Editor's Note: ‘We’re the true leadership’

UK Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman seeks to soothe tensions simmering within his community.

Vivian Wineman 390 (photo credit: Courtesy The Board of Deputies of British Jews)
Vivian Wineman 390
(photo credit: Courtesy The Board of Deputies of British Jews)
An unprecedented controversy has erupted in the usually tranquil British Jewish community, but its leader – Vivian Wineman – is doing all he can to establish calm. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, he acknowledges the rift, but stresses the need for unity in the community.
“I play down but in no way do I minimize the tensions between the Board and the JLC [Jewish Leadership Council],” he says.
Wineman is in the eye of the storm. He is both president of The Board of Deputies of British Jews – founded in 1760 – as well as chairman of the Membership Council of the JLC – formed in 2003 – but he makes it clear where his loyalties lie.
“The Board is the democratic institution of the community. I’m elected. We’re the true leadership,” he declares.
Jonathan Arkush, senior vice president of the Board of Deputies, caused a furor on Sunday when he accused the JLC of seeking to usurp the Board’s political role.
His outburst followed reports that a recent meeting of community leaders with Prime Minister David Cameron was attended by only Wineman and Arkush representing the Board, and members of the JLC.
“The JLC is unelected,” Arkush told a Board meeting, according to one of the participants.
“It’s unaccountable, and it is therefore unacceptable to the community for it to hold itself out as exercising political leadership of our community.”
Akush’s intervention at the end of a two-and- a-half session was met by complaints about his conduct in breaking ranks and defying the president, who was forced three times to ask him to desist from abusing his access to the microphone.
Arkush’s comments drew a harsh response from his fellow board members, with vice presidents Jerry Lewis and Paul Edlin as well as treasurer Laurence Brass urging him to “reconsider his position” or resign.
“We think he’s unsuited for the office,” Lewis told the Post. “He’s now proved to be disloyal to the honorary officers’ team, defying agreed collective responsibility. He’s no longer welcome to sit with us because of this breach of collective responsibility, added to which, he has never expressed these views in private.”
JLC chairman Mick Davis called Arkush’s “unwarranted and egregious attack” untenable, while Wineman termed it “unhelpful and unacceptable.”
“To make totally unfounded implications of possible impropriety is not acceptable,” Wineman said, adding that the Board and the JLC had worked closely together in the past and should continue to do so in the future.
Wineman breaks the mold when it comes to being at the helm of British Jewry.
Although he looks like a conservative English gentleman in a well-tailored suit, was raised in a religious home in northeast London and became active in Bnei Akiva, he worked his way up the ladder of communal organizations by chairing dovish groups such as British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund of Great Britain.
But if he still has leftist leanings, he has learned to hide them well, and comes across as a soft-spoken, affable consensus figure who almost always looks on the bright side.
When he talks about Israel and the British Jewish community, his eyes light up with passion and pride. And when he speaks in his upper class British accent, almost everything he says sounds intelligent and carefully considered, even if he’s just chatting casually.
A commercial solicitor who represents Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, Wineman is approaching the end of his three-year term as president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (he began in June 2009). He also serves as vice chairman of the Inter Faith Network for the UK and vice president of the European Jewish Congress.
Wineman, 62, is married with three children.
He learned Hebrew while studying at the Yavne Yeshiva near Ashdod after attending the City of London School, and then returned to the UK to read history and philosophy at Cambridge.
He visited the Post offices in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening for an interview.
I’ve heard reports of tensions between the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council?
The first thing is, what are we about, what are we here for? The machers, the leaders, are here for the community, not for our institutions, so our job is to make sure that we get the objective achieved for the community, whether it’s to meet a politician or to get a law changed.
The second thing is that the Board is the democratic institution of the community.
I’m elected. We’re the true leadership. A true leader – I don’t think of myself in those terms – isn’t jealous about status and isn’t too worried too much about turf. The Board is doing a tremendous job, and the way the Board will protect itself is by continuing to do that job and to do it better. Probably there are the odd sort of turf skirmishes around, but we are part of a community with lots of people dedicated to having a community, and we should be working with them. The Board – I’m surprised what a good institution it is – and I’m proud to be serving it. We’ve had a good record on internal things, and a good record with the government.
What are your goals as president of the Board of Deputies? I’ve got specific internal organizational goals, and specific goals within the community, but they’re really just to achieve rather than to advertise about. But it is to strengthen the position of the community in the UK, to strengthen the continuing argument against the Palestinians, particularly the Palestine Solidarity Group. We work very well with other religions.
What does the community number today? Well, the last census showed 268,000 and the question was a voluntary question. So for instance, in the haredi community, where we believe there were 20,000 Jews, only 11,000 were counted in the census as being Jewish. An awful lot of Jews who I know and are clearly Jewish – some very involved in their shuls – refused to answer the question because they regarded it as an invasion of their privacy. They didn’t realize that it’s not so much their privacy, but it’s the community, and the more people who indicate they are Jewish on the census form, the more notice people will take of the community.
