Friday, September 24, 2010

An Umbrella for British Jewry

An Umbrella for British Jewry

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is almost certainly the oldest continuously functioning representative body of Jewry in the world. Its first meeting, held at London's Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1760, was recorded in Portuguese, the language of its Sephardi founders. A new book by Raphael Langham, the first complete history of the Board, has been published to coincide with its 250th anniversary.

Operating at the center of the British Empire, the board worked to advance the conditions of British Jews at home and to harness England's global power on behalf of Jewish communities around the world. At home, its agenda included protecting the rights of Jews to observe their religious traditions, protecting shechita or kosher meat-slaughtering and absolving Jews of taking Christian oaths for purposes of employment. Abroad, for instance, it intervened with the British government in 1840, to request intercession with the Ottoman authorities over the Damascus Blood Libel.

Today, Britain is no longer an empire, the Board is no longer overseen by a small coterie of fabulously rich and powerful men and the golden years of British Jewry are behind it. The BOD came into existence when there were 10,000 Jews in England. Today there are 267,000 but this figure is down from a peak of 420,000 in 1955. Today's community is a study in contrasts: demographically contracting, with intermarriage running at about 50% yet religiously vibrant and diverse and with notable points of cultural vitality. Middle ground traditionalists are holding their own -- barely; the ultra-Orthodox are thriving, while there are also effervescent pockets of Reform, Masorti and Liberal Judaism.
Some say the BOD has lost its clout. Yet its president is still seen as the lay leader of British Jewry. The government will always turn to the board when it wants to say something to the community, even if it also turns to other bodies. The board continues to play an instrumental role in civil rights advocacy, protecting shechita (still under assault) and in grappling with occasionally violent anti-Semitism stemming from Britain's growing Muslim population and extreme nationalists. The autonomous Community Security Trust, which looks after the security needs of British Jewry, takes its cue from the BOD.

Some see today's board as too democratic. In 2003 the Jewish Leadership Council was formed after the board rejected overtures from a small group of benefactors who offered to back its activities in exchange for control of its agenda. Nevertheless, the BOD and the JLC often operate in tandem. There are other welcome signs of unity. Though the ultra-Orthodox Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations walked out of the BOD in 1971 over religious differences, its representatives did attend a recent communal gathering marking the board's anniversary.

On Zionism, from the early years of the state, the BOD has been mindful that British Jewry was faced with accusations of dual loyalty. Consequently, the deputies had tried to set Israel's position before the public without appearing boldly partisan. This stance has evolved into one of public solidarity without, though, endorsing specific Israeli policies over which the board is itself divided. In that context, board leaders have met with the the new Cameron government's top Middle East minister. Contrary to pre-election pledges from the Tories, the Board has been unable gain the government's commitment for a change in the Universal Jurisdiction law which has been exploited by anti-Israel campaigners against visiting Israeli officials.
Surveys show that 80% of British Jews are supportive of Israel, according to Langham, including those with doubts about its policies. During the 1982 Lebanon War, the Board mustered 40,000 pro-Israel supporters in Trafalgar Square. A January 2009 demonstration during the Gaza War drew, at best, half as many. To be fair, Britain's Jewish community functions in a troublingly anti-Zionist political and media environment.

Like vital umbrella organizations everywhere, the Board can speak publicly with one voice on Israel only by restricting itself to bland and non-committal statements. Yet defining and articulating communal interests that are faithful to Jewish civilizational values must surely be the truest test of leadership -- in the UK and elsewhere.

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