The level of de­bate in our or­gan­i­sa­tions has dwin­dled to noth­ing


MOSHE KAN­TOR, the pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Jewish Congress, re­cently sug­gested that Jews out­side Is­rael should be en­ti­tled to vote in Is­raeli elec­tions. At a stroke, di­as­pora Jews would be con­verted into hon­orary Is­raelis, and arm­chair Zion­ism would take on a whole new mean­ing. As ideas go, it is barely a starter, since it is hard to see why Is­raelis should of­fer a stake in the choice of their par­lia­ment to non-cit­i­zens who nei­ther pay taxes to the state nor, by and large, have to live with the con­se­quences of the de­ci­sions made by its politi­cians.

But in one re­spect at least, Kan­tor’s pro­posal has merit. It would in­ject some life into the placid world of An­glo-Jewish pol­i­tics.

Imag­ine syn­a­gogues trans­formed into po­lit­i­cal the­atres where the lead­ers of Likud and Kadima pitched for votes in live video hus­tings. Or mem­bers of the Pen­sion­ers’ Party stomped around Jewish Care homes in a bid to whip up sup­port. Or fol­low­ers of the Green Leaf — le­galise mar­i­juana — Party tried to ped­dle their nar­cotic dreams to the Board of Deputies.

Any­one look­ing for the drama of democ­racy in ac­tion, how­ever, will sim­ply have to make do with the US elec­tions this year — “US” as in United Syn­a­gogue. The tri­en­nial race for the lead­er­ship of Bri­tain’s largest syn­a­gogue or­gan­i­sa­tion is now on. As yet, we do not even know whether there will be an elec­toral con­test come July, and the cur­rent pres­i­dent, Si­mon Hochhauser, has still to de­clare whether he is seek­ing re-elec­tion. All one can say for cer­tain is that a first black US pres­i­dent is highly un­likely and a fe­male one im­pos­si­ble, since the rab­bis will not yet per­mit it.

In­deed, it is hard to re­call an elec­tion for any ma­jor An­glo-Jewish body in re­cent years that has gen­er­ated any kind of ex­cite­ment (stu­dents ex­cepted). The last was prob­a­bly the United Syn­a­gogue pres­i­den­tial elec­tions nine years ago — but that was due to a large ex­tent to one can­di­date (Mal­colm Co­hen) chal­leng­ing the el­i­gi­bil­ity of the other (Peter Shel­don).

Hope for a keenly fought con­test be­tween two equally strong can­di­dates with dis­tinc­tive man­i­festos or a duel of ideas, and you are likely to be dis­ap­pointed.

But lead­er­ship elec­tions are not the only area in which com­mu­nal democ­racy has gone limp.

Be­yond choos­ing their lead­ers, it is not clear what part the av­er­age mem­ber of the United Syn­a­gogue coun­cil or the Board of Deputies ac­tu­ally plays in their or­gan­i­sa­tion. In­creas­ingly over the years, de­ci­sion­mak­ing is con­fined to a small ex­ec­u­tive cir­cle, with the or­di­nary mem­bers left with lit­tle more to do than rub­ber-stamp it.

Can any one re­mem­ber a pol­icy de­bate of any con­se­quence, or a res­o­lu­tion which has en­cour­aged a pas- sion­ate ex­change of views? In re­cent months, the main talk­ing-point among mem­bers of the United Syn­a­gogue Coun­cil is their sense of ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis: “What is the point of us be­ing here?”

To be fair to the US, the neu­ter­ing of its coun­cil has been the re­sult of con­sti­tu­tional changes im­posed by the Char­ity Com­mis­sion which con­cen­trated more power in its hon­orary of­fi­cers at the ex­pense of the coun­cil mem­ber­ship as a whole. Some­how, the US has to find a way to re­vive the role of or­di­nary coun­cil mem­bers in de­ter­min­ing pol­icy, or the coun­cil will slip fur­ther into the ir­rel­e­vancy that is al­ready pro­duc­ing poor at­ten­dances.

The agenda of Board of Deputies ple­nary ses­sions, mean­while, seems to grow thin­ner by the year. Ad­mit­tedly, there have al­ways been meet­ings where one would strug­gle to stay awake even if at­tached to an am- phetamine drip. But from time to time, gen­uine de­bates used to take place on real is­sues: was it right for mem­bers of the Board to meet rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the PLO at a time when such con­tacts were banned by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment? Should Bri­tish Jews con­sider them­selves an eth­nic mi­nor­ity?

Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tions now seem so anx­ious to pre­serve con­sen­sus that they are al­most run­ning scared of con­tro­versy, fear­ing to raise any is­sue where there may be dif­fer­ences of opin­ion lest it ex­ac­er­bate com­mu­nal ten­sions. Whereas Amer­i­can Jewish groups have spo­ken their mind, for ex­am­ple, on the pos­si­ble par­ti­tion of Jerusalem, here a dis­creet si­lence reigns. The life is slowly drain­ing out of our de­bat­ing cham­bers. If ar­gu­ment is the fuel of democ­racy, the tanks are run­ning close to empty.

Si­mon Rocker is the JC’s Ju­daism ed­i­tor

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