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... and here’s why you’ll feel guilty

Features
So they say they’re in charge
12/05/2006
Simon Rocker
Three years after it was set up, it is still not clear what the Jewish Leadership Council does, where it is going, or why it’s needed. Simon Rocker reports

The vultures may be circling over Prime Minister Tony Blair and Labour’s chief-fundraiser, Lord Levy, amid continuing parliamentary inquiries into whether Labour sold honours for cash. But next Monday, Blair will make what will possibly be his last appearance as prime minister at an Anglo-Jewish function when he attends the Jewish Care dinner, one of the premier events in the community’s fundraising calendar. His presence has guaranteed a lucrative return for the charity, of which Lord Levy is president, with 1,000 guests — among them many of the community’s financial big hitters.

Ennobled in 1997, Michael Levy, the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the Middle East, is a modern version of the old grandees, Anglo-Jews who rose to positions of national prominence but could bend an ear on behalf of their people. If there were a competition to find the Jewish community’s top mover and shaker, he would be a prime candidate. His only serious rivals would come from a relatively new Jewish body to which he, too, belongs — the Jewish Leadership Council.

Ever since its creation in 2003, the JLC has been a source of expectation and apprehension in equal measure: expectation from those who want it to become the prime lay organisation directing communal affairs in years ahead, apprehension from those who fear it represents an over-centralised concentration of power in too few hands. But above all, its existence still prompts puzzled looks from many people who are unsure what it is really up to, and even many of its own members seem unclear about its exact role within the larger Jewish communal world.

Chaired by the president of the Board, Henry Grunwald QC, the JLC brings together 20 elected heads of synagogue movements, leaders of the main charities and a number of Jewish VIPs such as former Board president and veteran politician Lord Janner (see box). Reunited round the top table are most of the philanthropic power brokers who made the Joint Israel Appeal (now UJIA) the pre-eminent Jewish charity in the 1980s — Lord Levy, Gerald Ronson and Sir Trevor Chinn.

Some communal activists see only a limited role for the JLC in the future, primarily as a talking-shop, sponsoring the occasional project such as its current pilot scheme to help charities cut overheads through greater collaboration. But others believe it is destined to become the community’s master organisation and main representative voice, even if that means superseding the Board of Deputies, viewed by many as beyond redemption.

“The Board is a dinosaur, it’s not the future,” one charity chief executive told the JC. A former communal professional predicted that the Board would “be destroyed in five or 10 years. You can’t have 18th-century institutions setting strategies for the 21st century.”

But Grunwald insists he has not created a monster to ultimately devour the deputies.

“A few still say that the JLC is a threat to the Board; they are wrong,” he says, adding that the Board’s role as the community’s “sole democratic representative body” is recognised by the JLC, which intends to play a “broader, more strategic role in communal life.”

That prospective role ought to become clearer later this year when the JLC, under its new director Jeremy Newmark, publishes a strategic plan. (Cynics might observe that the more Jewish organisations use words such as strategy, the more opaque they seem to become.) Not everyone, however, sees the need for it to bother.

“I don’t know much about the JLC other than it is a dining club for people who consider themselves very important,” says one fund-raiser. “I don’t see its purpose. The Jewish community is multi-stranded; it is not unified enough to justify the need for a single body.”

As for ensuring that British Jews have access to government, the same person observed: “Every prime minister seems to have his Jewish fellow, whispering in his ear. Some Jewish person will be close to the centre of power.” One JLC member, Sir Ronald Cohen, for example, is regarded as close to Chancellor Gordon Brown and Brown is an admirer of Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. David Cameron’s campaign to be Tory leader was initially bankrolled by rising businessman Andrew Feldman.

Still, there are some who believe that the JLC is essential to strengthen British Jewry’s political backbone in an unfriendly climate.

“I feel the Jewish communities in this country and in Israel have never been under so much attack and pressure since the Second World War,” says Brian Kerner, chair of the UJIA from 1994 to 1999.

The need for a body able to orchestrate British Jewry’s political and public relations became apparent to Kerner following the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, with its disastrous impact on Israel’s image. The day after the intifada began, some 50 leading Jews were summoned to a briefing with the then Israeli ambassador.

That evening a group of them raised an initial £250,000 fund for pro-Israel lobbying and public relations. First to wave his chequebook was Poju Zabludowicz, a little-known name at the time but now an emerging figure who recently entered the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated £2 billion, and who owns 40 per cent of downtown Las Vegas.

As Middle Eastern peace prospects sank beneath the continuing violence, the emergency campaign for Israel morphed into a permanent new body, the British-Israel Research and Communications Centre (Bicom). While a debate goes on in the community’s upper echelons over whether Bicom should remain a mainly-behind-the-scenes player focussing on media or a more upfront pro-Israel lobby similar to the American Aipac, it has become a potential recruitment ground for a new generation of lay leaders, among them Bicom’s chairman, Zabludowicz, and deputy chairman Michael Lewis — one of a number of South Africans now making his mark.

More recent events confirmed to Kerner and others their sense that the Board could not handle all that had to be done.

The JLC, he told the JC, should be “overseeing every major issue that concerns the community, ensuring what issue is dealt with by which organisation.”

While the council is a “meritocratic” rather than democratic organisation, he says, “that doesn’t matter. The JLC needs the strongest, toughest, most respected and most powerful leaders of the community” with the authority to tell others, “Guys, you’ve got to do this.”

One JLC member, JNF UK president Gail Seal — one of the few women to head a major organisation — agrees that the council should aim to become a communal supergroup.

She cites the American model of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, which, she says, “works brilliantly” (although others say that it is wrong to suggest that the Conference is any more than one among several big players in the diaspora’s largest community). She also believes that the JLC and Board will have to merge.

Others on the JLC appear more in tune with Grunwald’s thinking, including its youngest member, World Jewish Relief chairman Nigel Layton, 43, who believes the Board still has a key role in communal decision-making.

If there are genuine differences over its direction, the JLC has successfully masked them so far.

“We all get on well,” says Layton. “It’s a very good forum for all the organisations to sit together and look at ways of achieving the common good.”

Others, however, point to underlying tensions between the charity elders — the men with the money — and some of the younger organisational leaders.

The newly adopted constitution, which provides for an elected executive rather than the previous ad hoc steering group (which included Levy, Ronson and Chinn), apparently met initial resistance from within the old guard. Layton is said to have played an important role in bringing them round.

One informed source, nevertheless, voiced scepticism about the JLC’s longer-term prospects.

On major policy issues, such as Israel and antisemitism, there was a broad consensus, he pointed out. But should genuine disagreements emerge over a matter of substance, the JLC could well “implode.”

At any rate, its composition is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. No obvious new wave of leaders has surfaced, ready to step in the shoes of someone such as Gerald Ronson, whose influence remains undiminished as the chairman of British Jewry’s defence arm, the Community Security Trust.

British Jewry’s business elite may be awash with wealth but a younger, emerging generation of philanthropists has, so far, largely been content to confine itself to a few pet causes rather than aim for the top of communal decision-making. “There aren’t too many people willing to take on the task of leadership,” Kerner says. “It’s onerous, time-consuming and you’re often under attack.”

The JLC, meanwhile, has three years to bed down and declare its hand. Three years, because after that the highly respected Henry Grunwald, shortly to be re-elected for a second and final presidential term at the Board, will step down from office.

Since the president of the Board automatically chairs the JLC, the JLC could be plunged into crisis should the Board elect a leader not to the liking of some of its members.

So not for nothing do many ask: “What happens after Henry?”


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