Two and a half cheers for democracy

19 Feb

This is a guest post by Rachel Savage, Deputy for Sukkat Shalom Reform Synagogue.

As the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council move slowly towards a potential merger, it is natural to compare the two. One of the strengths of the Board, identified by its supporters, is that it is democratically elected and therefore somehow ‘better’ than the JLC. But what does it mean to be a democratic organisation? Is the Board using its democratic strengths to its full advantage? What else could democracy look like?

It’s easy to recognise the Board as a democratic organisation. In the Board’s own mission statement, it describes itself as “the community’s democratically elected cross-communal organisation”. But the term means something different to everyone and this confusion is at the heart of many concerns expressed about the Board and its effectiveness.

At one extreme is the current state of democracy on the Board. Deputies, members of Divisional boards and Honorary Officers (HOs) are elected. But many Deputies are elected by their constituencies in uncontested elections, and HOs and members of Divisions are elected by Deputies. Board plenary meetings are a talking shop; genuine votes are rare. When they do occur, they are more likely to be about procedural matters (Should meetings be streamed on the internet? How many Deputies should be required to bring a matter to the full Board for consideration?) than matters of Board policy. I have frequently heard that “the real work of the Board is done in the Divisions”. But I have also heard from frustrated Division members who find that the reports to the full Board on their Division’s activities fail to reflect what happens in Divisional meetings.

On the other extreme is the view that the Board should vote on “everything”. “Everything” is normally defined by the person expressing this view as “everything I personally disagree with”, whether that’s engaging in a joint project with a major NGO or paying a severance package to a departing member of Board staff. On the one hand, this view is absurd: plenary meetings would be even lengthier and more boring if every time the Board wanted to change paper cup supplier for refreshments served in their offices required scrutiny by all Deputies. On the other hand, if enough “I”s disagree with a particular Board decision, then surely those are the sorts of decisions that should be put to the vote due to their controversial status. Whilst this line of reasoning is appealing, it needs to be answered firmly by clear governance arrangements. It is tempting to allow Deputies to scrutinise the Board’s functions. But it’s a recipe for chaos to allow an unwieldy group of lay people to overturn the professional judgements of Board staff and the elected members of the Executive Committee taking decisions in matters properly delegated to them.

So what is the alternative? As a straw man, consider a Board with clear lines of governance. Deputies vote on the broad policies that the Board must follow and hold the staff and HOs to account in the way they implement that policy. The Executive Committee, whose members are the legally responsible trustees of the Board, takes decisions about allocation of resources and ensures the staff are carrying out work that reflects the agreed policies. The professional staff, assuming they are acting in line with those policies and the resource decisions of the Executive, are generally left to make professional judgements and get on with their work. I’m not sure what the role of the Divisions would be in this structure, but I’d welcome suggestions.

The Board’s democratic nature could be its strength, but only if we all agree about what decisions should be subject to democratic processes and what those processes should be.

Streamlining the Board – are there too many deputies?

27 Jun

This is a guest post by Anthony Tricot, Deputy for the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Follow him on twitter @AnthonyTricot

Amid all the public debate about the Board of Deputies, one of the characteristics that has received less scrutiny is that the size of the body makes it a bloated and less effective institution.

The total number of Deputies is now 287 (even excluding Under-35 observers) – with a further 39 places currently vacant. Deputies each represent fewer than 1,000 Jews. By contrast, MPs in Parliament each have 70,000 constituents. The Israeli Knesset – modelled on the ‘Great Assembly‘ in Roman times – has only 120 members to represent 7.7 million Israeli citizens.

This has material negative implications for the Jewish community.

Firstly, it endangers the representativeness of the Board. It means very few elections are competitive: my own Spanish and Portuguese community, for example, which sends four Deputies and an Under-35 observer, hasn’t had a competitive election in living memory, and the knowledge among our members of what our Deputies are up to is negligible as a result. That’s representative of the wider Jewish community: in the last Board elections, out of the 147 synagogues which sent Deputies only seven had contested elections.

Secondly, the number of Deputies is also a drain on communal resources: we incur transport costs of schlepping so many deputies into London for monthly meetings; we have to pay for grand accommodation at the BMA to accommodate all the machers; and we pay to print hundreds of meeting papers.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there isn’t all that much for these Deputies to do. Only a small proportion of Deputies are elected to places on committees (where most Board work gets done), and plenary meetings are unwieldy as a result of the number of people wanting a say. This creates frustration among Deputies that they don’t have an impact – with about half of Deputies often not bothering to attend the monthly plenaries. This is quite different to Parliament where even a humble opposition backbencher will sit on several committees holding the Government to account.