So I think there are probably about 330,000 Jews in the community today. But of course, it depends how you define “Jews.” If you were to ask self-defining Jews, I’d say there’d be about 330,000.
How would you describe the situation of the community today?
It’s a vibrant community with a lot of activity, and always has been. For its size, it produces a lot of books, a lot of films. We have two big cross-cultural events. We’ve got Limmud and we’ve got Jewish Book Week, which is on at the moment. So there’s a lot happening inside the community, and it’s quite varied. I think that people should focus more on the achievements of the community, the expansion of educational system, the Jewish Film Festival, Limmud etc. rather than the negative side.
And of course, there is a lot of negative, politics and anti-Semitism, which you find in every country and which we fight vigorously.
And when people make anti-Semitic remarks, we make an issue of it and we call them to account.
We’ve had three cases recently of MPs who’ve done it, and in each case we made a very, very firm protest. And in each case, we got a real apology. In one case, the chap got dismissed. In another, he was an MEP, he made comments which were anti-Semitic, without question. We made the protest on the Thursday, and on the Friday morning, he was in the Board of Deputies apologizing, and saying, “I’m not an anti-Semite at all.”
How concerned are you about anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism has changed shape, in a sense. There used to be much more institutional anti-Semitism than there is today.
When I went to school, my school had a quota on Jewish boys. When I qualified as a solicitor, there were certain big firms that were known not to take Jews. Before that, the biggest and most prestigious medical schools didn’t take Jews. Surprisingly, the universities always did. Now, there is much less of that, and you see Jews cropping up in all the most prestigious law firms and medical schools, and there’s much less institutional anti-Semitism.
But there’s an awful lot of anti-Israel feeling, which sometimes morphs into anti-Semitism. We’re very active in combating it.
What about the growth of Islamic extremism? It is a problem. We have good relations with parts of the Muslim community, but we are concerned. It’s a large community.
Much of it is very moderate. The majority just want to get on with their lives and integrate into British society.
But you’re talking about two-and-a-half to three million people, so if you have 2 percent who are extremists, you’re talking about 60,000 people. So that is a large number.
The British Jewish community has an image of being understated and not too vocal. Would you agree? The British style is understated and we’re not as in-your-face as the American community. We’re very vocal, though, and we like to demonstrate and show up in the public space. We had a Hanukka lighting in Trafalgar Square; we engage a lot in public issues. It’s quite a religiously inclined community, so there are a lot of conspicuous Jewish people going around London, especially. So we’re not “trembling Israelites.” We’re quite outspoken.
Do you have the ear of the prime minister and his government? Sometimes the important people to meet are the civil servants who brief them, and that we’re getting an awful lot of. A couple of weeks ago, we got to meet the prime minister, and he was receptive. He really was.
What is the purpose of your current visit to Israel and what have you achieved? I started by seeing my family and I learned a lot from them. I’ve got more family here than I have in England – two siblings and nine nephews and nieces.
Our meetings with government officials and [Jerusalem Mayor] Nir Barkat were very, very interesting and informative. So we do see and really understand the sort of problems that Israel is contending with, in trying to move ahead with the peace process and dealing with issues such as minorities and Jerusalem, which is such a rich city with so much variety.
We had a meeting with [Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister] Yuli Edelstein, and he’s very good. He’s a minister you can be really proud of.
Do you think Israel’s ‘hasbara’ is lacking in any way? I tell you one thing you’ve done that is really good: You’ve sent a first class ambassador to London [Daniel Taub]. I’ve known him all his life – he’s younger than I am – and he’s excellent. If you drew an identikit ambassador, he’d be what it is.
He’s articulate in English, which is crucial, presentable, very knowledgeable, really on top of his brief on the details. Also, he’s very familiar with the community. I know that’s not the main issue for the State of Israel, but it is awfully nice for a Diaspora community to have an ambassador who wants to engage with them, and we are worth engaging. I don’t want to sound too boastful, but we do a good job there.
For instance, Israeli leaders were having problems coming over to the UK, being prosecuted for war crimes, and the problem was that the law enabled people to apply for arrest warrants on very little evidence, the idea being that you could keep someone in the jurisdiction and then acquire the evidence to bring a prosecution. So the threshold was very low, and this meant that you could have lots of these nuisance warrants issued.
And we’ve got the law changed, and that’s something to be proud of. It’s a cross-communal effort. So the Board of Deputies working with the Jewish Leadership Council and all the friends groups did an awful amount of work on this, and got it through parliament. It wasn’t easy, and we had a lot of opposition, but we managed it. And we’ve achieved a lot of things.