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?

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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.

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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.

A challenge to Changing the Board

17 May

This is a guest post by Laura Marks, Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies. Follow her on twitter @Laura_E_Marks

The headlines of your recent report, as Richard says, are “good news” and I too applaud the wider demographic now represented at the Board. As a new, female Deputy, under 60(!) I am doing my bit to widen our representation. This goes further with our Divisions now having a broader range of deputies bringing different perspectives and skills.

However, surely this is just stage one? It’s all well and good to have a more representative range of Deputies but this has to be the start of a trend to really improve our representation. And secondly, and more immediately, we need to consider what these Deputies are actually doing for the next two years.

The Deputy’s job is to understand how our constituencies are affected by matters facing their community, to engage with current and long-term issues, to act as a catalyst to action locally, to challenge the executive and to be heard.

Without this, the value of having a wider demographic range is somewhat limited.

Let me start with representation. How many Deputies campaigned in their constituencies last year? How many studied the issues and then ensured they were elected with real backing? How representative are we if we don’t have the considered support of our constituents? Our mandate comes through the depth of our representation – which I suggest, in some cases, could be improved.

Secondly, participation. There are some notable examples of where new deputies have stepped right up to the plate. Gabriel Webber’s blog shows how he is trying to engage with international issues, Sam Alston volunteered to be on the Oxfam Oversight group which is ongoing and challenging.

Several new deputies have been elected to divisions (on the Community Issues Division I am lucky to have Ilana Fenster, Georgina Bye and Rachel Elf) and of course, many others (including older new Deputies) have taken roles.

But there is a long way to go.

If our new Deputies (or established ones for that matter) are to he heard then they need to actively engage – working in their constituencies, speaking up at the plenary, helping decide where we want the Board to go. Just having a seat isn’t enough.

The Board of Deputies’ Women’s group (BoDWG) asked me to put together a list of the 17 Working Groups active within the Board, some new and still developing. These include social action, Closer to Israel, Heritage (cemeteries), fundraising, supporting educational projects and, crucially, political engagement.

Most groups require more enthusiastic, hard working members. We need Deputies to step up, supporting the vital work of the Board and, therefore, the community. It is only through engagement via our Deputies, that we can move forwards.

So my challenge to Change the Board is this. Changing the Board through a wider demographic is, for now done and dusted. The real tachlis is awaiting – get involved and take responsibility. Just let me know what you want to do and let’s get moving.

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Please click here to see our note to editors

Changing the World Jewish Congress

8 May

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

I’m glad I was able to laugh at the 14th Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress… otherwise I’d have cried.

I spent three days listening to old men reciting a litany of woes, saying how terrible and dangerous and wearing and life-threatening it is to be Jewish in Europe these days.

Our opening dinner was entitled: ‘Celebrating Jewish Communal Life Around the World’, yet not one speaker – not one – did so. Not a single word was spoken about Jewish life flourishing, about new schools or shuls or community centres. Everybody was so busy wallowing in how awful it is to be Jewish that they forgot why we’re Jewish in the first place.

A lot of the delegates, it seems, are not active members of the community because they find our religion spiritually uplifting or culturally satisfying. No, sadly I get the impression that many of them remain Jews simply to spite imagined ‘enemies’ in the wider world.

The Congress is so far removed from actual, ordinary Jewish people. I have many criticisms of the Board of Deputies, but at least our Honorary Officers are always accessible and willing to listen.

The President of the WJC, on the other hand, is a multibillionaire who didn’t talk, sit or eat with any of us common delegates. At one point I accidentally walked within 3m of him in a corridor, and was physically pushed back by one of his bodyguards.

Most Jews have never heard of the WJC, and while it claims for itself the right to speak for global Jewry, it does nothing of the sort.

It provides some glitz and glamour for the media, five-star hotels and police motorcades, and it shows the world that the Jews are powerful and prepared to defend ourselves.

But is this really the image we want to project?

I hope not. Let’s work together over the next four years to ensure that in 2017, the average age of WJC delegates will be closer to 40 than 80. Let’s make sure that plural viewpoints are well-represented, on Israel, the settlements, Progressive Judaism – al the debates that characterise our community.

A smidgeon of proper democracy wouldn’t hurt either, but that’s not as important as doing a good job. So let’s have lots of voices crying out for positivity: schools, children, the future – anything but the endless, soul-destroying wallowing in self-pity that marked this year’s plenary.

The elderly Republican Party billionaires won’t be around forever. We have a chance to ensure that world Jewry’s representative body changes alongside world Jewry, not decades after as usual.

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Please click here to see our note to editors.

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Read more: More young people and more women as the revolution marches on

More young people, more women, as the revolution marches on

28 Apr

Changing the Board has been granted access to the demographic breakdown of the new set of Deputies at the Board. Our boffins have been crunching the statistics and have produced a new set of infographics to highlight the current lay of the land and analyse what has changed in the new triennium. (‘Triennium’ is the three-year term for which each Deputy is elected). Key headlines:

  • More women: the current triennium boasts 28 more women, a rise of 44%
  • More new Deputies: 95 of the current Deputies are taking their seat for the first time
  • Younger Deputies: the number of Deputies under 40 has more than doubled
  • Fewer ‘career Deputies’: the number of long-standing Deputies falls

The headlines are good news and we extend our congratulations to everyone involved in Changing the Board and all our supporters. However, as our infographics show, the statistics only tell part of the story and there is much work still to be done.

1. Gender

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As the infographic shows, nearly one in three Deputies are now women, up from one in four in the last triennium. However, with more women than men in the Jewish community, if the Board of Deputies is to be truly the community’s representative organisation, we must get the figure up to 50% as soon as possible. The Board is missing out on swathes of talent and new approaches and must work alongside Women in Jewish Leadership to understand why women choose not to stand, and what can be done to facilitate their candidacy, such as investigating childcare for those who require it.

2. More new Deputies

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Following increased interest in the Board, 95 Deputies were elected to the Board for the first time. This is good for the Board, as to be successful, it needs a good blend of wisdom and experience together with energy and fresh ideas. As the infographic shows, 28 more women joined the Board too.

3. Age demographic

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The Board now has a slightly younger feel with the average age falling by two years, from 61 in the last triennium to 59. As we reported last year, 63% of Deputies were over 60; that figure has now dropped to 60%. Last time only 7% of Deputies were under 40; that figure has more than doubled to 15%.

4. Length of service

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The inforgraphic shows a much more desirable result this triennium. The Board has suffered from too many Deputies refusing to stand down and let others lead. Over 20% of Deputies in 2009-2012 were in their fifth triennium, i.e. had been a Deputy for 13 years or longer. We now have a huge influx of new Deputies, driving down the average number of years served. The Board will be at its strongest with a good mix of experience and fresh ideas.

Commenting on the report, Richard Verber, Changing the Board representative on the Board of Deputies’ Executive, said: “Changing the Board is pleased at the progress these results show. Well done to everyone involved with Changing the Board and our supporters. There is much to celebrate – a large increase in younger Deputies, more women Deputies, more new Deputies – though women and young people are still under-represented on the Executive. Greater representation also needs to lead to action: plenary meeting reforms, reforms to the work of the four Divisions, and widespread self-reflection on the whole purpose of the Board of Deputies and what it does. Changing the Board will continue to influence and generate these debates.”

Please click here to see our note to editors. Please do use these statistics, but credit Changing the Board whether in print or online. For a quote or more information, email us at changingtheboard@gmail.com