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Proposed changes to SAJBD constitution questioned

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TALI FEINBERG

The proposed changes appear to grant the SAJBD’s national executive committee (NEC) the ability to remove the membership of constituent bodies if they “cease to further the objects of the board”, and could allow the NEC to allocate any number of delegates to a constituent body unrelated to the number of its members. A third change proposes that if the NEC’s members are “inadvertently not notified about a meeting”, it can go ahead.

All major Jewish communal bodies in South Africa are affiliated to the SAJBD, including schools, shuls (orthodox and progressive), women and youth groups, and the main welfare organisations and Zionist bodies, amongst others.

SAJBD National Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev said the proposed changes were in the interest of improved governance, efficiency, and transparency, and would address certain deficiencies in the constitution.

“The NEC of the board mandated a sub-committee including three lawyers, each of which sits on the NEC and comes from different regions, to review the constitution and recommend amendments. The [amendments] haven’t been subject to the scrutiny of the NEC or the conference. They may be completed rejected or amended by the NEC and/or the conference. At the moment, they are merely the views of a few people, and don’t carry any authority or represent any official policy.

“It’s intended that these amendments be debated and adopted or rejected at the NEC meeting which precedes the conference,” Zagnoev said. “If adopted, they would then be taken to the conference for ratification. We are comfortable that this is a fully democratic, fair, and transparent process. Should the NEC and/or conference not agree with the suggestions, we will continue with the current constitution.”

Advocate Mark Oppenheimer points out that the changes could cause unforeseen issues in future. “One such objective of the board is to promote harmonious relations between the Jewish community and all sections of the population in the republic. While the aim is noble, it’s ambiguous. A constituent body [for example, a shul] could be accused of creating some form of disharmony. For example, if a position was taken of accusing the Anglican Church of adopting an unfairly anti-Israel stance, the constituent body might then be viewed as acting in a manner that is ‘disharmonious’ and be removed as a constituent member.” Ironically, the above concern about the Anglican Church was recently expressed by South African Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

Zagnoev said the requirement that an organisation further the objects of the board had been included as an amendment, “as it would be incomprehensible for an organisation with antithetical views to the board to be a member of it. The converse is that if an organisation ceases to satisfy these requirements, the NEC should be entitled to terminate its membership. The right to revoke membership is, in any event, in the current constitution and not a new concept.”

The second proposed change is that “the national executive in its sole and absolute discretion has the right to allocate a number of delegates to a constituent body which is unrelated to the number of its members”.

Said Oppenheimer, “This means that a very small constituent organisation could be granted an indefinite number of members in order to rig a vote. So, because each delegate enjoys one vote, and the constitution could be changed with the assent of two thirds of the delegates present, this would entitle the national executive to ‘stack’ the congress in a manner that suits its preferences.”

“The reason for the insertion of this clause is to cater for situations where extremely important organisations – such as the Chevrah Kadisha in Johannesburg – do not, for technical reasons, satisfy membership criteria,” Zagnoev said. “In such an event, the NEC will be capable of exercising its judgement as to whether such organisations be accorded representation and the extent thereof.”

Another change proposes, “An inadvertent omission to give the notice referred to any person entitled to such notice or the non-reception of such notice by any such person shall not invalidate any proceedings at any such meeting.”

Zagnoev points out that this would enhance governance at the NEC. “The operative clause is that the omission needs to be inadvertent. In today’s electronic-communication environment, it’s possible that an invitation to a meeting isn’t delivered. Theoretically, were that to happen, the NEC meeting could not proceed. This clause has been inserted to ensure the validity of a meeting that proceeds in such a scenario. As stated, the omission needs to be inadvertent, and needs to be proven to be inadvertent if challenged. An intentional omission would not be acceptable. This, in my view, supports good governance.”

Though Oppenheimer doesn’t believe this is problematic, he warned about the dangers of changing a constitution.

“While it may be the case that those who are currently in power bear no ill will and intend to act in a just manner, it’s possible that future generations of leaders may abuse the power that they have been granted and may run a pernicious agenda in a manner that would not be approved of by the current leadership. Any changes to the constitution ought to be thoroughly considered and debated to avoid an undemocratic and unfair outcome.”

Said Zagnoev, “The power to make these types of decisions rests in the hands of the NEC, a large body representing a diversity of interest groups and views, and fully represents the regions. It’s voted in democratically, and is mandated with safeguarding the interests of the Jewish community.”

Turning to the democratic nature of the board as a whole, Zagnoev said that the SAJBD had various regions, and each of the councils in these regions was subject to contested elections on an annual or biannual basis. Each of the regions then appointed a defined number of members to the NEC in terms of the national constitution.

“The only election that happens at the national conference is for the ceremonial role of president. The practice for decades, almost without exception, is that the retiring national chairperson (typically after his/her second term) is elected national president. Mary Kluk is the current president, and is likely to make herself available for a further term.”

Entry to leadership of the board therefore sits in the regions, where elections take place regularly. “In addition, the constitutions of both the regional branches and national board allow for co-opting a certain number of people onto their committees based on the specific expertise that such individuals are able to bring to the board.”

Zagnoev maintains that the SAJBD’s democratic processes “are exceptionally well developed, time honoured, and rigorously protected.”

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