Geoffrey Alderman
Geoffrey Alderman

Cutting the Board of Deputies down to size

Board president Marie van der Zyl (Jewish News)
Board president Marie van der Zyl (Jewish News)

At its 26 July meeting the Board of Deputies of British Jews voted by the required two-thirds majority to admit to Board membership five Anglo-Jewish representative groups: the Jewish Police Association; the Jewish Small Communities Network; GIFT’ [Give It Forward Today, a charity which provides a range of communal support services]; and two charities that support adults and young people with learning disabilities, namely Langdon and Kisharon.

But two other bodies that had applied for Board membership failed – decisively – to reach the two-thirds’ threshold: the Jewish Council for Racial Equality [JCORE] and the Zionist Central Council of Manchester [ZCCM].

In the case of JCORE the reason for its failure seems to have been its alleged antipathy to the definition of antisemitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The ZCCM – or rather certain members of the ZCCM – were said to have had “past associations” with a notorious far-right activist.

I am not concerned here with the truth of either of these allegations – although I should say for the record that they are – of course – being strenuously denied. What does concern me is the seemingly relentless accretion to the Board of Deputies of myriad and doubtless very worthy lobbying and charitable organisations, many if not most of whose members are probably already represented at the Board through the synagogues to which they belong.

The Board informs me [2 August 2021] that once some paperwork has been processed its membership will comprise 300 Deputies representing in total 139 individual synagogues and 43 other bodies (communal organisations, regional representative councils and synagogal bodies other than individual congregations).

But according to the Board’s interim chief executive, Michael Wegier, there are “plenty more applications to be considered. “I hope that every one of the applications from “member organisations” is rejected – but not on the frankly spurious and spiteful political grounds that sealed the fate of the applications made by the ZCCM and JCORE.

As every Jewish schoolgirl and schoolboy ought to know, the Board of Deputies – then called the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews – began life in the second half of the 18th century as a small group of lay communal leaders appointed by their London synagogues. Gradually – and not without a great deal of rancour – the list of synagogues entitled to this representation was expanded. But in the early years of the last century, following the end of the Great War, an ominous decision was taken to permit a range of non-synagogal bodies to elect deputies.

Hitherto the right to elect deputies had been restricted (in general) to Jewish congregations having certified marriage secretaries. In 1919 a second institutional category of ‘Jewish Secular Societies and Associations’ was introduced, comprising initially six friendly societies,  the Council of United Jewish Friendly Societies, and B’nai  B’rith. The United Synagogue and  the  Federation  of Synagogues were given  representation in their own right (over and above the rights of representation of individual constituent congregations), while the Jewish students at  Oxford  and  Cambridge were allotted one deputy each. And, later that year, the Union of Jewish Women was given the right to return its own deputies.

In each case, persuasive arguments were deployed justifying the case for representation at the Board. The fact of the matter is that in the hundred years since these reforms, the representation of non-synagogal bodies has grown exponentially. During the 1980s I served as a deputy for the Clapton Federation Synagogue. But I also belonged to several Jewish non-synagogal bodies that then enjoyed Board representation, and I once calculated that I was, in fact, represented at the Board five times over.

Currently the number of deputies stands at 300. If we agree – for the sake of argument – that the identifying Jewish population of the UK is around 350,000, then one might argue that each deputy ‘represents’ less than 1,200 Jews. At Westminster, by contrast, each elected MP represents approximately 68,000 electors, or 92,000 citizens.

The truth is that currently there are far too many deputies, and that the Board’s bloated dimensions have encouraged rampant, nasty factionalism of the kind seen at work on 26 July.

The truth also is that for all its distended size the Board does not represent the charedim, who within the next 25 or so years will come to comprise the largest section of British Jewry.

The charedim just might be enticed back if the Board were to divest itself completely of its anachronistic religious functions, such as the certification of synagogue marriage secretaries. Currently the Board has two co-equal ecclesiastical authorities – the chief rabbi of the United Synagogue and the spiritual head of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation of London – whose religious guidance the Board must [repeat, must] follow.

The ecclesiastical authorities of other synagogal grouping – such as my own Federation of Synagogues – merely have the right to be consulted.  But once it is secularised there will be no need for the Board to have any ecclesiastical authorities, thus removing a long-standing source of intra-communal contention.

Transformed into a purely secular institution, and drawing its representative mandate exclusively from Jews who take the trouble to belong to synagogues of whatever denomination, the Board could reclaim its exclusive mandate to speak on behalf of virtually all the UK’s citizens of the Jewish persuasion.

About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist
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