Leaders of biggest Jewish organisation 'presiding over its rapid disintegration'

May 17, 2013
Sarah Benton

The news report by Simon Rocker 1) is in part based on an essay by Jerry Lewis, 2). Note from the postings editor on reposting these articles, 3)

Jon Benjamin, outgoing CEO of the Board of Deputies with Japanese diplomat at the BoD’s 250th anniversary bash at an ‘exclusive events venue’ in Knightsbrige in 2010. Guest speaker Middle East Minister Alistair Burt MP told the 150 diplomats and guests: “The Board of Deputies is a model of unified leadership.” Bad information, Minister.

Board of Deputies ‘in chaos’

Former vice president savages culture and competence of communal leaders

By Simon Rocker, Jewish Chronicle
May 17, 2013

The former vice-president of the Board of Deputies, Jerry Lewis, has launched a scathing attack on its current leaders, saying “Vivian Wineman and his team are presiding over the rapid disintegration” of the organisation.

Mr Lewis hits out at the “alarming signs of chaos, verging on a disaster” and attacks the role played by the Board’s chief executive for the past eight and half years, Jon Benjamin, who left his post last week.

Writing in today’s JC, Mr Lewis says the Board “is in a complete mess” and “has become increasingly irrelevant”. It is only able to function because the Jewish Leadership Council makes up for its incompetence.

There has, he says, been “a calamity in…staffing at the Board. Two key departments have no experienced personnel. Four key staff have left over the last month.” He also attacks a “toxic” atmosphere among the Board’s staff.

He accuses the Board’s President, Vivian Wineman, of ignoring its standing orders and stifling debate.

Mr Lewis, who failed to win re-election as vice-president last year, says he had kept his counsel but can “keep quiet no more”.

He says: “Individuals are appointed to posts [and] expenditure is approved without adequate scrutiny”.

Mr Lewis also writes of the proposed new Code of Conduct for Deputies: [T]he most important section relates to bullying. In my last years as a vice-president, I sensed an uncomfortable climate amongst staff.”

Mr Benjamin declined to respond to Mr Lewis’s remarks. In a statement released last Friday, he said the time had felt right to leave the Board to pursue the “new and different opportunities that I have beckoning”.

Vivian Wineman, L, welcomes the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee. The outgoing Chief Rabbi, C, presides.
“The Board is the democratic institution of the community. I’m elected. We’re the true leadership,” Vivian Wineman said last February in an outspoken attack on the Jewish Leadership Council for purporting to represent British Jews.

Mr Wineman rejected suggestions from deputies that the departure was linked to talks between the Board and the JLC for a closer relationship.

In a Facebook post, one deputy, Jonathan Sacerdoti, commenting on an “exodus” of staff, said: “It seems the JLC has achieved its final goal of essentially emasculating/killing off the 250-year old democratic body.”

Former vice-president Eric Moonman said; “It would seem very unlikely his departure is unrelated to the growing influence of the JLC.”

But Mr Wineman declared; “Jon Benjamin chose to leave the Board this week to pursue his career elsewhere. His departure was in no way related to the JLC or to any discussions taking place between the JLC and the Board.

“These discussions are at a very early stage and can go no further until the deputies, who have the most important say, have been fully consulted.”

The Board and JLC are understood to be looking at possible unification, with one model being a two-chamber house and an elected leader.

Meanwhile, the Board’s former interfaith officer Phil Rosenberg is to return as its new public affairs director, it was announced this week.

Mr Wineman said: “We’ve appointed a new public affairs director aand are about to make at least one, possibly two, appointments in addition in the public affairs office.

“We’re close to appointing a successor to Jon.

“So we are creating a new young professional team.

“There have never been so many new projects at the Board — the community partnership project to deal with small communities, the Closer to Israel programeme, our interfaith initiatives with the Methodists and Church of Scotland.

“We’ve made changes to our plenary sessions to make them more open and accessible to deputies and give more deputies a chance to participate.

“Naturally, any change is distasteful to some of those who are living in the past and some who did not get elected to office but those changes have been approved democratically.”

Toxic, weak and chaotic at the Board

The JC Essay by Jerry Lewis
May 17, 2013

The departure of Jon Benjamin as CEO of the Board of Deputies is not only welcome it is also, I believe, much overdue. He is one of the nicest guys around but the introduction of fresh blood at the Board cannot come soon enough to improve effectiveness across the organisation.

Against a background of rising antisemitism, growing anti- Zionism and ongoing attacks on shechita and brit milah, the need for a pro–active Board has never been greater. Yet it has become increasingly irrelevant and has been outpaced by the Jewish Leadership Council. Not, as many suppose, because the JLC’s members want to run our community but because, under the Board’s current lay and professional leadership, it has left so many gaps – black holes, to be more precise – that, were it not for the quick-reacting JLC team, would have left our community in a far worse place.

Fitting the JLC and the Board onto the same stage was always going to be a difficult juggling act. In my periods as a Vice President and Senior Vice President of the Board, I was opposed to the JLC, fearing it would eventually dominate the communal scene and diminish the role of the Board.