The truth is that a slimmer and leaner organisation could achieve more than the Board currently does.

Identifying the problem is easier than figuring out the solution. Limiting the number of Deputies wouldn’t be easy: communities pay according to the number of Deputies they send, so the Board could face a financial shortfall if there were fewer Deputies. A bigger problem is that small communities would lose out if the Board required larger constituencies – smaller communities might have to group together in order to send a Deputy. There are also risks that introducing any alternative models of electing representatives – such as having elections on a denominational or regional basis – could exacerbate fault lines within the community.

Lastly, a strict cap on numbers may make it more difficult to get fair representation for young people: the Board currently under-represents Jews that aren’t affiliated to established communities. But the ‘quick win’ remedies to this – such as increasing the number of UJS delegates or accrediting organisations like the Moishe House – would all add to the existing number of Deputies.

Ultimately there are no simple solutions to how the Board can be organised to fairly represent Jews. As Keith Kahn-Harris argued in the Guardian:

[T]here are always going to be limits as to how much a minority community can ever develop a truly representative body.

The importance of debate

The potential creation of a new representative communal body presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink some of the principles of representation in the community – including the appropriate size of the institution. We urgently need more debate on alternative models of representation for the community. Aspiring constitutional theorists should get stuck in!

If we can come up with a better model then the last hurdle would be to persuade the Deputies to vote for a slimmer institution. The current Government recently tried and failed to reduce the number of MPs by 10%. Would we have any more luck persuading Board turkeys to vote for Christmas?


Please click here to see our note to editors.

Hostile takeover, merger or a better future?

21 Jun

This is a guest post by Elliot Jebreel, Deputy for Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue. Follow him on twitter @ejebreel

[Disclaimer: before starting my current job, I used to work for the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC). For some, this equates to me being their spy at the Board. I'm not.]

Certain parts of the UK Jewish community have been ablaze with conversations surrounding the future of our communal leadership and representative structures. Most of this has stemmed out of the Board-JLC Liaison Committee; a group, from what I understand, that was set up to help both organisations work together for the benefit of the Jewish community. In recent weeks it has emerged that the group probably overstepped their remit by discussing a possible merger between the two.

Understandably, many (including myself) were shocked to find out about this through the Jewish press. Just as understandable were deputies’ initial worries and fears that this signalled an attempted “hostile takeover” of the Board by the JLC.

However, it is now time to look to the future rather than spewing unfounded and fear-mongering arguments against talking to the JLC.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that we’re not representing British Jews as well as we should be – and this goes for all of the major Jewish communal organisations. Whether it be the charedim, LGBT Jews, unaffiliated Jews…or even your bog standard (if such thing exists) Jew in the pew.

This is why I want us all – British Jews of all and no affiliation – to take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to help shape the future of the Jewish community. We have the opportunity to get input from experts, see how other communities do it and ultimately come up with the best possible representative body for British Jews.

As part of this, Changing the Board will soon be releasing some basic principles we want to see in any future representative organisation. We will publish them on this site and welcome your thoughts.

A victory for transparency and common sense

20 Jun

This is a guest post by Richard Verber, Deputy for Limmud. Follow him on twitter @richardverber

Campaigning is not easy. Human beings are, in general, creatures of habit. It’s how we make sense of the world around us. Change can be unsettling, even frightening. It’s why, to take a mild example, so many of us rarely change our bank account, even though we know that we could probably get a better deal by switching providers.

It’s this knowledge which underpins the careful reforms Changing the Board is helping to generate at the Board of Deputies. The Board has been in need of urgent change for some while now.

If it is to continue being the representative body of British Jewry, then it needs to become more representative of and of greater interest to the whole of British Jewry. In the short-term, we can help legitimise the Board’s claim to represent all British Jews by adding a level of transparency and scrutiny to some of the Board’s work.

One of the ways of increasing transparency was to lobby to have Board of Deputies plenary meetings filmed and streamed live on the internet. Doing so would offer those unable to make the meetings (which are open to all) the opportunity to follow proceedings, and provides a level of scrutiny to all British Jews for decisions taken in their name.

Working through the Finance and Organisation division of the Board, we introduced live streaming on a trial basis, which was ratified by a vote taken by all Deputies at last Sunday’s meeting.

This is an important moment for the work of Changing the Board – a grassroots movement of Jews from across the religious, political and age spectrum. Most deputies have welcomed our engagement. Some haven’t – particularly those who have been at the Board for decades. Chickens don’t vote for Friday night dinner, as the saying goes. But we’ve been successful because we’re not right wing or left wing, we’re not orthodox or progressive, we’re not young or old: we’re all of those things in a way, but above all, we’re just a sensible voice that believes things can get better.

