Britain’s Jews choose new leadership

Jonathan Arkush voted president of the Board of Deputies, the 250-year-old body that leads the UK’s Jewish community

Jonathan Arkush, left,  casts his vote for president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews along with candidates Alex Brummer, center, and Laura Marks, right, May 17, 2015. (Board of Deputies/John Rifkin)
Jonathan Arkush, left, casts his vote for president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews along with candidates Alex Brummer, center, and Laura Marks, right, May 17, 2015. (Board of Deputies/John Rifkin)

LONDON — British Jews, fresh from the country’s general election, had another opportunity to cast their ballots on Sunday — and in some ways the results were just as remarkable.

The new president-elect of the 250-year-old Board of Deputies is a London barrister, Jonathan Arkush, who became the lay leader of the Anglo-Jewish community in one of the most hotly contested elections in years.

Such was the interest in who runs the board that the election was closely followed, in real time, on social media. Arkush, 60, beat his two main rivals — Alex Brummer, the city editor of the Daily Mail; and Laura Marks, appointed an OBE for her interfaith work — in two rounds of voting, dispatching Brummer to third place in the first round and then trouncing Marks in the second, by 152 votes to 92.

But the surprise election of the day was that of the new senior vice president, Richard Verber. Just 30 years old, Verber, who works for the World Jewish Relief charity and flew off to Ukraine after the election to check on WJR projects, won more votes than those of all the other VP candidates combined. The two other vice presidents elected with him, Sheila Gewolb and Marie van der Zyl, would not have been elected had Verber’s surplus votes not been redistributed.

Verber is the youngest senior vice president in the board’s history. Both he and Arkush, who take up office with the rest of the new executive on June 1, are determined to reshape the board and improve its profile.

Arkush’s election was greeted by a wave of right-wing posts on Twitter that “at last the Real Jews are back in charge” and predicting “Farewell to Yachad UK.” Yachad was accepted as a member of the board only last November, by 135 votes to 61, amid a ferocious and angry debate as to where the left-wing group stood. One deputy on Sunday compared it to Neturei Karta in terms of its unacceptability to the community.

But Arkush told The Times of Israel on Monday that he has no intention of bidding farewell to Yachad UK. “I said in my acceptance speech that I would be a president for all shades of the community. It is not ‘Goodbye Yachad,’ it is ‘Welcome to everyone.’”

Himself Modern Orthodox, Arkush regrets the failure of the strictly Orthodox to join the board. “If I can persuade them to come into the board, no one would be happier than me. I’m not the one with the red lines — I think they are the ones with red lines. If, for example, they wish to sit only with men, gesundheit. But no, of course I wouldn’t agree to them only coming to a plenary session if everyone were separated. I have to recognize that the board represents a spectrum of Jews in our community. It has to be tolerant, and the tolerance has to be mutual.”

Richard Verber speaks before his election as Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, May 17, 2015. (Board of Deputies/John Rifkin)
Richard Verber speaks before his election as senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, May 17, 2015. (Board of Deputies/John Rifkin)

He added: “Our mission as a faith community is to demonstrate to British society what a positive and vital role our faith plays in British national life.” He aimed, he said, to push the board’s profile higher, although he acknowledged there were major challenges ahead, not least in combating external threats.

“We are confronted with growing anti-Semitism. With every outbreak of conflict in the Middle East, it ratchets up the level of virulence of the anti-Semitism, and it is clear to me that some racist anti-Semites out there feel empowered by what has gone before, and when the next spike in violence happens, they put it up to a new level. Last summer we saw blatantly anti-Semitic slogans like ‘Hitler was right’ going viral on social media. I fear that next time there is a conflict in the Middle East, some people will take that, not as the end point, but as the starting point. I hope I, as president, can lead the community’s fightback.”

Verber, the newly elected senior vice president, flew off to Ukraine on Monday, still not quite believing the scale of his victory — but recognizing that the election reflected “a huge appetite for change, and I have been given an incredibly strong mandate to make that happen.”

Verber, from Manchester, joined the board just over three years ago, initially via the Union of Jewish Students. His first meeting was not a pleasant experience. “Nobody spoke to us, explained what was happening, or welcomed us. So I went home and put a post on Facebook, saying, surely we can be better than this?”

His posting got a huge community-wide reaction, leading to the launch of the pressure group Changing the Board in 2012. Verber became a deputy for Limmud, the educational charity, and has helped push through innovations such as live streaming of deputies’ debates and establishing a code of conduct to govern behavior in the plenary sessions.

He is very clear on what the role of the deputies should be. “People say that deputies are the equivalent of MPs and that the board is a parliament. That’s all wrong. We are all volunteers and representatives of our communities, and we should only ever be speaking after consultation with the constituencies that we represent. I see my role now as helping to drive forward a platform for change, from getting our own house in order, to better transparency and strategic vision for financial planning. We want a proactive, forward thinking, dynamic organization, and we’ve been given a mandate to do just that.”

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