Former Board President and senior JLC office holder Henry Grunwald ensured in his own way that the two organisations worked in parallel. But they rarely worked together.

The CEO’s departure affords a wonderful opportunity to reconstruct the Board
And he made two strategic errors that lost the Board key roles: hiving off the protection of shechita to Shechita UK; and the creation of the London Jewish Forum to tackle the Livingstone threat. Both should have remained under the Board’s auspices.

Jon Benjamin’s departure coincides with what can best be described as a calamity in other staffing at the Board. Two key departments have no experienced personnel. Four key staff have left over the last month; another is due to go on maternity leave next month.

Staff morale is already very low; the atmosphere has been described as ‘toxic’.

Junior staff are paid such ridiculously low salaries that, within a year or two, they move on to a better level of remuneration. Such short-sightedness wrecks continuity and gives no encouragement to those who wish to make a career in our community. We lose talented young people.

I have held my counsel until now and admit I did not do enough when I was a Vice President, until May 2012. But I can keep quiet no more. The President, Vivian Wineman, and his team are presiding over the rapid disintegration of what was once an organisation of which I and so many others were immensely proud. Any Deputy close to the Board will be witness to the alarming signs of chaos, verging on disaster.

Small wonder the Jewish Leadership Council have surveyed the situation and are taking urgent measures to plug the numerous lacunae.

For a start, the President pays scant attention to constitutional guidance and precepts designed (by me amongst others) to protect the Board from unwelcome influences, such as restricting speakers at debates to just two minutes, ignoring the standing order that allows for four.

Individuals are appointed to posts, expenditure is approved without adequate scrutiny and the Board signs up to campaigns which, according to its rules, should follow a debate and the agreement of all 265 Deputies. But communication is poor or non-existent, and attempts to ascertain information can hit a brick wall.
For years there has been harmony between the various segments of the community represented at the Board. Henry Grunwald and I worked scrupulously to ensure that no sector or denominatio was disadvantaged in our decisions and work. That is now changing. One wing – Reform – is now trying to assert itself and throw out the careful balance on which the Board depends. The President has allowed this.

Worse still is the atmosphere at the top. The Board are proposing a Code of Conduct for Deputies, a move I championed for 30 years. It will deal with a host of issues. But as far as I am concerned, the most important section relates to bullying. In my last years as a Vice-President, I sensed an uncomfortable climate amongst staff.

As for a President who has verbally attacked his own colleagues at the Jewish Leadership Council: this does such harm to the very relations that need to be encouraged and improved. Little wonder that those same – usually very generous – individuals have tended to shun the Board’s requests for donations.

The Board used to have ten committees on differing subjects (Israel, international, shechita, education, parliament etc) each of which elected their own chairman. They were knowledgeable and experienced and constituted the Executive. About 40% of Deputies were thus ‘involved’ in the Board.

Then management consultants were called in, who failed to understand the representative and democratic nature of the Board. Now only 50 Deputies are involved and there are just four divisions of 12 people. The four Honorary Officers are elected separately and appointed by the President to head a Division, with little regard for their abilities or knowledge.

Add to that a Chief Executive who had what might politely be described as a hands-off management style and one quickly sees a recipe for disaster.

Judge for yourself. When a delegation led by the JLC goes to meet a minister, it is serviced with a briefing document listing all the participants, the issues to be raised, who is to lead on each issue, descriptions of who they are to face on the other side of the table and on occasion a draft statement to be agreed at the conclusions of the talks.

In all my time as an Honorary Officer, not once was I given even a single such note. Hopeless.

No wonder we do not operate as we should.

Another example. I was asked by the President to work on a scheme for Israel and other advocacy. With my experience in Westminster, Whitehall and the media I had the ideas and know how. But even though a budget and an intern were provided, every attempt to get the scheme off the ground was frustrated.

The Board is in a complete mess. It is a relief, although no way to run an organisation, that the JLC repeatedly steps in to provide cover for our failures. The Honorary Officers of the Board will deny all this but the JLC and many others who try to deal with the Board have been aware for a long time that it is no longer ‘fit for purpose’.

When Mick Davis addressed the Board – and was treated despicably by Deputies – he could not have been clearer. The JLC sees itself primarily as a strategic body. It was constituted to allow key communal organisations to deal collectively with risks and deliver solutions.

From a position of having opposed the JLC, due principally to its undemocratic set up, I have now turned 180 degrees. It is a vital piece of our communal architecture.

Out of the shambolic situation the Board is now in, the best move we can now make to save it is to secure an immediate merger of the two civil services. That will automatically cut out rivalry and enable those who know what they are doing to get on with the real work – and to do so under the imprint of the Board.

This will need goodwill from both sides and carefully worked on safeguards to retain the democratic and representative nature of the Board. There will need to be properly elected committees to set out policy which, via accountable, transparent procedures, a revitalised staff can implement. Talks are now underway – but without the vast majority of Deputies being involved in any changes.

The CEO’s departure and the serious situation facing the Board today afford an opportunity to reconstruct the Board to work in partnership with the JLC, with staff able to work in a professional atmosphere, properly rewarded for their endeavours in a framework that adheres to the principles of accountability, openness and transparency, retaining the democratic and representative aspects of the Board to be combined with the professionalism and well resourced JLC. It could be a winning combination.

