Why it matters there is a challenge for the Board presidency

A Board of Deputies plenary, with President Marie van der Zyl (second left)
A Board of Deputies plenary, with President Marie van der Zyl (second left)

For the first time since 1964, there is going to be a contested election for a sitting president of the Board of Deputies after serving one term. The present head, Marie van der Zyl is going to be opposed by Jonathan Neumann.    

Does it matter? Mr. Neumann says that if he is elected, he will restore unity in the Board, make the Board more democratic and involve the Deputies in policy making. 

Nobody is mentioning the key challenge to the Board, however. The question of whether the community should be represented by the Board or by the Jewish Leadership Council. 

There are many reasons why we should continue to be represented by the Board. The most important is that it has represented us since 1760. If there is one thing we Brits admire it’s tradition. If something lasts 250 years, it is rightly considered sacrosanct. Successive governments look to the Board to say where we stand and they have never been disappointed. 

The second point in the Board’s favour is that it is democratic. The members of the Jewish Leadership Council are admirable, but they are not elected by the over 70 organisations who make up the Deputies. 

Whoever wins should also negotiate with the one body who have left the Board and that is the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. The Charedim are an important constituent of the community and they know very well that if there was a crisis, they would look to the Board to help. Even so, they remain outside the Board.

The Board is perfectly capable of democratically overturning the actions of its officers. The ghost of 1917 hangs over it. When the British government was considering promising to create a National Home in Palestine, the president of the Board snd the president of  the Anglo-Jewish Association wrote to The Times to say that they were not in favour of it. The Deputies weren’t consulted before the letter was sent and at a subsequent meeting, they voted 56-51 to disavow the president’s action. The Balfour Declaration was the result. 

Oddly enough it wasn’t because the majority of the Deputies were Zionists. The president was overruled because the provincial Deputies hadn’t been consulted. As a result the provincial Deputies voted 36-4 against the president. The Balfour Declaration was supported out of pique not conviction. 

If the Deputies could do it once, they could to it again, and I hope they remember that they are an independent body. 

There is one thing which stands in their way; the question of whether they can carry their rulings by a simple majority or whether they need to have a two thirds majority.  If Mr. Neumann gets elected, I hope that a simple majority is the criteria he advocates and when he talks of greater democracy and involvement in policy making, that is specifically what is going to happen in future.  

The argument of many leaders is that they know best. That isn’t democracy. We only have to look at the Remain versus Leave referendum to see that. It tore the country apart but the vote was to leave the EC and the parliamentarians did their duty.  

The Board has done a great job for us over the years. If the other ethnic communities had similarly able organisations, they would find  it much easier to solve their own problems. 

So the election does matter and it is up to all the 70 organisations to turn up and vote. 

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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