LONDON — Nearly 200 years before Israelis had the Knesset, British Jews had a quasi-Parliament. Eight times a year, delegates from synagogues across the country would meet to set policy for the body, which speaks to the government and media on behalf of the community. Although the Board of Deputies, as it is archaically known, does not make laws, at least one aspect would be familiar to observers of the Israeli Parliament: “The way deputies speak to each other is slightly disgusting,” says Richard Verber, a 29-year-old member who has successfully pushed for a code of conduct.

American Jews, who are far less centralized, might find it strange for any single group to officially represent the community. In Britain, it is tradition. But can a grassroots group properly do the job when the media and political worlds are so cutthroat? In the modern era, when it isn’t clear who belongs to the Jewish “community” — or even who is a Jew — can Britain’s Jewish democracy still have any meaning or relevance?

These questions came to a head recently when the Board proposed merging with another group that speaks for British Jews, but which is self-appointed. A decade old, the Jewish Leadership Council is a forum for lay leaders of the major Jewish organizations to coordinate on big policy issues. Leading philanthropists without any communal position also serve as vice presidents, but no longer have a vote.

At a recent Board plenary meeting, speaker after speaker treated the suggested merger as a hostile takeover by oligarchs, arguing that it would spell the end of the 250-year-old Board. Democracy, said Flo Kaufmann, a former Board vice chair, was going to be “sacrificed at the altar of Mammon.”

“There is no doubt it’s anti-democratic,” Eric Moonman, a former member of the British Parliament who is now a deputy, told The Times of Israel. The JLC members have no more right to represent the community, he said, than “left-handed people or people who are good at tennis.”

Nor is he confident that elected deputies will remain at the core of any new body, as has been promised. “We’ll believe it when we see it,” he said.

Another deputy, who did not want to be named, said that if the “rich, powerful” members of the JLC wanted a voice, “they are welcome to stand as deputies as we all do . . . They don’t want to go through the democratic process, and don’t want to be rank-and-file schleppers like me.”

For Jeremy Newmark, the chief executive of the JLC, it does not follow that only those directly elected have a mandate. He urges “a sophisticated understanding of democracy.”

Most of the organizations whose heads sit on the JLC “enjoy the philanthropic support of members of our community,” he says. “Far more members of our community give their £10 to £20 to Jewish Care, the United Jewish Israel Appeal or World Jewish Relief than are actively engaged in electing a deputy at their synagogue AGM [annual general meeting]. It’s as important a mandate.”

Some JLC representatives were elected by their members, he adds. What is even more important is that they answer to JLC members: “Sometimes accountability is more useful than democracy.”

Keith Kahn-Harris, a co-author of “Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today,” says that the JLC has become “more democratic,” adding large organizations to its membership and taking the vote away from the donors whose presence generated such resentment.

Meanwhile, the Board’s supporters “perhaps overemphasize how representative the Board itself is.”

During her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, Queen Elizabeth met with Vivian Wineman (far left), the president of the Board of Deputies. (Courtesy of the Board of Deputies)

During her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, Queen Elizabeth met with Vivian Wineman (far left), the president of the Board of Deputies. (Courtesy of the Board of Deputies)

Because most of the Board’s 285-odd deputies represent synagogues (34 represent organizations), it automatically disenfranchises those who do not belong to a shul, including many of Britain’s Israelis, as well as the Haredim, who do not send delegates.

“In synagogues, the election for deputies is rarely contested. There are rarely platforms, and there are no factions or parties on the Board,” Kahn-Harris says. “The democratic structure is there, but it could be improved.”

Vivian Wineman, the president of the Board, does not disagree, but notes that elections for top positions are hotly contested — there were four candidates in the last presidential race — and that at his own shul, Hampstead Garden Suburb, there were 11 candidates for five positions on the Board.

Part of his platform was to represent the Haredim, and he is “in regular contact” with their leaders. He is conscious, he says, that he speaks on behalf of a wide variety of people, even if he doesn’t speak for every Jew.

“We can’t speak for the completely disassociated, but we speak for the consensus, the over 80 percent who consider themselves Zionists,” he says. “Democracy is bound to be imperfect, but it’s still vital.”

Is it effective, though?

The JLC was created in 2003, at a time of flux in the community. Several major charities had consolidated, creating new “big players,” and hostility to Israel and local Jews was rising amid the second intifada. Meanwhile, the Internet and 24/7 news cycle had changed the nature of media engagement, and in political life, there was a new emphasis on openness and transparency, as well as changes in the structure of local government.

Despite numerous attempts at self-reform, the Board seemed to have difficulty responding to the new conditions, burdened by a cumbersome infrastructure and decision-making process.

An Institute for Jewish Policy Research report into how British Jewry was represented concluded in 2000 that “there has been a persistent and increasing grumble of complaint that the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies are unrepresentative and ineffectual.” Among other recommendations, it called for the creation of “an independent, cross-communal coordinating structure” for senior lay and professional leaders.

