This is a guest post by Peter Mason, former Executive Director of the London Jewish Forum and a Labour Party activist in West London. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow Peter on Twitter @pejmason
The Changing the Board campaign from its outset was a self-described revolution without blood. A collection of individuals so frustrated with the status quo that they were willing to invest their energies in organising and campaigning to bring new voices to the table. Their agenda is reform of an organisation fast becoming irrelevant.
I believe that the fundamental cause of the Board of Deputies decline is its failure to accept a broader definition of what concerns us as a Community and its inability to adapt to the change in the way decisions are made that affect Jewish lives coupled with an outdated and unproven model of legitimacy.
The Board presents itself as a vanguard to “protect and to promote the religious and civil liberties of Jewish people in Britain“. But the sum total of the Board’s campaign for securing change to benefit the community amounts to lowest-common denominator issues. The protection of brit milah and shechitah are ones on which the Community can find almost unanimous agreement, yet still they need to be outsourced to at-arms-length organisations.
But what about those issues that affect us as Jews and have a real impact on how we will live as Jews in Britain now and in the future?
The fact that our community is disproportionately older than the rest of the country means that how we organise and fund adult care is a Jewish issue.
The slow migration of our community westward and north westward outside of London is a reflection that young families are increasingly finding it difficult to get onto the property ladder in already existing communities, with their close proximity to schools, synagogues and shops. Affordable housing in London is a Jewish issue.
That families within the Charedi community will be forced out of their homes when the housing benefit cap element of the Universal Credit is introduced is a Jewish issue.
So is childhood poverty, the crisis in primary school places in North London and a myriad of others. They all are Jewish issues.
To achieve change you need to operate in the spaces where decisions get made and understand how influence them.
The Commission on Jewish Schools and the All-Party Inquiry Into Antisemitism are textbook examples of how to bring about change in issues we collectively care about. In both cases, these initiatives took a broad view of the issues they covered, pulled together irrefutable evidence and laid down a series of challenges to Government and others to respond to. Backed up by lobbying and campaigning, both have secured major changes that have delivered real benefit.
I don’t see the kind of regular policy monitoring and analysis, reports and campaigns, lobbying and engagement in public debate that achieving change necessitates, coming out of the Board.
In the era of localism, how decisions get made which affect the community are rapidly changing. Police and Crime Commissioners now make decisions on local policing priorities. Local Councils have increased powers over planning for housing, public health and the delivery of adult care.
I don’t see the Board engaging in a meaningful way with Local Authorities, or supporting the Regional Representative Councils who do, with the policy and advocacy support they crave.
Increasingly, we also need to work outside of our community with others where we share a common interest. Our Community may be more established than others, but in the most part we share a common narrative of immigration and integration into the UK. We are a defined minority with minority needs. A robust defence of culturally-specific services such as Jewish schools or kosher care homes is made the more powerful by a joint defence with those who desire Sikh schools or halal meals-on-wheels.
As a secondary consequence, not only can we deliver for our mutual benefit, we could build the kind of social capital we need to help our near neighbours understand the intrinsic relationship our Community has with Israel during the tough times.
But a reactionary approach to how we engage with others as the Grow / Tatzmiach affair has come to symbolise undermines not just the Board’s ability to bring about change, as others have argued bravely, placing our Community in a straight jacket that can only lead to further isolation. Thank goodness sense prevailed and the project continues.
I don’t think it is any surprise given all this that many believe that the Board’s authority has leached away to new players on the communal playing field, and I don’t think you can blame organisations like the JLC for stepping into a vacuum others have left behind.
Contrast this with an organisation like the CST. It has consistently and persistently delivered for the Community by securing action on antisemitism from governments of all political persuasions, wise to the changing world of where decisions get made and happy to lend its expertise, support and work with others. Not everyone agrees with me.
But I don’t care if Geoffrey Alderman can’t easily find a list of CST’s trustees. I care that Jewish kids are safe at school, that our Community is engaged in tackling hate crime of all types and that local policing in Jewish neighbourhoods up and down the UK reflect the needs of those communities.
Efficacy breeds legitimacy. We can continue to debate the structures and governance models of our communal institutions until we are blue in the face, but what is the point of structures if they achieve little?
So to those who claim that the Board’s democratic nature in and of itself grants it that legitimacy, I’ll say simply this:
Representation is a process, not an outcome. You can elect as many people to as many committees you can muster and attend as many high-level meetings with Ministers and receptions of the establishment as you like. But until you’ve canvassed the views of the Community, expressed them in a coherent and powerful way, campaigning to secure the change it that is required you will remain to the next generation an abstract talking-shop, preoccupied with internal battles over territory and power.
The Board could be different. It could be the space in which we come together to debate and decide the future vision of delivering care, housing, schooling and so much more. On the issues that affect us and the issues that we care about because we are Jewish, the Board can be an agent for change for our community and a vehicle delivering on Jewish values in wider society, and it can achieve all of this if it just decided to try.
The bloodless revolution will continue.
A real change in conduct by Daniel Grabiner
Oxfam, Grow: NGO. Do we do it, yes or no? by Gabriel Webber
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Under 35 Observers – the future or the past? by Rob Sassoon