The Board of Deputies has been safeguarding the interests of British Jews since 1760.
The only democratically elected cross-communal Jewish representative body, its President, Jonathan Arkush, has headed up the board since 2015.
With a mission to protect, defend and speak up for the Jewish community, how does he view the post and oraganisation with its many facets of responsibility?
“The Board is essentially the Parliament of British Jews,” said Mr Arkush.
“You have to position the community by saying the right things at the right time. It means leading from the front, which can be uncomfortable but that’s our outward facing role.”
The Board continually demonstrates its ability to make a widespread impact on society whether on issues of shechita or Brit Milah, forcing the Sunday Times to apologise for publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon or even contacting Manchester United when a holocaust denier was set to launch his book at the club.
Concerning the Premier League outfit, within an hour of hearing about the issue the prospective launch was cancelled showing aptly how quick the Board can get things done.
“Somehow it escaped the powers that be at Manchester United that the person who booked the room was a holocaust denier and anti-Semite but we brought it to their attention because someone has to do that,” explained Mr Arkush.
“There are all sorts of amazing things the community will hear about from apologies in newspapers to the government adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism but do people stop to think, how do these things happen?
“The Board’s job is to be an advocate for our community. In some quarters that means lobbying, and I’m unashamed about being a lobbyist.
“We are not a secret lobbyist, everything we do is open, proud and unashamed.
“We are here to put forward our community’s view but lobbying when you are a small community does not produce results overnight.
“But not many of us sit back and reflect that at 300,000 Jews we make up one half of one percent of the community, but look at how much clout we have.”
The Board builds relationships at national and local government level to ensure the Jewish viewpoint is heard but a lot of its work is invisible,” he explained.
“We try not to blow our own trumpet but we’ve won government support on issues concerning anti-Semitism, shechita, brit milah, faith schools and Israel,” Mr Arkush said.
“A whole range of key advances have been secured for the Jewish community and it is a result of the Board’s patient, careful, skillful and professional advocacy.”
So what are some of the key challenges the Board faces?
Mr Arkush explained that the first was to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism mutates,” he explained. “You can now be as anti-Semitic as you like and never use the word “Jew” because a lot of anti-Semitism today, sometimes called ‘new anti-Semitism’, is directed at Israel. But it’s a pseudonym for anti-Jewish prejudice because Israel is often treated as the ‘Jew of the Nations’.
“When it comes to core anti-Semitism, which is hatred of Jews for being Jews, this is the central responsibility of the elected representative body. Although we react to anti-Semitism when it happens, it means having in place the necessary legal protections so we can invoke the necessary laws when something does happen. But that is easier said than done.
“The Equalities Act and laws against racial incitement are principal legal instruments to attack anti-Semitism but we need to ensure prosecuting authorities are prepared to use them.
“This is a challenge because the Crown Prosecution Service, which does a very good job, is straining against inadequate resources and often won’t bring prosecutions because they set themselves a high threshold of success. So one of the battles is to get them to prosecute when they should as we have the laws in place.”
The Board is also on hand to ensure Jewish life continues in the United Kingdom.
“Without shechita we’d survive, but for many, the country would not be as good a place to live without our chicken on Shabbat,” explained. “But what if we couldn’t have Brit Milah? If it became unlawful, the reality is we would not be able to live as Jews in this country.
“However, I’m confident shechita and Brit Milah are secure for the foreseeable future. It’s fragile, but at the moment the government and mainstream parties have pledged to protect Brit Milah and Shechita.”
Protecting Israel’s reputation and fighting ill-informed, malevolent attacks against Israel was next on the agenda for Mr Arkush, who was forthright in his response.
“An attack on Israel we feel personally, because for most of us, Israel is at the centre of our identity and emotional connection with being Jewish,” he said.
“We feel an attack on Israel directly, and if we feel stirrings of discomfort, it’s not because we have encountered anti-Semitism in the sense of being called a “dirty Jew” in the street but because of attacks on Israel.”
As for the media response to Israel, Mr Arkush had illuninating views.
“In the main, people don’t realise the overwhelming majority of British media are supportive of Israel, the dishonorable exceptions being The Guardian and The Independent,” he explained. “But they have a much smaller readership than the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail and other newspapers that almost always take a pro-Israel line.
“As for television, it is mixed. The BBC in our community does not have a good reputation, but on the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign website, their main target in the media is the BBC because they hold that the BBC, and I quote, “is in the grip of the Zionist lobby”.
“When I tell Jewish audiences this they laugh. But the reality is, and it’s not always a message that is well accepted, if you watch the news for a week and write ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ coverage in two columns, ‘unfair’ and fair’ things are almost always balanced.