Wherever the Board’s discussions go with the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) (and we hope they’re productive and constructive) the best parts of the Board of Deputies – the democracy, transparency and accountability – will play a central part going forward thanks to our work.

There is much still to do, and we’d like you to be involved. Conversations are on-going between representatives of the Board and the JLC. What do you think about the so-called ‘Ten Propositions’ outlining how a new organisation incorporating the Board and the JLC might look?


Update: We have heard that there has been a challenge to the amendment in the motion. We’ll have more on this when the Board releases a statement.

Please click here to see our note to editors.

Board of Deputies and the JLC

18 Jun

Last Sunday the Board of Deputies discussed the so called ‘Ten Propositions’ which would form the basis of conversations between the Board and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC).

We make available here in full a letter sent out by Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman last week, outlining the principles.

What do you think of them?

Changing the Board and the Chambers of Secrets

4 Jun

This is a guest post by Gabriel Webber, Deputy for the Union of Jewish Students. Follow him on twitter @gabrielquotes

The constitution of the Board of Deputies is nearly three times longer than the constitution of Norway, and if we go by rumours in the Jewish media it’s not going to be simplified any time soon.

The word ‘bicameralism’ has been mentioned: apparently, one potential structure for a merger between the Board of Deputies (which represents communities in proportion to their size) and the Jewish Leadership Council (which represents the leadership of large organisations, one-Chair-one-vote) would be a two-chamber organisation which, presumably, would jointly elect a leader and require a concurrent majority to take some decisions.

Bicameralism is often a perfectly sensible idea; in federal countries, one chamber represents the people, the other represents states. In other systems, such as Ireland, one chamber is directly elected while the other represents various interest groups – trade unions, religions, academia.

But while our representative body should be democratic, the UK Jewish community isn’t actually a country. And it seems unlikely that we need a constitutional structure so complicated it implies that we are.

I hope we can use this opportunity not just to reconcile the Board and the JLC but actually to think carefully about how the Jewish community can best be represented and how a new representative body could best ‘get stuff done’. A bicameral model would keep some aspects of the Board and some aspects of the JLC, but we shouldn’t assume that this is the only way to go.

Our constituents – the ordinary ‘rank and file’ (or ‘pew and mechitzah’?) Jews out there – aren’t attached to the Board’s model of representation, and they aren’t attached to the JLC’s. At least mine aren’t.

So let’s return to basics here.

Every member of both the Board and the JLC represents an organisation. It’s easy to present Deputies as representing ‘the People’ but in fact, we’re sent to Bloomsbury Square in the name of our synagogue/charity/student group/youth group, elected by members of that organisation.

It’s equally easy to present JLC members as rich and unaccountable; this is equally inaccurate. Like Deputies, JLC members represent specific named organisations which – generally – have members who either elected them or introduced some other form of selection.

So lesson one: the distinction between people and organisations is potentially artificial. If Deputies are not promoting the interests of their constituency (which is an organisation) they are not doing their job properly.

Let’s move on to another criticism of the Board: or rather, a pair of criticisms. “The Board is in thrall to the Reform movement and the left,” complain some Deputies. And, “The Board is really right-wing and looks down on Progressive movements,” complain others.

Whether or not this actually means that the Board is doing something right, we should carefully consider how to represent the whole community. There are many variables that characterise our community; denomination, gender, age, attitude to Israel. All of these groups need to be represented at any top table, but maybe more importantly, all of these groups need to be borne in mind when decisions are being taken.

How can we ensure that a representative body speaks for us all – and doesn’t speak in a way that misrepresents any section of the community? By definition, all British Jews should be subscribed to their representative body: every statement it makes should effectively have every Jewish person’s name written underneath it. It would not be right if people were roped into policies with which they disagree.

There are a number of ways this could be achieved. Of course, the ideal would be to rely upon our leaders’ integrity and honesty, and to trust that they will take all views into account before taking a decision.

But other political systems have come up with different solutions; in the House of Commons, the Speaker and three assistants must include at least one man and at least one woman. Slightly further from Bloomsbury Square, 30 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly can demand that a proposal obtains ‘cross-community support’ before being passed: this means not only an overall majority, but also a majority of Unionist members and a majority of nationalist members. ‘A democracy should be judged on how it treats its minorities, not on how it bows down to its majority.’

Such ‘hard-coded power-sharing’ is not necessarily desirable – some argue that it entrenches differences and makes genuine co-operation more difficult – but it’s something that should be considered as the Board moves forward in the 21st century, with the community it is supposed to represent becoming more diverse than ever.

So to conclude, it’s all in the name really: an ideal representative organisation for our community would be just that, both representative and an organisation.

