The decision of Jonathan Arkush to step down as President of the Board of Deputies after a single three-year term came as a surprise to most deputies. He flourished in the limelight and had been intensively focused on attaining what is still regarded as one of the highest office in secular Jewry.
In spite of the rise of other community management organisations such as the Jewish Leadership Council, Jewish Care, JW3 and much else, the Board owns many of the historic official and practical roles in British Jewry. These functions range from authorising Jewish marriage secretaries to being the main conduit to government on most matters affecting the community, from daylight saving to school examinations. The Board also represents British Jews at the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress.
In his farewell letter, Arkush draws attention to his achievements, including enhancing the Board’s status, promoting a more robust defence of Israel and campaigning against extremism, all of which he pledged and has delivered on. Being President of the Board is an enormous, honorary responsibility and without doubt places a heavy burden on incumbents.
But what Arkush has been unable to supply is leadership clarity. The JLC has acquired status in Downing Street, in Whitehall, in the provinces and at the grassroots and has usurped the Board’s authority. Arkush, a forceful orator, has sought to be the loudest voice in the room. There is not an issue from Donald Trump’s election to the perceived incidents of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party to which he or his team have not responded speedily; how effectively is for the wider community to judge.
But what is not helpful is having twin peaks of community leadership — the JLC and Board of Deputies — which too often duplicate work. Their competing leadership teams are confusing for both the Jewish community and the wider public, at home as well as overseas, and wasteful of resources. Out of sight of the community the two bodies spend a great deal of time squabbling over funding responsibilities.
Arkush’s departure offers an opportunity for the next leadership of the Board to end the standoff, reach out to the JLC and complete much of the detailed and expensive work on a merger pioneered by his predecessor, Vivian Wineman. This included a professional consultation on community views and the design of a merged structure by a constitutional expert.
There is mutual suspicion to overcome. Veteran board members view the JLC as an upstart largely funded by community plutocrats who lack democratic legitimacy. That may have been truer in its early days. Now almost every significant community body, from World Jewish Relief to Jewish Care, has an input into what the JLC does. It has also been influential in shaping a new generation of Jewish leaders.
It makes absolutely no sense to have two community-funded bureaucracies working in separate tracks. The Board has the status, history, recognition and powers which the JLC has never had. The JLC has a dynamic leadership and strong resources but lacks the democratic values that are the Board’s raison d’être.
The JLC has fresh leadership in the shape of Jonathan Goldstein and, after the May elections, so will the board. Past problems, such as the rocky relationship between Arkush and Sir Mick Davies, should be consigned to the past.
As a financial commentator I often oppose corporate mergers. But in the third sector the case for making the best use of charitable monies and clear focus on the issues of the day and future is paramount. Why are we waiting?
- Alex Brummer is a United Synagogue deputy and a former vice-president of the Board