Yuval Steinitz (left), Israel's minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, meets with the Jewish Leadership Council during a visit to England. Courtesy of the Jewish Leadership Council)

Yuval Steinitz (left), Israel’s minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, meets with the Jewish Leadership Council during a visit to England. (Courtesy of the Jewish Leadership Council)

“The Jewish community was not winning the battles it used to,” says Newmark. “The ability to leverage access to senior-level [politicians] was not what it used to be. There had been no formal meeting between the leadership and the prime minister for seven years.”

The JLC essentially answered the JPR report’s recommendation. In its roster of lay leaders, it included well-connected, wealthy Jews — known as “shtadlanim” — who for much of European history used their personal political relationships for the benefit of the community.

This was not a power grab, argues Newmark: “It institutionalized things that had always been the case — those people took decisions that had a major impact on the community — and opened up the discussion to the people who were key heads of the organizations.”

According to communications consultant Winston Pickett, who worked on the JPR report and later for the Board, the seasoned leaders of the Jewish institutions were used to a “professional environment that works efficiently and responds quickly. But where was the Board of Deputies? Holding plenary sessions . . . people at a microphone. Young professionals couldn’t wait.”

The new JLC soon racked up some notable successes, such as its strategic report on Jewish education, and seemed to co-exist peacefully with the Board — mainly because one man, the conciliatory Henry Grunwald, headed them both. But given the culture clash, the relationship between the veteran deputies and the young JLC was “a train wreck waiting to happen,” says Pickett.

According to Kahn-Harris, the JLC has “overplayed its hand” by trying to represent the community to the government, which many saw as usurping the role of the Board. (Ironically, a recent Board announcement that it would help run a new parliamentary group to promote Jewish issues drew criticism from Jewish organizations that were annoyed they weren’t consulted.)

When Grunwald left in 2009, cracks began to show, with deputies publicly attacking the JLC’s legitimacy, and persistent rumors of behind-the-scenes friction.

Wineman says any tensions were exaggerated by the press, and that the two groups’ working relationship is generally sound, with numerous joint projects. He declined to comment on why the Board could not adjust in the late 1990s and early 2000s — a period before he became leader — but says, “I honestly feel that the quality of delivery of the Board’s work has improved dramatically in the last few months.”

Jeremy Newmark, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, advocates “a sophisticated understanding of democracy.” (Courtesy of the Jewish Leadership Council)

Jeremy Newmark, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, advocates “a sophisticated understanding of democracy.” (Courtesy of the Jewish Leadership Council)

“I don’t think the public realizes the reach of the Board’s work, in interfaith [issues], combating hate speech on campus, liaising with communities abroad, working with Shechita UK, supervising Jewish studies in Jewish schools. When the European Jewish Congress made representations about Hezbollah to the European Union, they worked with the Board. We have just put together a new public affairs team.

“It’s not just about people sitting around on a Sunday morning, talking shop.”

For Wineman, then, the idea of merging with the JLC, which grew out of a joint liaison committee, is not about giving the Board an edge it lacks, but an opportunity to combine resources and end confusion over who speaks for Anglo-Jewry.

According to Verber — the 29-year-old — “both sides decided to grow up a bit,” while Pickett says that two sides understood that they need each other. The Board cannot ignore JLC members, he suggests, because they are the key leaders and professional experts the government really wants to speak to.

“If [government officials] need to consult on the future of elder care, for example, they want to approach the head of Jewish Care — they don’t want to rely on a deputy who happens to be a doctor.”

Meanwhile, the JLC needs the Board’s grassroots connections.

How, then, can the two groups combine to retain the strengths of each?

The Board has released 10 propositions on which deputies are currently consulting. The document suggests a “House of Deputies” comprised of elected individuals, as well as a “House of Representative Organizations” made up of senior lay leaders, a structure mirroring the House of Parliament and the House of Lords.

Which chamber would have the final say and how the relationship would work in practice is unclear.

Those involved deny that this is a JLC takeover, emphasizing that a completely new organization is being formed in which democracy is key; there are several proposals about how to expand the franchise. Newmark dismisses the opposite scenario, that the Board’s culture would dent the JLC’s effectiveness.

“In some areas, it will tip towards democracy — in others, towards efficiency,” he says. “They are not mutually exclusive.”

Theoretically, the process must be concluded by the end of the Board’s three-year term, in 2015. Kahn-Harris puts itschances of passing the deputies at 50-50, but the stakes may not be as high as the rhetoric suggests. For all the uncertainty and ferment, there is general agreement that Jews are better represented than other British minorities.

“The Muslim community is beset by factionalism. The government has to bend over backwards to figure out which are the ‘right’ Muslims to talk to,” says Pickett. “The Sikhs have it even worse. But for the outside world, the Jewish community is a paradigm of excellence. We have no idea how well-received, respected and envied the Jewish community is because we are so broiges-prone [quick to be offended]. It’s the dirty little secret we can’t seem to get our heads around.”