History of the Board of Deputies
In 1760, the leaders of Bevis Marks Synagogue created a committee to prepare and issue a loyal address to the new King George III – famous for his ‘Madness’– and to deal with the most pressing issues affecting the community. The Synagogue was still a young organisation, founded only fifty years earlier as the first purpose-built Synagogue in England since the Expulsion of the Jews in 1290 (read a brief history of Jews in Britain here), but, as the heart of the Jewish community in London, they felt confident enough to make deals with a King.
By 1812 the committee had absorbed its Ashkenazi (German and Eastern European Jewish, as opposed to the Bevis Marks’ Sephardic, Spanish and Portuguese, congregation) counterpart, the ‘German Secret Committee for Public Affairs’. It could, in its first constitution of 1835, claim to be the sole representative of Jews in Britain. Two hundred and sixty years later, this committee, now the Board of Deputies of British Jews, represents most other Jewish synagogues and organisations as a democratically elected body – the so called ‘Parliament of the Jews’.
This was not always the case. For a long period the Presidency and senior offices of the Board were held either by Sir Moses Montefiore (1835-1873) or a member of his extended family (1874-1917). This continued, slowly changing into a Board of Deputies whose executive offices were controlled by established member of the Jewish ‘aristocracy’ until start of the Second World War when Dr Selig Brodetsky became President in 1939 with the aid of the pro-Zionist movement. Today the Board of Deputies is made up of nearly 300 deputies elected by synagogues and communal organisations, with each institution electing a number of Deputies proportional to their size every three years. You can find a brief timeline of the Board’s history on its website: https://www.bod.org.uk/jewish-facts-info/jews-in-britain-timeline/
The Board of Deputies has been active through dramatic changes in the makeup of Jews in Britain. It worked to alleviate the plight of poor Jews in the East End in the 1880s, argued against the Aliens Act of 1905 which established Britain’s first immigration laws and was predominantly aimed at stopping Jews from entering the country, worked to combat the rise of Fascism in Europe, and battled through the split in the Jewish community as the Progressive synagogues began to assert themselves as members of the community in the 1970s. While the Board has not always been on the right side of history – it issued firm guidance in 1936 that Jews should avoid Cable Street and not interfere with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt fascist march, a guidance that many East End Jews ignored leading to the much celebrated Battle of Cable Street – it has been an important part of Anglo-Jewish history.
Hidden Treasures’ goal has always been to celebrate Jewish archives and help those interested gain access to them; so where can you find information about the history of the Board of Deputies?
The London Metropolitan Archives holds the Board’s main archives, covering between 1760-2004, including the original minute books written in Portuguese. These holdings cover almost all of the Board’s activities from immigration, combating anti-Semitism, education, public relations, Israel, legal matters, Shechita (Kosher butchering), the Holocaust and Yad Vashem museum in Israel, to community research and trade.
The archive doesn’t only cover Britain, but also records the condition of Jews in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Germany, Austria, and from all over the Commonwealth, as part of the Board’s response the Holocaust, the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe pre-and post- war, and engagements with the wider English speaking Jewish world. A full research guide can be found on the LMA’s website, https://search.lma.gov.uk/SCRIPTS/MWIMAIN.DLL/140678085/2/1/44?RECORD&UNION=Y and the National Archives also has a useful abbreviation guide for the LMA’s collection, which you can find here: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/d7400fe4-5ce9-4a31-b15c-786cac0eb941.
For the Board’s less public history, we need to look at the Board of Deputies Defence Committee Papers, held at the Wiener Holocaust Library https://wiener.soutron.net/Portal/Default/en-GB/recordview/index/71062 . The Defence Committee was created in 1938 in order to better combat the threat of fascism in Britain, and continued to do so throughout the war and into the post-War period with the assistance of the ‘Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen’. These groups managed to establish a series of secretive monitoring systems that thoroughly penetrated pre-war fascist and Nazi organisations. The archive holds reports from the Committee’s ‘observers’ who attended both local and national meetings held by fascist groups, including assessments of fascist groups aims and capabilities, as well as correspondence with the police and government agencies passing on the information they were gathering, and in internal minutes of the Board’s committees.
The Board of Deputies will be celebrating its 260th anniversary this year, and what better time to learn about it than today!
–Daniel Cesarani, Hidden Treasures
Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain