New parliamentary Jewish group seen as cocking a snook
By Marcus Dysch, Jewish Chronicle
August 08, 2013
The creation of a new parliamentary group to promote Jewish issues has brought long-simmering tensions between the Board of Deputies and other communal organisations to the boil.
On Wednesday the Board announced that it would form the secretariat to a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, to launch next month.
But the JC understands that none of the existing groups working on issues such as Israel advocacy, antisemitism, security and the protection of religious practices was consulted in advance by the Board, or Hendon MP Matthew Offord, who is the parliamentarian behind the new initiative.
One senior communal source said that, outside the Board, “no one knew” about the new group until 24 hours before it was announced.
A Board source said that, as the only democratic organisation in Anglo-Jewry, it could do as it wished and there was no need “to ring CST, JLC or uncle Tom Cobley and all for permission”.
But the Board was unable to provide the names of a single MP — other than Mr Offord — or peer who would be involved in the group, or say who would chair or staff it.
The new group’s activities will include “regular briefings on Jewish communal issues — including on religious freedom, equalities, extremism, medical ethics, education, welfare and issues facing world Jewry”, said the Board.
It will also organise meetings for Jewish constituents with their MPs, hold an annual Chanucah reception in Parliament, and arrange lectures.
Such work is already conducted in Westminster by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism, the Jewish Leadership Council and the individual political parties’ Friends of Israel groups.
One deputy said, however, that the group would fill a “gap in the market” and steer MPs and peers away from believing Israel was the only point of concern for Anglo-Jewry.
The development casts further doubt over relations between the Board and the Jewish Leadership Council, which are engaged in talks over a possible merger. The JLC was not consulted about the creation of the group.
The Board said the APPG would “not seek to duplicate the existing work of excellent parliamentary initiatives on Israel or antisemitism but work with them for the common good”.
Board president Vivian Wineman said it would “enable supportive MPs and peers to understand better the full range of aspirations and interests of our synagogues and charities, and share in our celebration of the values and achievements of Jews across the UK.
“The APPG will offer a mechanism for a deeper relationship between British Jews and our Parliament and we are delighted to serve as its secretariat.”
Two years ago, Mr Wineman admitted that the community had “good access but no influence” with ministers.
A community source said: “The Board says the group will not do anything to duplicate work on Israel or antisemitism — but how can you have a Jewish group that does not do that?”
The source said the Board had been involved in a number of “rows” with other communal organisations in recent weeks, and that there had been “fights left, right and centre. The Board says it has a mandate and so does not need to consult anyone else on anything”.
Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer said he was only told of the plan on Tuesday, but felt the new group “could not do any harm”.
He said: “The All-Party Antisemitism Group deals specifically with antisemitism, but not other issues facing the community like shechita or faith schools. If you look at the work we are doing in Parliament on non-Israel issues, then there is scope for something like this group.”
Gavin Stollar, Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel chairman, said: “While the idea of an APPG has merit, it appears bizarre that the party political friends of Israel groups, the key people who liaise with the very politicians who would form the APPG, have not been consulted.”
Former Labour MP Andrew Dismore, who lost his seat to Mr Offord at the last election and will stand against him again at the 2015 general election, said: “Quite a few years ago I suggested something similar and the Board said no — they wanted to do their lobbying quietly.
“I’m not sure this group is such a good idea. It’s obviously Mr Offord’s attempt to curry favour and get himself re-elected. It’s been peculiarly handled. Maybe the Board no longer has the level of access to government that it once did.”
Shimon Cohen, a deputy who also works to protect shechita and brit milah*, said: “This is a long overdue, important and welcome initiative which will enhance our work.”
Notes and links
Why Britain is wrong on Palestinian Statehood
By Matthew Offord, The Commentator, November 19th, 2011
“Last week I urged the Foreign Secretary to vote no at the United Nations Security Council on the issue of Palestinian membership to the UN.”
All-party parliamentary groups (APGs) have no political powers. They must be open to all members of the House of Commons and House of Lords and must include 20 members, of whom ten must be in the same party as government and ten must be from another party; they may involve people from outside parliament. They have to register with the Register of All-Party Groups and have to record all financial and material benefits received.
There are hundreds of APGs including on Israel (of which Matthew Offord is secretary), Palestine (Chair Richard Burden, Lab); Antisemitism (Chair John Mann, Treasurer Matthew Offord);Religious freedom (Chair Baroness Berridge, Con); Christian and Jewish Relations (Chair Baroness Richardson of Calow; 2nd Qualifying Member, Matthew Offord); Islamophobia (Co-chairs Khalid Mahmood, Lab and Simon Hughes, LibDem); Defence and Diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa (Chair Dai Havard, Lab): Equalities (Vice-Chair Lord Lester, LibDem) (Treasurer/Secretary, Baroness Greengross, cross-bench).
The settlements are not the defining issue of the Middle East peace process, by Matthew Offord, Conservative Home, October 2010.
*Shechita, Hebrew; ritual slaughter according to Jewish dietary laws;
Brit milah, Hebrew, ceremony of circumcision of 8-day old boy.