While Mick Davis has been trying to tie up a merger between his own company, mining giant Xstrata, and commodities conglomerate Glencore, he has had to face the latest volley of criticism directed at one of the charities he heads, the Jewish Leadership Council.
Probably no communal organisation has triggered so much contention as the JLC, which he joined as UJIA chairman just over six years ago and has chaired for two and a half years.
When he agreed to this interview some weeks ago, he would have had no idea that a senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies was about to launch an attack on the JLC. Mr Davis wanted simply to explain the JLC’s recent work, not to fire-fight the latest uproar.
“Those in communal positions sometimes have to live with the negatives that go with it,” he tells me. “You become a football in a game some people might play, but I don’t think that should deflect from the fact that there is a job of work that needs to be done.”
The JLC – a forum for the heads of major Jewish organisations plus an assortment of prominent figures – is, he says, “an immensely important organisation which this community needs if it is going to function in a way which delivers consistent value to its members”.
But he acknowledes that it has done “a poor job” in explaining its role after its creation in 2003. He is at pains to trumpet it more widely.
The JLC’s “flagship achievement” so far, he says, has been its commission on Jewish schools which looked at the training of Jewish studies and Hebrew teachers, and the demand for pupil places. That has paved the way for a new educational campus in Redbridge and a new strategic body, Partnership for Schools, due to launch shortly.
Major charities now save around £700,000-£800,000 a year, as a result of a JLC initiative which involves collectively buying services such as cleaning or printing, rather than each charity doing so on its own. If it could be rolled out to smaller organisations, the savings could amount to as much as £2 million.
Next month the JLC is due to launch its community chest – a funding bank for causes not covered by the big charities. It will include support for small communities and one-off projects, such as rallies for Israel, so that “you don’t have every single time to beg, steal and borrow from the same group of people”.
The JLC has also instigated a new training programme for the next generation of lay and professional leaders, called Lead, and a commission to find ways to encourage more women to take up senior community roles. A second commission is investigating “communal vitality” – a consultation exercise to discover what British Jews think essential to its future wellbeing.
But for all its good works, the JLC has struggled to shake off a perception that it represents some kind of hostile takeover by philanthropists of the role that properly belongs to the elected Board of Deputies.
“I recognise the noise,” Mr Davis says, “but I don’t recognise [that there is] a real problem. We work very well with the Board and I have a good relationship with Vivian [Wineman, Board president].”
The JLC and Board co-operate over the Fair Play anti-boycott campaign, as they will do over the new Partnership for Schools. The JLC has helped to fund the Board’s regional campaign against delegitimisation of Israel, launched last year.
To many deputies the fact that a recent delegation to the Prime Minister comprised nine JLC members, and two from the Board, spoke volumes. Mr Davis responds: “We had someone from the two main synagogue movements, a representative from the key welfare organisations, from the Israel-based organisations, from the CST.
“I saw the composition of that delegation in a completely positive way and I think the role the JLC played in securing the meeting was exactly what they should want us to do.”
Despite being grilled by members of the Board at a meeting last summer, Mr Davis intends to return to the deputies’ den this year to report on the JLC’s activities. “As much as I’d like them to listen to me, we have to listen to them as well,” he says. “I think we in a sense created an environment where there was a vacuum for misunderstanding, which created antagonism. I think everybody now should learn lessons.”
He puts faith in the joint JLC/Board liaison committee set up last year to clarify relations and reduce tensions. But he will not sign up yet to the view advanced by, among others, former JLC executive member Simon Hochhauser, who believes its present relationship with the Board is untenable and that the only real solution is to bring the JLC under the Board’s umbrella.
Mr Davis identifies a number of particular challenges that British Jewry collectively must confront. One is the welfare requirements of an ageing population especially in the light of government cuts to social services. Another is the growth of the Charedi community and its ability to sustain itself.
“I am concerned – without wanting to be patronising – about the potential extension of an environment where there are more people on dependency,” he says. “How do we deal with that? Although the Charedi community almost operates in its own world, I think what happens there is going to have direct consequences on us.”
Also weighing on his mind is the campaign of delegitimisation of Israel.
The JLC is not iself an Israel advocacy body, he explains. “When it comes to boycotts, divestment and sanctions, we see that as an assault on the Jewish community, with Israel as the vehicle, because it attacks our identity as Jews, our connection to the homeland of the Jewish peoplehood. Anything which delegitimises that, delegitimises the Jewish community.”
What remains important, Mr Davis says, is to create an environment where people with different political opinions about Israel, but united in support of its legitimacy, could be “part and parcel of the same process”, without different camps decrying each other as “loony right-wingers close to Attila the Hun” or “left-wing nutters”.