, we have family there, we go on holiday there, we support the economy there, we donate to charities there, we make aliyah there, and we pray for Zion each time we open a prayer book.

To object, then, as the Board does, that it is antisemitic to conflate us with Israel is slippery rhetoric. As a community we tend not to speak out against Israel’s actions: indeed, many of us on the Board have been approached to join a caucus, one of whose principles is that we never say anything about Israel that might be divisive.

If this is the case, we should not also argue that there is no obvious linkage between Jews and Israel. We can’t have it both ways: either we vocalise our opposition to policies we disagree with—which would mean finding a consensus that we know we can’t find—or we count ourselves, and are counted by others, among Israel’s loyal friends and take the consequences.

The Board of Deputies is a board of British Jews but when events in the Middle East heat up, we come under fire from those who, likewise, consider themselves the natural allies of our enemies. I can think of no better reason, then, than to accept this challenge, stop trying to wriggle out of it, and use all our efforts to find ways of building the most difficult friendships of all: friendships with our foes.

That includes those in the UK for whom, these days, the Labour Party feels far more sympathy. We have to show why we are united with them, why we have an affinity with them, how we can trust and help them and how they can trust and help us. This seems, to me, the right approach to detoxifying the Labour Party, not the infantile hand-wringing that we have indulged in thus far.

I understand that many reading this will profoundly disagree. If, however, you have yet to nominate a candidate for the presidency and feel that my views are the best to represent you, please email a nomination form with my name to Bernice Black (bernice.black@bod.org.uk) by 5.30.

Thank you.

About the Author
Dr Stephen Games is a designer, edfitor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time currently editing various volumes of the Tenach.
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