OPINION: From security to Syrian refugees – meeting with PM set the tone

OPINION: From security to Syrian refugees – meeting with PM set the tone

by Simon Johnson, Chief Executive, Jewish Leadership Council

Simon Johnson
Simon Johnson

I HAVE LEARNED over the years that you judge the success of a political meeting by the response of the person you are meeting. On that basis, the Jewish Leadership Council’s annual meeting for the community with the Prime Minister was very successful in 2015. David Cameron mentioned his meeting with the JLC twice at Prime Minister’s Question Time and once in a press briefing with President Obama at the White House.

We know Cameron values his annual meeting with the Jewish community. It has become an institutionalised “set piece” of the community’s political engagement. To ensure that it is of maximum value, we make sure that we are properly prepared months in advance.

Our office consulted with the chief executive officers of the JLC member organisations on the issues that matter most to them and that they believe should be raised with the prime minister.

We first put together a “long list” of agenda items, which was then pared down to a definitive list in consultation with our members, but also taking advice from others, such as Interlink, and the Israel Embassy.

Once the agenda had been agreed in outline by the JLC Trustees, the delegation for the meeting was selected.

We asked the chair of the relevant organisation to speak on the agenda item that fell within their area of service to the community. In that way, we are able to ensure that a community expert leads the appropriate parts of the meeting.

We have focused this year mainly on domestic policy issues, including security, anti-Semitism, extremist terrorist organisations in the UK, social care and education.

Hannah Brady, the president of the Union of Jewish Students, shared with Cameron the increasing trend on campus by student organisations to glorify terror and terrorists and to show blatant disregard for Israeli victims of terrorism. Brady explained how this, along with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and academic anti- Zionism, makes Jewish and Israeli students feel unsafe on campus.

Over the past six months, we have seen universities make significant steps forward to ensure that academic freedoms are properly balanced with the rights of Jewish students. In particular, the upcoming conference [in February] at the University of Exeter is an important breakthrough on the issue of debating Israel on campus, an emotive subject for many of us.

Working with central government means that we are likely to see further such initiatives in the future as our messages drip down through the Department for Education and to decision makers within universities.

The president of the Board of Deputies shared the community’s developing plans to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017. Many of us take great pride in the historic connection between Britain, its Jewish community and the state of Israel.

We hope that by raising it with the prime minister at this early stage, we will ensure that as a community, we will celebrate it appropriately. In particular, Board president Jonathan Arkush asked the government to fully embrace the centenary in their messaging, and in the visibility given to the centenary events by senior government and state offices.

The centrepiece of the JLC’s meeting was the briefing by James Libson, the chair of World Jewish Relief, on the community’s plan to help integrate the Syrian refugees arriving in this country by giving them the skills to find work.

We know how it feels to arrive in a new country with nothing; we know the difficulties of social integration, learning a new language and making a home in a strange land. Our community feels very strongly about alleviating the pain and suffering of those fleeing the death and destruction in Syria.

We want to roll up our sleeves and play our part here at home. There is a consensus across our community to do this – from the ultra-Orthodox to the Reform and secular.

Libson presented details of the pilot scheme WJR will coordinate and left the prime minister with a briefing note. It shows that we don’t use the meeting only to “ask”, but also to share what the community is doing to help the government meet its own priorities.

I am proud of how the meeting was prepared and structured and hope that it may provide a model for community political engagement.

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