As International Relations Officer at the Board of Deputies, two days rarely look the same. As well as dealing with a dizzying array of international Jewish organisations (two Jews, three organisations…), I can often be found raising the community’s concerns with civil servants at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), taking part in advocacy efforts in Brussels and also visiting a number of embassies in London.
Israel’s former Ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub often quipped that diplomacy consisted of “diplomacy, alcohol, and cholesterol”, and there is some truth to that as demonstrated at the Irish Embassy’s St Patrick’s Day Reception! However, advocating for Jews on a global scale means playing a role alongside a range of institutions and individuals and dealing with specific issues, from Israel to antisemitism, Holocaust issues to religious freedoms. For meetings with ambassadors, I normally join President Jonathan Arkush and/or Senior Vice President Richard Verber. However, detailed work is usually done with deputies or counsellors with whom I meet regularly. The Board of Deputies is the only UK Jewish organisation which engages with diplomats on all aforementioned issues. Indeed, certain cases may not immediately spring to mind for the average Jew.
Take the example of a recent law with a direct impact on the Jewish community passed in Serbia. You may have missed it, but Serbia has passed a restitution law to aid the local Jewish community and Serbian Holocaust victims worldwide. Although the number of people affected is relatively small, it may revitalise Jewish life in the country while also recognising the tens of thousands of Serbian Jews who perished during the Holocaust.
What role did the Board of Deputies play in this encouraging development? According to the World Jewish Restitution Organisation (WJRO), of which the Board of Deputies is a member, the UK Government’s role in supporting the legislation was ‘significant’. In the run up to the vote, I met with the Serbian desk at the FCO and with the Serbian Ambassador to the UK, HE Dr Ognjen Pribićević. In these meetings we expressed our strong support for proposed legislation, while also raising a number of very specific concerns which had been outlined by the Serbian Jewish community. Post-Holocaust issues envoy Sir Eric Pickles and UK Ambassador to Serbia, HE Mr Denis Keefe, publically expressed support for the law.
The co-ordination of national bodies such as our own with the expertise of international organisations such as the WJRO and the willingness of our government to listen and act should never be underestimated in terms of the effect it can have. In essence, on a UK level I am working to connect the dots between the community, diplomatic missions and government, to ensure that our voice is heard.
My experience of living in Turkey and Israel, speaking different languages and dealing with culturally disparate groups of people has stood me in good stead. Public statements regarding the first public Chanukah candle lighting in Istanbul, or the recent contacts between the Turkish and Israeli governments following terror attacks in Turkey, are incredibly important ways of demonstrating solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the diaspora, but also in encouraging governments such as Turkey to continue to improve conditions for their Jewish populations.
Meetings with ambassadors are also used to communicate solidarity; such as signing the book of condolence in the presence of the French Ambassador following terror attacks – or disquiet; a recent example involved the statements by the Swedish Foreign Minister regarding the recent wave of violence in Israel.
Our organisation’s renewed professionalism in this field has not gone unnoticed. Later this year the Board of Deputies and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) will be announcing an exciting project to add to London’s diplomatic calendar. Watch this space.