“But does that mean the BBC does not say very ‘unfair’ things, no, I don’t want them to say anything unfair, but they do get equally criticised by both.”
As for the advent of social media, again there were fulsome views for the Board’s president.
“Social media has revolutionised many facets of life and it is responsible for some of the perceived growth in anti-Semitism,” Mr Arkush said.
“In the age before Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, if there was a Middle East war and you wanted to get a demonstration out, either pro or anti-Israel, you had to crank out the posters and word-of-mouth for support, but now, put it on Twitter and 100,000 people hit the streets.
“Social media is a force for good and bad.”
So is the ‘power of the press’ waning because of social media?
“I suspect it is and particularly with upcoming generations who read newspapers less and take more notice of social media,” Mr Arkush said.
“We have a Twitter feed, Facebook accounts and maintain our website. You have to maintain it and we do.”
A lot of research is available about trends surrounding the British Jewry from a plethora of organisations including the Board.
In a recent report, the Board noted 56% of the Jewish community has shul membership, and whilst centrist orthodoxy had gone down 37% since 1990, modern orthodoxy had gone up in the same period over 170%.
A downtrend in synagogue attendance is generally acknowledged, yet elements of orthodoxy do flourish. So is the next generation of British Jews eyeing up different elements of Judaism and is this linked to a surge in the many Jewish schools children can attend?
“The Board is proudly cross-communal and we have made huge advances in our community,” Mr Arkush explained.
“We are much more of a ‘live and let live’ community than when I was as a youngster. We don’t snipe at different sections of our community anymore, or at least rarely, because we shouldn’t. We all face bigger threats. But it is true that it gets harder to hold onto the middle ground and this is as true for progressive Jews as orthodox Jews.
“A recent Institute of Jewish Policy Research paper on couples and families came up with the intriguing statistic that our out-marriage rate is 26%.
“In my view that is very high, but it has been that level for 20 years. We should be worried by our statistic and I’m not in the least complacent but in comparison the United States rate is 58% and rising, its not stood still. And when I talk to American colleagues they are desperately worried.
“The United Synagogue has lost ground, but orthodoxy has not because a lot of people in the United Synagogue have become more orthodox. And similarly with progressive families, people have dropped off by a lack of engagement whilst others have become more orthodox.
“But I accept traditional patterns of engagement are changing and synagogue membership is key among them.
“I believe that all synagogue bodies, left to right, face a common challenge of producing a more compelling offering than the one they produce at the moment.
“We have got to get more young people signed up to community membership. These are challenges across all sections of our community.”
Prior to becoming involved with the Board of Deputies, Mr Arkush had a leading role in establishing Hertsmere Jewish Primary School and Yavneh College.
It’s an area he is justifiably proud and one he enjoys experiencing in his role at the Board.
“Jewish schools are really important and I hope no one is offended when I say creating Hertsmere was by a long way the achievement I’m most proud of in the community,” he said.
“My role at the Board is very important but when I see those children run into school with looks of real enjoyment, excitement and enthusiasm on their faces it is such a pleasure.
“Our community has pulled off a really significant achievement.
“Jewish schools were not popular when I went to school; they were the least successful and most parents would not have put them very high on their list of priorities.
“In North West London there were several schools which were not very good. Now, those very same schools, and new ones, are among the highest performing schools in the country.”
He added, “Lord Jakobovits started the push towards getting more of our children into Jewish schools and we could only do that by creating top quality schools that were better than the competition.
“Now, I have not got any evidence for this as the research is not there yet, and such research as it exists from the United States is not conclusive, but I am convinced that the fact that 65% of our children go to Jewish schools in the big centres of Jewish population such as London and Manchester is down to a critical mass.
“And I am convinced that because so many of our young people go to Jewish schools they naturally gravitate to other Jews in their social life at key stages of going to university and being recent graduates. It’s not an accident to me that Jews tend to concentrate on a small number of key universities because that is where their Jewish social life is comfortable.
“I am also convinced that one of the things keeping our out-marriage rate high but stable instead of rocketing like in the United States has been the success of our Jewish schools.
“It’s true that in the US a lot of kids go to Jewish schools, so that is maybe a flaw in my argument but we have a more traditional community, and I think that makes a difference.
“But Jewish schools are not the only answer. It’s about consistent whole-hearted levels of Jewish observance at home. If children don’t get that, then even the best Jewish education runs the risk of being shed when a child gets old enough to choose.”
Interfaith is an area that has an increasing role at the Board, and Mr Arkush is well aware of its importance.
“Because we are such a small minority in the country, it is crucial we play a proactive role in showcasing the best Jewish life has to offer to the non-Jewish world,” he said.
