Racism at the Board of Deputies: who will bring them down to earth?

“Who can bring me down to earth?” (Obadiah 1:3)

There are so many tones in which this line, from the haftarah we will read on Shabbat, could be asked. It could be said in a pantomime-villain voice, followed by an ?!, an evil laugh and the words, “Even you cannot stop me now, Mr Bond!”

It could be an intrusive thought which creeps into the mind to unsettle one’s self-confidence: “What have I forgotten?”

It could be said with genuine regret by one who has no critical friends and no personal sense of judgement: “I need someone to keep me grounded.”

This week has seen yet another racism scandal at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. One of its members tabled a wholly written question for the President for no purpose other than to seek to defend the police officer who murdered George Floyd from charges of racism.

Although the communal reaction in that case was heartwarming – immediate condemnation from the President, dismissal of the Deputy by the group he represented and processes begun to have him removed from other organisations as well – there is a pattern here.

In recent years, there have been Deputies caught out engaging in anti-Palestinian racism (“I do not care about any Palestinians, I only care about Jewish people”), anti-Muslim racism (“The vilest of animals are Muslims” and “No chance the Muslim Council of Britain would ever air their homophobic Jew-hating laundry in public”) and anti-Traveller racism (“Roma and Gypsy communities create havoc and frighten local people”). There’s even been antisemitism, for heaven’s sake (“Kapo!”).

Some of these episodes resulted in the resignation of the individual concerned, some resulted in no action being taken. One led to the Deputy’s suspension, but after many, many years of complaints about them, and only once a mysterious someone leaked the relevant papers to a courageous reporter at The Jewish Chronicle.

When each incident comes along, it’s easy to forget the ones that went before. But in doing so we impoverish ourselves, because the pattern presents a learning opportunity. Why does the Board of Deputies attract so many loudmouthed, out-and-out racists to its ranks? There must be an explanation. There must be a pull-factor.

The reason Jeremy Corbyn’s claims to be a lifelong anti-racist rang so hollow was that he showed no concern whatsoever for the fact that he was supported by vast numbers of antisemites; whether or not he shared their views, a true anti-racist would have stopped to think, “What is it about me that appeals to dreadful people like this?”

The Board of Deputies should be wondering the same thing.

In its biblical context, “Who can bring me down to earth?” was asked by a Bond villain. It’s a line which the prophet Obadiah ascribes to the Edomites’ arrogant hearts. But the ambiguity of the question – or at least its ability to apply to many situations – is the prophetic genius of the text.

I think we should all be asking ourselves that question from time to time, not out of arrogance like the Edomites, but out of humility. Everybody soars through life powered by their own self-image, and that’s entirely valid and part of what it is to be human. But another part of what it is to be human is to have self-doubt and a questioning heart. Every now and then, it behoves us to ask: “Who can bring me down to earth?”

This is definitely true of the Board of Deputies. The Board is an organisation with lofty and often laudable ambitions. It goes round the country educating people about Judaism. It defends our religious freedoms. It helps Jewish people get time off work to celebrate chaggim. But it is precisely the loftiness and often laudability of its ambitions that can lead to its leaders getting carried away with their own successes. While the head is in the clouds, it omits to glance below from time to time, to engage in introspection.

This is the N-th racism scandal to hit the Board of Deputies in a short space of time. If it is to be the last, the President has to ask herself the Obadiah question: “Who can bring me down to earth?” What does she have to do, who does she need to engage with, in order to find out why her organisation is so attractive to racists and what steps she can (must) take to tackle the problem.

Obadiah concluded his almost embarrassingly short book by prophesying that the Jewish people would be like fire, and the Edomites like straw. Eradicating communal racism is not nearly as easy as burning straw, but it is possible to take at least some steps towards it.

Let our community’s hearts, and especially those of our leaders, ask themselves what they could be doing differently, and let them be empowered with anti-racist fire.

Shabbat shalom.

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