“As the democratically elected representative body of Anglo-Jewry, we have moral, if not financial, clout.”
– Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies, Changing the Board hustings, 17th May 2012
“The JLC only represents its members – those organisations that have chosen to join the Council “
– JLC website under “Frequently asked questions: Isn’t the JLC self-appointed, undemocratic and unrepresentative?”
Something is rotten in the state of Anglo-Jewry. Our leadership has gone to war – with itself. Our membership watches with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity as senior figures with long track-records of communal involvement fight it out in the arenas of public opinion about abstract ideas of representation and legitimacy that seem to have little relevance to the majority of Jews in Britain. Sometimes, reading the Jewish press at least, it feels like we care more about subsection 3 clause b of the Standing Orders than the vibrancy and vitality of our community.
I want to argue that a lot of the confusion surrounding the seemingly-endless running battles within our community comes from the confusion of two ideas – representation and legitimacy – and their complicated relationship to the holy grail of the modern age, democracy.
Historically, both Judaism and political philosophy have been pretty ambivalent about democracy. Tanakh portrays at first a theocratic dictatorship (Moses), followed by an anarchic anti-authoritarian period of crisis management leadership (Judges), followed by a monarchy (Kings). Religious authority has been vested, variously, in a hereditary priesthood and then later in a meritocratic (if often dynastic) rabbinate. Secular political influence historically has been appropriated by the wealthy. Non-Jews have been equally suspicious. Plato famously compared it to mob rule, whilst Aristotle saw democracy as a licence for the poor to overwhelm the national interest. Hobbes saw democracy as fostering dissent. There has also been a persistent fear of career politicians – silver-tongued charlatans who are expert at charismatically manipulating but disastrous at effectively governing. As a positive political paradigm, democracy is really only a couple of hundred years old.
What does democracy confer on its victors? As Vivian Wineman’s quote suggests, we normally think it grants legitimacy (the right to make decisions). But legitimacy is not magically created at the ballot box. What matters is the substantive debate that forms and shapes opinions in the minds of the electors. Elections allow everyone to express their preferences – that is what is valuable about them. In elections for candidates (as opposed to referenda on issues), this requires competition for places.
And here we come to the crux of the issue. How many of the supposedly-elected synagogue council members, trustees or Deputies were contested? I don’t know about your synagogue, but at mine, the veil of democracy – that we “vote” at AGMs for our council members – is pretty thin. I cannot remember the last time there was a competitive election. Even when we finally do get an exciting five candidates for three places at the Board of Deputies VP election, the electorate is a mere 260. How wide a consultation did our Deputies do amongst their constituents? I suspect that many, if not all, voted individually, perhaps influenced by the candidates themselves or the newly-formed group Changing the Board, into which I have had a small contribution. When even our most democratic body barely listens to the grassroots – the hundreds of thousands of Jews who are not Deputies and not part of a special-interest group – we have a real problem.
We have misunderstood the nature of democracy. In elections, we are really picking representatives – people to speak on our behalf. That is very different to legislators – people to rule on our behalf. Representation (engagement with government, debating those who propose anti-Jewish measures and so on) is hugely important. But that is different from deciding on policy – on how to spend the community’s fundraised money, or what strategy to move forward with for Jewish schools, or which of the myriad different causes are prioritised for support. These issues require leadership. They are not amenable to the fickle will of the ballot box (certainly not in the unorganised political culture of Anglo-Jewry; in a system with political parties, a civil service, manifestos, a judiciary etc such as the UK, of course, things are different). This, surely, is the role for a body like the JLC.
Democracy does not grant legitimacy. Representation is not the same as policy-making. Elections are hollow if there is no choice. And above all, we can have our cake and eat it. Let’s elect articulate, passionate representatives to speak on our behalf. Let’s also empower intelligent, strategic professionals and lay people to do the work of making our community bloom. And let’s stop navel-gazing and back-biting and start transforming our Jewish futures.