By Alex Brummer, Vice President, Board of Deputies
Jewish communities in Britain and across Europe face unprecedented challenges. Economic and social dislocation in the eurozone nations, together with the spread of Islamic extremism and increased public hostility towards Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza have contributed to feelings of isolation and insecurity.
This sense of anxiety and defencelessness reached a crescendo last summer during Operative Protective Edge, one of Israel’s longer military engagements lasting for eight weeks. The fall-out from the conflict and perceived failure of community organisations to be seen to be active in a more public way has left scars that have yet to fully mend. On the positive side, Protective Edge shook many British Jews out of their complacency and saw the rise of grassroots activism across the length of the country.
That enthusiasm to be involved and to do more to defend British Jews and stick up for Israel needs to be captured and channelled in a positive way. On some levels, the community looks to be doing very nicely.
The huge success of Limmud, the cultural accomplishments of JW3 and the brilliant work being done by World Jewish Relief, from the Ukraine to the Middle East, are stunning achievements. But I think we can do much better, which is why I am putting myself forward as a candidate to be president of the Board of Deputies at the forthcoming elections for honorary officers in May.
As the city editor of the Daily Mail, who has won awards for international, economic, financial reporting and commentary, I believe that I have the knowledge of public affairs and politics and the high level contacts in government and business to be really effective in the job and to make sound judgements. One would also aim to bring traditional Jewish values to the job. However, I have also come to understand that there is much in the community architecture needing fixing. The Board did brilliant work during Operation Protective Edge to protect the community. Some of it, such as the joint statement with the Muslim Council of Britain, was controversial.
The Jewish Leadership Council worked closely with Downing Street to make sure that calls for boycotts, arms embargoes and disengagement with Israel were resisted. I spoke to the chairmen of two of our biggest supermarket chains to make sure local demonstrations did not become national boycotts and to ensure that Israeli and kosher produce would remain on the shelves amid circulating rumours that they would be emptied. Assurances were obtained from both groups.
My fellow Board honorary officers worked tirelessly to combat ill-conceived boycotts, ranging from the Tricycle Theatre to the decision to fly the Palestinian flag over town halls. It was an all-out battle. Yet there were serious shortcomings. The emergency co-operation between the Board and other communal bodies led to less efficient and timid decision-making because of concerns about treading on each other’s toes. We never really got on top of the media war allowing the highly controlled images from Gaza to dominate the television agenda. Communication needs to be a much higher priority.
Most importantly of all, the community leadership spent too much time worrying about what government and opposition were doing (clearly important) but not enough time tapping into the vulnerability of ‘Jew in the pew’ or for that matter the unaffiliated and secular Jews without synagogue and other ties. The Board of Deputies is uniquely placed to do this. We have deputies that span the length and breadth of the country from Plymouth to Edinburgh, from Southampton to Hull who have both democratic legitimacy – through the communities that elected them – and are able to act as local ambassadors for the Jewish community.
Simply, by holding public meetings in the communities, explaining strategic context of Middle-East conflict, the ongoing fears of anti-Semitism and boycott and putting them in some perspective can assist in relieving anxieties.
Nationally and internationally, there is much to be done. I have extensively lobbied successive governments at Cabinet level to hold their feet to the fire and not allow the financial sanctions on Iran to be relaxed. On behalf of the Board, I have worked with Jewish organisations in countries across Europe on monitoring anti-Semitism and Holocaust education.
Comparing levels of tolerance in the UK with the Kristallnacht style violence in France, there is much to be grateful for. But we cannot afford complacency and need a Board president who recognises the anxieties of the community, tackles the challenges of media bias on Israel and has the wherewithal to do something about it.