Until a telephone call late one night in 1968 I had taken very little interest in Jewish communal affairs, partly because I hadn't had time and partly because no-one asked me. That night Dr Jack E Miller phoned as I was preparing some paperwork for the following day. "I want you to join my executive committee," he said. "There's a lot to be done and you can help."
Jack proved to be an inspired President. He looked and sounded the part, too; with his distinguished appearance, thin moustach, and slow measured speaking voice. There was hardly an aspect of Jewish activity in which he had not been involved. He was a general medical practitioner by profession and an important figure in medical politics; a Fellow of the British Medical Association and the Royal Society of Medicine, and a Fellow and founder member of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Later he was to become national treasurer of the BMA and a recipient of the association's gold medal for distinguished service. He was awarded the OBE in 1983.
Jack took over the leadership of the Representative Council with a number of laudable aspirations; to give the local community a greater self-awareness and confidence and to improve the image of the council and the community among the wider community of Britain. He told me that although I was a member of the Jewish community I was not identified with it and as I seemed to be working very effectively for the city he decided to recruit me as the council's first Public Relations man.
He also remembered I had interviewed him a couple of years earlier for a newspaper article on the kosher schools meals service of which he was honorary treasurer.
I took up Jack's offer to join him and became the Representative Council's honorary propagandist. During his three years in office Jack was involved in bringing to Glasgow many prominent speakers on Jewish and Israeli affairs. He also initiated courses for local people to enable them to give authoritative talks to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences on the myriad aspects of Jewish affairs and life.
Among the things the Representative Council had always taken great interest in was the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union who suffered every kind of oppression and deprivation. Jack Miller promoted a number of events to draw the problem to the attention of the British public and perhaps even more importantly to make the Soviet government aware of the strength of feeling world-wide about their treatment of Jews.
In the Representative Council's report for 1970-71 its joint honorary secretaries, The Rev. Dr I. K. Cosgrove, Garnethill Synagogue's dynamic minister, and Mr Kenneth Davidson, a Glasgow business man, reported, The situation of the Jews in the Soviet Union continues to be more and more fully exposed, to the obvious displeasure of the Soviet authorities, who give the impression of being exceedingly perplexed and confused by the whole thing. They are unaccustomed to great masses of courageous and intelligent people publicly demanding no more than their rights according to the law of the land.
The secretaries also reported that Dr Golombok, editor of the Jewish Echo, and Mr Diamond continued active in characteristic style and indeed are currently engaged in ensuring that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland pass a motion deploring the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union.
I don't remember what happened to the motion but 14 years later, in May 1984, after a series of meetings lasting two-and-a-half years between ministers of the Church of Scotland and leaders of the Jewish community, the Church and Glasgow Jewish Representative Council issued a Common Statement on the evils of anti-Semitism.
A week later I sat in on a session of the General Assembly in Edinburgh along with a number of colleagues from the Representative Council to see Mr Henry Tankel, a Glasgow surgeon, President of the United Synagogue Council of Scotland, and a past President of Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, become the first Jew to address the supreme court of the Church in its 424 years. His speech was received with enthusiasm and acclaim.
Tankel told the fathers and brethren, The Deliverance (resolution) which initiated our discussions was a brave and noble sentiment and you placed its execution into the hands of far-seeing and upright men and women.
It is not in our hands to speak on behalf of the millions of our martyrs who have died for their faith, but it was and is in our hands to grasp firmly the hand of genuine friendship and co-operation, and this we have done. We have learned much from the meetings we have held together. Mutual respect and understanding have taken deep root and flowered into friendship.
The meetings between the two groups started in 1981 when a Deliverance of the General Assembly stated that its Overseas Council should initiate talks with the Jewish community with a view to finding ways to strengthen the bonds of friendship and understanding between Christians and Jews.
Several people from each side took part in the talks. The leaders were the Rev. Alastair Lamont, former convener of the Kirk's Church and Israel Committee and Mr Kenneth Davidson, President of Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. Henry Tankel was another member of the Jewish group. A close observer of the talks was the then Sir (now Lord) Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth.
My part in the operation, with the agreement and co-operation of Bruce Cannon, the Church's Director of Publicity, was to translate the very formal Common Statement into a form which would be easily digestible by the nation's news media and to organise a press conference.
