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?

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One Response to “Changing the Board and the Chambers of Secrets”

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  1. Way out of our league | Gabrielquotes - June 4, 2013

    […] followed by summer-long youth-leading, this will probably be my last blog post this academic year (this was my penultimate one, by the way – guest-writing for Changing the Board). It’s been a […]

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