By Joseph Finlay, former Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and contributor to a range of grassroots Jewish organisations such as Moishe House London, Wandering Jews, Jewdas and The Open Talmud Project.
Yachad’s acceptance onto the Board of Deputies has provoked overreactions from both sides: opponents have described the decision as detrimental to the Board while supporters of Yachad have suggested that the move shows the BoD becoming more inclusive. But both supporters and opponents of Yachad are missing the point.
Firstly, a large number of Jews are not members of any institutions, so are totally unrepresented. The BoD’s system, built for an era in which Jews were clearly members of an institution (usually a synagogue) fails to work in an era where communities are much more transient and temporary.
While there has been an effort to extend membership to various loosely constituted organisations such as Yachad and UJS which may have reach amongst the otherwise unrepresented, this brings problems of its own.
Without formal membership it is difficult to ascertain how many people are supposedly being represented. And there is inevitably a great deal of doubling up, as some individuals are represented by three, four or five bodies.
The process is not much better when it comes to affiliate organisations with a defined membership. For the BoD to be representative, the elections held by these bodies to elect deputies need to be fair, contested, and with a respectable turnout. But this is rarely the case.
Typically elections occur at synagogue AGMs, at which a very small percentage of the membership attends. There is rarely any attempt to widen turnout by allowing postal, let alone electronic voting and in many cases elections are uncontested. Furthermore – while institutions are allocated differing numbers of deputies based on their size this there is a total lack of clarity or precision in how these are distributed.
Finally, a range of unfamiliar and arcane bodies are represented, such as: The Jewish Labour Movement, Jewish Committee for HM Forces and the 45 Aid Society.
While these organisations may do important work, it is hard to imagine that they speak for a large membership that is not being represented elsewhere.
Instead we need a genuine democracy – a one-member-one-vote system, so that people vote as individuals rather than via affiliate organisations.
Registered voters would receive a ballot paper, listing deputies standing for election, or perhaps groupings of candidates standing together as a party, and the candidates for President.
To create the electoral roll there would need to be a voter registration drive – and it should be possible to register online, by post, and at synagogues.
Jewish status would need to be self-defined with a clause in the form saying something like, ‘ I confirm that I am Jewish and reside in the UK’.
A small fee could be used to fund the electoral process and to address concerns over fraud.. A strong registration drive could plausibly attract a roll of at least 10,000 -15,000 – a very respectable starting point, with the likelihood that numbers would grow in time.
Even with that number of voters the BoD would enjoy far more legitimacy than at present.
The Board is not just one Jewish organisation amongst many: it claims to represent all Jews in Britain, and lobbies the government on their behalf.
Its deputies and leaders hold political power – but at present they cannot be considered elected or accountable.
British Jews hold diverse views on a wide range of issues. The way forward is not to bring ever more affiliate organisations into an unreformed system; instead we should bring our communal differenced into the open through a system of genuine democracy.
Joseph Finlay was formerly Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and has founded a range of grassroots Jewish organisations. He tweets HERE.