An Umbrella for British Jewry

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, now celebrating its 250th anniversary, 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. The first complete history of the Board, by Raphael Langham, has just been published—at a moment when neither the Board nor the community it represents is in robust health.  

In the 19th century, operating at the center of the British Empire, the Board worked to advance the situation of British Jews at home and to harness England's global power on behalf of Jewish communities around the world.  On its agenda were protecting the rights of Jews to observe their religious traditions (including shehitah or kosher meat-slaughtering), exempting Jews from taking Christian oaths for purposes of employment, and requesting  British intercession abroad with, for instance, the Ottoman authorities over the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel

Today, Britain is no longer an empire, the Board is no longer overseen by a coterie of fabulously rich and powerful men, and the golden years of British Jewry are behind it. When the Board came into existence, there were 10,000 Jews in England. Today the figure is 267,000—down, however, from a peak of 420,000 in 1955. Today's community is a study in contrasts: demographically contracting—intermariage is running at about 50 percent—yet religiously vibrant and diverse. While middle-ground traditionalists are barely holding their own, the ultra-Orthodox are thriving and there are effervescent pockets of Masorti (in American terms, Conservative), Reform, and Liberal (to the left of Reform) Judaism.

Then there is the issue of Zionism.  Since Israel's early years, and well before, British Jewry has feared being faced with accusations of dual loyalty. Although, according to Langham, surveys show that 80 percent of British Jews are supportive of Israel, the community functions in an anti-Zionist political and media environment, and public shows of solidarity with the Jewish state tend to be sparsely attended. 

As for the Board itself, its president is still seen as the lay leader of British Jewry and it continues to play an instrumental role in civil-rights advocacy, in protecting shehitah (now again under assault), and in grappling with the occasionally violent anti-Semitism stemming from Britain's growing Muslim population and extreme nationalists. When it comes to Zionism and Israel, the Board tries to set Israel's position before the British public without appearing boldly partisan, let alone endorsing specific Israeli policies over which the deputies themselves are divided. Despite pre-election pledges from the Tories, the Board has been unable to secure the new British government's commitment to change a law that has been used to threaten visiting Israeli officials with arrest.  

On Israel, then, the Board, like Jewish umbrella organizations elsewhere, can speak with one voice 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 as everywhere else.


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