The JLC’s interim head has demanded the organisation and the Board of Deputies leave their “baggage, preconditions and prejudice” behind in exploring options for a unified body as he set his sights on forming a single organisation by the end of 2014.

Simon Johnson set out his goals in a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish News.

Simon Johnson set out his goals in a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish News.

Simon Johnson set out his goals in a wide-ranging interview in which he vowed to increase engagement with the charedi community, claimed other communal link-ups should be explored to increase efficiency and set out the JLC’s objectives while it and the Board remain separate.

But one of the key focuses for the coming months will be on the JLC Board process, which he revealed is now moving into its next phase with the appointment of external consultants.

Over the coming four months, they will gauge the views of deputies and JLC member bodies around the principles agreed by the organisation leaders nearly a year ago.

“When you come from the outside, the case for trying to bring the two organisations together to create one organisation
that combines the best of what the Board represents and the best of what the JLC represents is very compelling,” said the former Football Association director of corporate affairs.

“Both organisations have to consult and we have to bring the community with us. But both must embrace those discussions positively. We have to leave our baggage, our preconditions and our prejudice at the door.”

He insisted the talks were not about who wields “power” – which is why he is not using corporate terms like merger and takeover. The 47-year-old Hampstead Garden Suburb shul chair hopes any agreement “will be resolved and agreed in principle ready for implementation by the end of the year. You will later be into an election period for the Board and I think it will then have to come off the table for a while.

“There may still be i’s to dot and t’s to cross but by then we ought to have been able to talk through whatever might be the biggest issues between us and seen whether we can resolve them”. He is confident the JLC’s council will support the “direction of travel” if the best elements of both were retained.

Tensions have marred the relationship between the Board and the JLC since the latter’s creation a decade ago. Some back-benchers felt it is encroaching on work traditionally undertaken by the 254-year-old representative body, with the annual meeting with the prime minister–arranged by the JLC but including two Board figures – a source of particular
consternation. The lack of consultation by the Board over the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews also produced a flare-up in relations.

Johnson – who took on the interim role last October and this week indicated his interest in taking on the job permanently – condemned those who “continually harangue the JLC for the fact the Board’s leaders have not taken the lead on a particular thing.

“I think it is really unfair of those who criticised organisations like the JLC and CST for going into the lead on comment on the Anelka issue. As though no one can speak for the community other than the Board of Deputies – I don’t accept that. If we spend our time fighting just for a matter of principle on who should speak, you’re ducking the issue”.

But, saying he’d made “strenuous efforts” to keep the Board abreast of the JLC’s work, he added: “Since I’ve been here a lot of the suspicion is dissipating. I’m more open about what we’re doing and they’re more open with us. They’ve asked us about whether we’d be interested in potentially sharing premises and I’ve said I’m interested in looking at that.”

If the unification discussions don’t work, he said, “the closer collaboration we have demonstrated should enable both organisations to thrive”. He acknowledged however that there was still a “lack of understanding” in the community about what the JLC does – something he is looking to correct by publishing a set of strategic objectives.

In bringing together the heads of major communal bodies around one table, he argued, the JLC is “uniquely placed to address the strategic challenges of the community, to look at the community’s architecture and long-term funding. In areas such as social care, leadership, schools policy, on community funding I don’t think there’s any arguments those are areas of ours”.

Johnson, who headed England’s 2018 World Cup bid, said the community in general should look constantly at how it can be more efficient. While insisting “we’re not about forcing mergers”, he said: “There are too many organisations and resource is being duplicated. We’re asking bodies to think more strategically.”

On Israel, he said the community was gearing up for both a successful conclusion to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and for any breakdown amid fear this would revitalise the boycott campaign.

Reacting for the first time to the student-led campaign urging the community to use only maps showing the green line, he said: “Among our members are people who share that position and people who don’t. We can’t be behind anything that tries to move the community one way or another. We have to be able to recognise that, just as in Israel, there is a wide polarity of views, so anything that tries to ignore that wide polarity of views is not helping the community.”