LONDON — What looked like a run of the mill email update over the weekend actually contained a shocking announcement for Anglo Jewry, when Board of Deputies of British Jews President Jonathan Arkush made public that he would not be running for a second three-year term.
The elections to head the British Jewish community’s representative body aren’t until May 13 — but Arkush, 63, has announced that after six years as vice president and three years as president, it’s time for him to step aside.
The news has rocked the community, and though nominations for president don’t close until April 26, names are already being put forward for Arkush’s successor in arguably the hottest seat in UK Jewish politics.
It hasn’t been the easiest of rides for Arkush, a lawyer who works as a mediator and part-time judge — and who has continued to do so while serving as Board president. His election coincided with a rise in anti-Semitism and the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain’s Labour Party, but not, he is relieved to say, with any wars in Israel.
In his message to deputies telling them of his decision, Arkush recalled his priorities before his 2015 election: “Enhancing the status of the Board; promoting a more robust defense of Israel; vigorously campaigning against extremists; protecting our faith schools; boosting the representation on the Board of younger members of the community; working with people of other faiths to foster tolerance and strengthen the center ground.”
He has, he believes, “gone a long way towards fulfilling these aims.” But, speaking to The Times of Israel in his office in the heart of London’s legal scene close to the High Court buildings, Arkush looks both exhausted and relieved to have made his decision.
“I’ve always said to those close to me that while three years as president might not be quite long enough, six years is too long. I’ve also got quite a long Board memory — I’ve been a deputy for 30 years — and I’ve seen that second terms don’t usually work out well,” says Arkush.
“What happens is that after about four years — and it’s a very demanding job — the president gets very tired, and worse, the people around him or her get tired of the president. I wanted to go before people got fed up with me. But it has been one of the hardest decisions I have ever taken,” he says.
Effectively, Arkush has been in the forefront of communal politics for nine years. Before assuming the role of president, he was vice-president for six years, and at the same time chair of the Board’s defense and interfaith division.
“It’s not an easy job, and the more connections you make, the more work you make for yourself. I’ve done the job at a tremendous pace, and it has been the greatest privilege to do what I think is the best job in the community,” says Arkush.
Arkush acknowledges the highs of being Board president: “Meeting the Queen, the prime minister, having access to ministers in government. But that is the icing on the cake. The cake underneath is hard grind, and it never stops.”
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn — “and the people around him” — was hardly a factor in Arkush’s bid for the presidency in 2015, he says.
But the community’s relationship with a changed Labour leadership and a different political landscape has, says Arkush, “been one of the biggest features of my time as president, and, I suspect, will remain so for my successor.
“Our community has had to witness the migration of anti-Semitism from the margins to the center of our political life. It’s been a shock. It’s regrettable, and it has inevitably caused the community’s anxiety levels to shoot up,” he says.
The Board’s calls for Labour to deal with high-profile suspensions from the party such as Jackie Walker and former London mayor Ken Livingstone have not been swiftly addressed. In fact, says Arkush, Labour has dealt with complaints of anti-Semitism “with the speed of an arthritic snail.”
Words from the leader of the opposition condemning anti-Semitism “aren’t good enough” says Arkush. “The community has the right to say, ‘Translate your words into action and then we might believe you.’”
Labour has dealt with complaints of anti-Semitism ‘with the speed of an arthritic snail’
Eighteen months ago Arkush had a meeting with Corbyn, whom he says appeared bored. The two have not met again.
“I haven’t felt it necessary to seek a meeting since — but then nor has he. The sense that the community is getting is that actually the Labour leadership doesn’t care… not taking the simplest of actions is telling me and our community that Labour is not interested in our concerns.”
He is well aware that in terms of numbers, the Jewish community is barely a blip in the calculations of any political party.
But Arkush believes passionately that Jews are “a force for good in Britain, and wherever they have settled around the world. We add cultural richness, ideas, vitality and sometimes financial help to the life of the country.
“If the Labour Party which aspires to government is serious about shunning our community, have they really not thought through the contribution our community makes to public life?” he says.
When he has not been dealing with politics, Arkush has focused on delivering many of his election pledges, from putting the Board back to its “preeminence” in the community, to reaching out to young people, women and the always elusive strictly Orthodox groupings. He’s also made it a priority to visit student campuses and British mosques.
Arkush notoriously got into trouble in 2012 for unguarded remarks relating to the Jewish Leadership Council, the unelected group of largely well-off decision-makers which at times seemed to be vying with the Board for running the community. He wasn’t president then when he told a plenary meeting of deputies: “The JLC is unelected, it’s unaccountable and it’s therefore unacceptable to the community for it to hold itself out as exercising political leadership of our community.”
His comments led to a furious row and he was forced to backtrack. These days, however, he says he has a wonderful relationship with the new head of the JLC, Jonathan Goldstein, and claims that the two organizations have reached a tacit deal about who does what, particularly with the JLC trying not to cover the same ground as the Board.
And, wistfully, Arkush — who by virtue of his presidency of the Board is a trustee of the JLC — still foresees a time when the JLC will become part of the Board. “We both know the current situation is unsustainable for the future,” he says.
Goldstein’s election, claims Arkush, “has opened up the possibility of a merger,” though it is doubtful whether the JLC sees it in quite the same way.
Goldstein himself says that “Jonathan Arkush has dedicated himself to the UK Jewish community, to strengthening our ties with other Diaspora communities and to Israel. As president of the Board of Deputies, he has played a most valuable role as an advocate and campaigner for a wide range of Jewish causes and organizations…
“During my time as JLC chair, I have built a relationship of trust and mutual respect with Jonathan with the hope of bringing the Board and JLC closer together,” says Goldstein. “We have gone on a journey together over these last few months and I look forward to continuing down that path with his successor.”
In any case, says Arkush, that is a burden for his successor to solve. And even though there are now three months to go before the elections for president, candidates are already emerging.
Arkush’s opponents in 2015 — Alex Brummer, who is city editor of the Daily Mail, and Mitzvah Day founder, Laura Marks — have both ruled themselves out of the running. So too has the former president of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochhauser, although he is believed to be counseling some of the candidates.
One who has already made it clear that she would like to run is vice-president Marie van der Zyl, an employment lawyer from the Progressive wing of the community, who has recently won plaudits for her partnership with the strictly Orthodox Adath Yisroel Burial Society in challenging unhelpful rulings made by a London coroner regarding the speed with which Jewish funerals are held after death.
The Board’s senior vice president is Richard Verber, a youthful 33, who works for World Jewish Relief and whose phone “exploded” after Arkush’s announcement.
He has not made a decision yet whether to run, but says “it’s been very flattering how many people have been in touch to encourage me to stand and tell me they’d vote for me. I’ve even had a couple of offers to run my campaign!”
The dark horse may well be Richard Benson, 53, who is the former chief executive of the Community Security Trust (CST) defense organization. Benson is a member of the Board as vice-chair of its defense division. He is also president of the Muslim mirror organizationTell Mama that is modeled on the CST, and chairs a government group on challenging hate crime.
Benson says the next three years are going to be “very challenging for the community,” but adds that while he, like Verber, is flattered at the suggestion he should run, he needs to consult his family and his work colleagues.
As for Arkush, in the long term, he hopes to move to Israel, where two of his three children live. But his wife is an optometrist and is not yet ready to give up work, so he is likely to step up his visits to Israel in the immediate future.
Arkush began his communal service as a student activist with the Soviet Jewry campaign, and in between helped to found a Jewish school and ran his synagogue. With this track record, it is unlikely that Anglo-Jewry has heard the last of him.