Time for Britain’s Board of Deputies to down-size to save itself

The Board of Deputies was all over the Jewish Press and social media again this week over its stand – or, rather its refusal to take a stand – on Israel’s Annexation of the West Bank. I do feel rather sorry for its president Marie van der Zyl who seems unable to put a foot anywhere these days without stepping in poo.

In leading the UK Jewish community response to Labour anti-Semitism from 2016, the Board was doing rather well. Naturally, even that provoked some criticism from those who felt the response was inadequate and from Labour supporters who believed Labour was being “smeared.” But generally, the consensus was that the BoD was doing okay.

There was a brief spat last month after Tory MP Robert Halfon accused the BoD of being  pro-Labour. But the issue which dramatically divided opinion, destroyed any consensus and threw the Board into the spotlight was Israel’s Annexation of the West Bank. That led to calls from some sections of the community for the Board to condemn Israel and its PM, Bibi Netanyahu, and from other sections of the community to endorse the policy.

As I said in an earlier post on this website, I am no fan of Bibi, but I do not think it is helpful for us as a community to denounce Israel or its government. Any criticism (or, indeed approbation) should be left to its people; to those who live and vote there.

I understand the huge frustration of Israeli voters on the Left who cannot muster the votes to dislodge Bibi but I believe the way to do so is by convincing enough voters in Israel that other policies will not harm them, rather than by lobbying Anglo-Jewry’s main representative organisation to condemn Israel.

The BoD president Marie van der Zyl has said, quite rightly in my view, that the issue of West Bank Annexation is “a matter for the Israelis and the Palestinians” to negotiate in any future agreement. The BoD, she believes “should be a safe and tolerant space where people can put forward their views” even when they disagree.

But even that declaration of neutrality brought opprobrium.

In a spirit of helpfulness, therefore, let me suggest it is time for the Board of Deputies – or, to give it its full title, the Board of Deputies of British Jews – to down-size considerably and to return to its core activity of representing Britain’s Jewish community to the British Government and Monarchy – it was created in 1760 (by Sephardi Jews) to pay homage to George III on his accession to the throne.

While I have no locus standi to comment on the Board of Deputies, I feel in a position to do so having observed or been professionally involved with its activities for most of my working life.

As a young reporter in the 1970s, I witnessed Lord (Barnet, “Barney”) Janner perform his version of Nikita Kruschev’s famous United Nations protest though I recall “Barney” furiously pounding his fist on a lectern rather than his shoe.

Later in the 70s the BoD expanded its role from being mainly Anglo-Jewry’s “voice”, to becoming more politically active and outspoken, and appointing its first full-time professional director-general. By this time “Barney’s” son Greville had been anointed as the Board president.

I imagine the BoD’s core role would have evolved and grown naturally over subsequent years as a result of many societal and demographic factors. But I doubt it would have evolved and expanded in quite the way it did without a quest for a political niche for former presidents whose day-job was in Westminster.

45 years later, Wikipedia tells us that “All matters tending to impact on the life of Jews in Britain fall within the Board’s remit.”

That assertion is, I believe, where the problem lies because we have organisations for welfare, religion and the interface between UK Jews and Israel. With all those in place, any “umbrella” organisation flexing its political muscles “on behalf of the entire community” is not just superfluous but will inevitably run into unnecessary conflict.

After the latest round of bitter controversy, surely it would be far better for the BoD to recognise that its remit cannot (and really should not) cover “all matters tending to impact on the life of Jews in Britain.”

By acknowledging that, the BoD could simply forget about flexing its political muscles. It could reduce its “empire” (by which I mean reduce its professional staff and London premises) and return to its core role of representing Britain’s Jewish community to the British Government and monarchy. The BoD President would be mired in far less controversy and it would save us all the levy which we pay with our synagogue fees…


About the Author
Jan Shure held senior editorial roles at the Jewis Chronicle for three decades. and previously served as deputy editor of the Jewish Observer. She is an author and freelance writer and wrote regularly for the Huffington Post until 2018. In 2012 she took a break from journalism to be a web entrepreneur.