There is a place for both organisations to work alongside each other. Each of us have a role to play but, for the Board to continue, it now has no option but to share resources and staff with the JLC.

I desperately want the Board to survive but the only way left is for a rapid merger with the JLC at staff levels and a new democratic structure for the combined organisation. I am prepared to work for that. I hope Deputies will respond to the call to enable this to happen as soon as possible.

Jerry Lewis was Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies until May 2012

Note from JfJfP postings editor on why the articles on the Board of Deputies have been reposted on the JfJfP website
May 19, 2013

JfJfP was established to give a public voice to a significant body of opinion amongst Jews in the UK who believed, amongst other points:
Peace requires the end of illegal occupation and settlement.
Violence against civilians is unacceptable.
Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza are breeding hatred and resentment.
It is crucial that Jews speak out for Palestinians’ human rights.

The need to speak out was felt especially strongly because  no establishment Jewish bodies spoke out for Palestinian rights, or stated directly that there could be no peace while Israel enforced an illegal occupation with military intransigence. The bodies which were regarded as ‘leading’ all British Jews had nothing to say about Palestinians’ rights, or the wrongness of colonisation and occupation.

The current fall-out at the BoD, and between some of the BoD and the JLC, is related to 1) the scramble to be ‘the’ representative and leadership of British Jews and 2) their direction of so much of their sense of purpose and role into the defence of Israel, in the process weakening a distinctive Jewish tradition of being a voice for freedom and justice. (Hence the quotation on our website: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.”

The BoD is the most representative and democratic of mainstream Jewish organisations and for a long time its leaders have been the chosen group for consultation with the British government on matters where the government wants the ‘British Jewish view.’ (That role however, fear some in the BoD, is being usurped by the Jewish Leadership Council.)

Although the BoD always acknowledges it includes people who are critical of Israeli policies, its public voice is habitually used to support Israeli policies. For example, its three leading members at the time of Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012 signed the notorious letter to Israeli Daniel Taub, Israeli ambassador to the UK praising Israel’s political and military leadership.
Report from Jewish Chronicle, November 16, 2012

Unanimous UK Jewish communal organisations support for Israel over Gaza fighting

Representatives of the Anglo-Jewish community of all political persuasions have joined together to express solidarity with Israel.

In a letter to Israeli ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub, officials from groups including the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council, Chief Rabbi’s Office and Movement for Reform Judaism wrote that sentiments of support prevailed across “all sections of our community”, reflecting the “national consensus” in Israeli society.

The letter said
“Operation Pillar of Defence is an entirely understandable response to the intolerable assault upon the citizens of Southern Israel and the continued provocations of Hamas –‐ an antisemitic terrorist organisation,” the signatories stated. “We take pride in the commitment of Israel’s political and military leadership to leave no stone unturned in seeking to avoid civilian casualties and remain true to the Jewish ethical ethos that underpins the doctrine of the IDF.”

The three BoD signatories were Vivian Wineman – President, Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jon Benjamin – CEO, The Board of Deputies of British Jews
Alex Brummer – Vice-President of Board of Deputies (Chair International Division)

See also ‘Leaders’ of Jewish communities speaking only for themselves

The BoD’s stated position on Israel/Palestine is here.

Central to much of our international work is the community’s relationship with the State of Israel, which is why the Board remains unwavering in its approach, as stated in our Constitution, to take “such appropriate action as lies within its power to advance Israel’s security, welfare and standing.”
This policy allows us to accommodate the diverse opinions that exist within the community, without us presuming to comment on or seek to prescribe particular political solutions on the people of Israel.

Rather, we concentrate on the undoubted effect of events in the region on the British Jewish community, and the importance of Israel being treated fairly and impartially within British society, in the face of campaigns to demonise, boycott and sanction the Jewish State.”

Treated as the leadership of British Jews

Foreign Secretary meets leaders of the Jewish Community

Media Release, William Hague, FCO
16 June 2011

“It was a great pleasure to welcome Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and members of the Jewish community to the Foreign Office today. As the implications of the Arab Spring reverberate throughout the region, today’s meeting provided an important opportunity to share perspectives and discuss current issues affecting Israel and the Jewish community.

“Our discussions focused on the Peace Process and I underlined the urgent need for both sides to resume talks. As a firm friend of Israel I emphasised that the status quo is in no way sustainable and that the Peace Process is not immune from the effects of change and instability elsewhere. President Obama’s recent statement that negotiations should be on the basis of 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps and proper security arrangements offers an important opportunity for progress and we should do all that we can to build on this now”.

“We also discussed concerns about a potential Palestinian Authority move at the UN for recognition of a Palestinian state and I stressed again that the best way to achieve a lasting solution that delivers a sovereign, independent and contiguous Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel at peace with its neighbours is through a negotiated solution. On the issue of the planned flotilla to Gaza, I emphasised that our travel advice clearly sets out that we advise against all travel to Gaza, including the waters off the Gaza coast”.

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