“It is also right to increase our understanding and mutual respect in other faiths.
“Jews and Christians have been doing this for a long time. The Council of Christians and Jews was born out of anti-Jewish hatred in the1930s.
“I have made deeper engagement with Britain’s Muslims a priority of my term as President and spend increasing amounts of my time in mosques talking to them.
“I am certain the overwhelming majority of British Muslims are moderate and don’t harbour anti-Semitism, but some do harbour very odd views about Jews in too high numbers for my comfort. Perhaps 40% of British Muslims don’t understand why Jews make more news than they do. They put it down to sinister motives.
“The only way to combat this is to say to them, and I do, I’m a Jewish communal leader and I’m a Zionist, now, ask me anything you like. I’ve said this in Islamic Centres and mosques all over London, in Birmingham, Leicester, Bradford and Leeds, and shortly I’ll be going to Manchester and Glasgow. When I do this, they don’t view me through the prism of the Arab-Israel conflict, suddenly a light bulb goes on in their head.
“For too long, they’ve seen us and probably we’ve seen them through one prism, and that’s Israel’s conflict with her neighbours. But that’s not the right prism. It is a very important conflict and we have a lot to say about it, but it’s a conflict 2,500 miles away.
“I point out that we have a common agenda such as shechita, Brit Milah, faith schools and role of faith in society. These are things that affect our daily lives, not the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. And they are getting it more and more. They are frightened of extremism because their children get radicalised.
“Interfaith today plays an enormous role in Jewish-Muslim relations.”
Moving on to the strength of Anglo-Jewry nationwide and struggles of outlying communities, Mr Arkush, whose grandfather came from Poland 110 years, was a minister in Scottish communities, in Cardiff then Blackpool where his father grew up, was forthright.
“I’m a massive supporter of small communities but its not easy,” he said.
“I mourn the loss of so much vibrant Jewish life that we used to have in so many of our regional centres. But its well known now that the draw of London and to some extent Manchester has pulled our young people away from once thriving cemusintres of Jewish life like Cardiff, Birmingham, Glasgow and Sunderland, even Leeds dare I say. They have drawn them like a magnet to London, Manchester and also Israel. And our Jewish life is the poorer for it.
“But I admire enormously the dedication of our regional communities and often amazing individuals who keep Jewish life going, but it’ an uphill struggle.
“I welcome the fact that some young people are going back (due to London property prices), but suspect that because so much of Jewish life is about Jewish facilities, critical mass and Jewish cultural engagements, the trend will not be defeated.
“Our regional centres will continue to shrink. That’s the reality and we have to make the best of it.”
He added, “The Board invests enormous effort in helping Jews in regional communities and we have learnt from census data there is Jewish life in every single electoral district of Britain.
“The Internet links people and its been pioneered to great effect in Scotland.
“A Chanucah party a couple of years ago because of social media attracted three times more people than expected and it’s been replicated successfully across the country.
“There is a Lancaster & Lakes Jewish congregation, another in Cornwall and others that might not be a conventional community, they might not be traditionally orthodox, but they are deeply culturally Jewish and want to get together for Jewish and Israel events to be Jewish together. And as a Board we must support that notion.”
Moving back to politics and how would Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister affect the Jewish community?
“It won’t be very comfortable,” said Mr Arkush.
“I dare say that one of the first acts he’ll do will be to recognise the State of Palestine and that the warm diplomatic relationship that currently exists will deteriorate but it will make precious little difference to Israel,” he said.
“It is possible that as we have seen in Labour events, people with anti-Semitic views crawl out of the woodwork feeling they have more of a licence. But having said that, I don’t think things will change drastically.
“We will find pathways to the government, we will have the strength of our arguments, there will be people who will be difficult in that government as there are in the present government, but there will be people we can do business with.
“However, I don’t underestimate the fact that it will pose challenges for us and we are doing very careful strategic thinking on that issue right now.”
Overall, with the many areas of engagement the Board has to negotiate diplomatically and culturally, Mr Arkush is positive about the future.
“What an extraordinarily, culturally rich, active and amazing community we have with our care organisations, CST, Chief Rabbinate, Synagogal bodies and yes, the Board of Deputies, which are world class,” he said.
“We are thriving as a community and even increasing our numbers if you look at the census.
“I appreciate the high birth rate among Charedim but we are a successful community and must not talk ourselves down. We must talk ourselves up, turn up the volume of Jewish life because we will succeed when we are committed proud Jews.”
Board of Deputies “turns up the volume” about Jewish life
The Board of Deputies has been safeguarding the interests of British Jews since 1760.