Simon Johnson: A Time of change

Last week, the JLC announced that we would be saying farewell to Sir Mick Davis as our Chairman.  It is important to recognise his contribution to Jewish life in the UK.

I received the phone call from Sir Mick out of nowhere in 2013, asking me if I wanted to be the interim CEO of the JLC. How was this businessman, who has been very vocal about communal issues, going to be as a boss? I had never personally met Sir Mick.  My only experience of him was having seen him on Appeal videos as Chair of UJIA. I had no idea what to expect of him and neither, I suspect, did he know anything of me.

Nearly four years on, and I am happy to share that I am full of admiration and respect for Sir Mick’s style of working, his dedication, his strategy, vision, clarity of thought, availability and more than anything, his results. His attention to detail and generosity, both of time, opinions and philanthropic resources have positively affected many aspects of the community. Whatever my initial perceptions, I have benefitted enormously from working with him and have been inspired by the experience. In fact, Sir Mick’s vision, his steadfast support and care is something the community has been very lucky to have.

Throughout my time at the JLC, we have worked very closely together on a number of issues and campaigns. One which stands out in my mind was the community’s response to the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Although the community had responded well to the crisis, Sir Mick was acutely aware of where we had fallen short. Our political engagement, our messaging and communications, speed of response, regional engagement, grassroots relationships and digital and social media capacity had all fallen short of what would have been optimal. Sir Mick drove us to learn from the campaign and to put in place structures to ensure that we are better prepared for next time. He energetically raised the funds to support the new structures and supported us as we put them in place. It was Sir Mick’s vision and drive that made that happen.

I have got to know Sir Mick on both a professional and personal level. Although he’s not one to shy away from controversy and has strong opinions, he is generous in his time and hugely willing to consider alternative viewpoints. He has been a fantastic leader who has revolutionised a number of community bodies.

One area of work that Sir Mick asked me to take on is to review the Mission and Objectives of the JLC to ensure that they are fit for the purpose of our members and the community in the coming years.  We last reviewed these in 2014, just as I was appointed as the full time CEO and it is right that any dynamic, representative organisation should regularly review its’ objectives.  I have just finished four meetings for members of the JLC Council, to consider this debate and will be sharing the findings with our Trustees and Council in the next month or so.  I will then be able to share publicly what changes we will make to our mission and objectives.

On the day to day, activities of the team here at the JLC, we have had some success fighting back against the impact of Israel Apartheid Week for Jewish students. In recent years, we have seen activities spill over into antisemitism, intimidation, harassment or threatening of Jewish students.

But we are fighting back.

At the start of March, the Minister for Higher Education. Jo Johnson MP, wrote to all University Vice Chancellors. Amongst other things, he advised Universities to take care with events during this week.

Also, Universities UK, worked with us to produce helpful guidance which they circulated to Vice Chancellors about how to deal with Israel Apartheid Week.

And immediately, we saw the impact of the guidance, when both UCL and Exeter refused permission for a so called “Mock Checkpoint” being installed on their campus.

These are unprecedented steps. They are the first time that the Government or Universities UK has addressed Israel Apartheid Week in a way that supports Jewish & pro-Israel students. 

It is part of a programme of supportive activity from the Government and Government institutions against antisemitism and the risk of antisemitism from anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activity.

We should remain immensely grateful for that.