Representative, by seeking to find common ground and giving a voice to all demographic and religious groups within the Jewish community.

And an organisation in being well-structured for, quite simply, getting stuff done. Not a precarious compromise which wastes hours on arguments about its own internal processes; not a system which consumes the time of its members to the extent that they could achieve more by volunteering in the wider community; but an organisation which is fit for purpose and likely to produce desired results.

Once detailed proposals for a merger – bicameral or otherwise – are released, we should hold them up against these criteria. Would the new structure be able to represent us all, and would it result in things getting done?

A response to the Jewish Chronicle

20 May

This is a guest post by Andrew Gilbert, Deputy for UJIA. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow him on twitter @AndrewGilbert1

Last week’s Jewish Chronicle contained mainly unfair criticism of the Board of Deputies. I would like to correct some points here.

  1. When someone leaves a senior communal post, it is a poor moment to publicly attack them. If you have nothing nice to say then say nothing. If you have anything nice to say, it is a good time to say it.
  2. Clearly the leadership of the Board needs to and is making new appointments and strengthening the professional team – let us wait and support them.
  3. I was a founding member of the JLC in 2003. I wish that Henry Grunwald had managed to push it then but it was his honorary officers that made it so difficult to create normal relations from the outset.
  4. The Board could have chosen to fund and support the work of the London Jewish Forum (LJF) but they failed to do this. However, Vivian Wineman as President has worked hard to improve relationships and now in addition to the leadership of the Board taking part in trustee calls and in the steering committee of the LJF, a trustee of the LJF is elected to and attends the executive of the Board of Deputies.
  5. On Shechita UK and Milah UK the Board remains a key player. It is hard to represent the needs of all parts of the community, but the current team seem excited to represent the whole community, not just the needs of a part of the community.
  6. It is true that the Board underpays its staff, but this is not the fault of the current team who are addressing this.
  7. It is 16 years since the constitutional amendments to which the article refers. At that time Divisions were made smaller and the Vice Presidents were elected to chair these divisions. It is not the fault of the current leadership and they are considering constitutional amendments.
  8. The author harks back to a time prior to this triennial where the same speakers dominated the floor. It is a breath of fresh air to have more speakers just speaking for 2 minutes.  There are actually now close to 300 Deputies, so limiting speeches to 2 minutes and one intervention per meeting per Deputy allows more participation. If any Deputy wishes to question or scrutinise in writing, there is no limit to their interventions.
  9. When considering the democracy of the Board, one should also consider the relationship between constituencies and their Deputies. Is it democratic that after electing their Deputies, constituencies should have no mandate, no control and no right of recall except to re-elect once every three years? Is this democratic? Surely if a Deputy is supposed to represent, then he or she must represent. Maybe Deputies need to be current leaders from constituencies. Should Deputies even be members of the boards of constituencies?
  10. Why not have a maximum length of term that a Deputy can represent a single constituency?
  11. When the JLC was set up, it had a clause that it should be chaired by the President of the Board which was later amended to say “[it] should normally be chaired by the President of the Board”. This clause was to avoid giving the Chair of the JLC to someone the JLC felt unsuitable.
  12. The Board has rarely, if ever, been the community’s most important or only channel to government. It has been marginalised by the good and the great. Even when Moses Montefiore was president, others had direct relationships to government. However, the Board should never stop trying to represent the community effectively however often it is undermined or fails – and it should always represent ALL the needs of the community not just those connected to the good and the great.
  13. Another quote requiring clarification is that “the Board needs to sort out and refashion its relationship with the JLC”. The current honorary officers are trying to do this. It was impossible in previous triennials as the Board’s leadership was not united on this matter.
  14. When Mick Davis came to the Board and was attacked, the attack was not stopped.
  15. In the whole history of the Board of Deputies, how many of the hundreds of honorary officers have been members of Reform synagogues? Unbelievably, only THREE! In previous times, Reform leaders chose to go directly to government or to work through the Anglo-Jewish Association. In the 1970s and 1980s Reform and Liberal chose to work through the Board and in the early 1990s – at last – the first two officers from Reform backgrounds were elected. However between 2000-2012 there were no Reform honorary officers. There has only ever been one Liberal honorary officer. Can the Board expect to represent or talk for the 20% of Reform Jews and 10% of Liberal Jews who make up our community if it is only led by Jews from the United Synagogue?
  16. Another unwritten rule of fair play in communal organisations is not to publicly criticise one’s successors. Once your period of office is over, one should act to your successors as you would want your predecessors to have acted towards you.


Please click here to see our note to editors. For more independent thought on the Board of Deputies, check out our ‘Featured Posts’ column on the right of this page.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 200 other followers