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250 Years of Convention and Contention: A History of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, 1760–2010, by Raphael Langham. London and Portland, Oregon: Vallentine Mitchell, 2010. 292 pp. $69.95.
Founded in 1760, the Board of Deputies of British Jews is the central representative body of the Anglo-Jewish community. Although based in voluntary membership in the Jewish community, it has always had a number of features which more closely resemble a European kehilla than the totally voluntary and polycentric American Jewish community. Since 1836 it has been granted a number of legal privileges by the British Parliament, including the right to certify Jewish marriage celebrants and, from the 1930s, the right to grant exemptions for Orthodox Jews to laws prohibiting the opening of shops on Sundays. These legal powers are quite extraordinary for an entirely voluntary body. More significantly, the Board and its Presidents are generally recognized as the central spokesmen for the Anglo-Jewish community, and have a long tradition of taking visible public stances on Jewish issues. For many years in the nineteenth century the Board was headed by Sir Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), the giant figure of Victorian England’s Anglo-Jewish community, and then, until the 1930s, by members or associates of the wealthy “Cousinhood” families like the Rothschilds and d’Avigdor-Goldsmids. In 1940 what is often termed a revolution occurred in its leadership when Professor Selig Brodetsky became its President. Brodetsky was born in Russia and grew up in poverty in the East End; he was a practicing Orthodox Jew and, more important, one of Britain’s leading Zionists. Ever since, the leadership of the Board has remained in the hands of post-1881 eastern European migrants and their progeny, keenly Zionistic and Jewishly conscious in a post-Holocaust sense. It should also be noted that members of the Board have generally been selected (as “deputies,” hence its name) by organizations, especially synagogues, rather than directly elected by Anglo-Jewry, and there have been many fights over membership.
Raphael Langham has written a genuinely outstanding history of the Board of Deputies, always mastering this complex story and using all significant primary and secondary sources. Although commissioned by the Board of Deputies, in no sense is the work a whitewash or hagiography, and discusses all of the controversies surrounding the Board in a fair and balanced way. His personal conclusion (p. 263) is that “when I started researching and writing this book I could be ranked among the cynics and sceptics” of the Board, but, after his research, now believes that “the Jews of Britain need a representative body and the Board has fulfilled that function, warts and all,” a conclusion which seems quite justified. The Board and its associated bodies were chiefly responsible for bringing 75,000 German Jewish refuges to Britain from 1933 to 1939, and of mounting effective campaigns on behalf of post-war Soviet Jewry and in support of Israel. Compared with its equivalent bodies in other English-speaking countries, however, it often seems notably low-keyed and lacking in chutzpah, especially towards the anti-Israel bias of institutions like the BBC and left-wing sources like the Guardian newspaper. This may be the British Way, and it may be effective in the long run, but the Board also often does itself no favours in Anglo-Jewish eyes by its perceived weakness. Raphael Langham’s excellent work is an important and very valuable addition to the many recent studies of Anglo-Jewish history.
William D. Rubinstein
University of Aberystwyth