I obtained permission to mount the press conference in a committee room of the City Chambers which was attended by a large number of newspaper, radio and television people. The Statement was reported throughout Britain. Later the Rev. John M Spiers, minister of Orchardhill Parish Church, Glasgow, wrote to me, Last Tuesday will be long remembered by all of us and I do believe it marks a new depth of understanding between our two communities.
The Common Statement ended with the proposal that a continuing framework of liaison should be established to maintain relationships and to facilitiate co-operation in matters of mutual concern and in fact this liaison is still very active.
Henry Tankel and his wife Judith have both had the distinction of serving as Presidents of the Representative Council, Henry from 1974 to 1977 and Judith, the only woman to hold the post, from 1989 to 1992.
On Christmas Eve 1970 Jack Miller was one of a party of Jews who held a 24-hour vigil in George Square in support of two Russian Jews sentenced to death by firing squad after they were found guilty at a secret trial in Leningrad for the attempted hijacking to Sweden of an airliner. If you look closely at the protesters carrying placards you can see yours truly.
Protest meetings were also held about the treatment of Jews in Arab countries. In January 1969 Iraq hanged nine of its Jewish citizens for allegedly spying for Israel. A three-hour protest vigil by Glasgow Jews in George Square attracted more than 1200 people to the scene, including a large number of prominent churchman.
The churchmen also turned out in force to a shop in fashionable Buchanan Street to sample the type of breakfast given to Jewish prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union, two slices of black bread, an ounce of herring, and a cup of unsweetened hot water. My job was to ensure national press coverage for the events.
Some years later, with the co-operation of another imaginative President, Bernard Sakol, a furniture manufacturer, I devised a public write-in to our co-religionists in Russia to encourage them in their struggle for civil liberties and human rights, including the right to leave the country to live somewhere else, preferably Israel.
The write-in turned out to be the biggest event of its kind ever staged in Britain. A thousand leaders of religious groups, writers, trade unionists, politicians, academics, and many others came to the Representative Council offices in Glasgow one Sunday afternoon to write letters to people in the Soviet Union whose names and addresses we had compiled. We even supplied the notepaper and pens.
Actually the supporters didn't have to write more than their own names and addresses because members of the council's executive supplied drafts of various types of letters. The event was reported internationally by newspapers, radio and television.
Later I sent a comprehensive report about the project to every other Jewish Representative Council in Britain suggesting they mount a similar operation, but not one reponded, a fact which disappointed us greatly in Glasgow. That was the kind of response that, unjustly, earned representative councils a reputation for being mere 'talking shops' where people liked to sound off about everything but didn't want actually to do anything.
I served under seven Representative Council Presidents until 1994 when I lost my place on the executive committee, although I am still a delegate to the council on behalf of the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen. My departure from the executive committee did not upset me very much as it meant I would no longer have to sit through lengthy, boring meetings although as a delegate I still attend the council's plenary sessions which last hours and are often even more boring.
Successive Presidents have been far too democratic in allowing council members and delegates who really have nothing to add to discussions to pollute the air with the dullest of thoughts at extraordinary length and on a disconcerting number of occasions I have said to colleagues after meetings, "What did we decide?" to receive the answer, "I don't know."
One of the most excrutiatingly boring subjects was the council's constitution to which an incredible amount of time was devoted. Over the decades council members had initiated countless useful, effective projects without even being aware that the council had a constitution. This unhealthy preoccupation with, and manipulation of, constitutions is exactly the kind of thing that damages the credibility of political parties, too.
The council is currently involved in a nation-wide project, Jewish Continuity, designed to persuade Jews generally to take a greater interest in their religious heritage. In Glasgow's case an enormous amount of time and money is being devoted to an attempt to bring many of its largely indifferent sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob back into the fold. Regular reports of the progress of Jewish Continuity contain a very high fog factor.
It is the council's misfortune that whatever it does the Jewish community at large is still cynically ignorant of its work. One of the main reasons is that a lot of useful work is done outwith committees and the public meetings are not the stuff of newspaper headlines, even in the very few Jewish newspapers which cater for our community in Britain. Another reason is that the hierarchy of the community have little skill in communicating with their public in a way that is intelligible to them.
The last President I served with on the executive committee was Harvey Livingston, managing director of a furniture manufacturing company, a conscientious, hard-working man and the only Scottish Jew to be introduced to the Pope. Thomas Winning, Archbishop of Glasgow, invited him to Rome, along with others, to see him installed as a cardinal in November 1994. This was an acknowledgement of the Representative Councils' role in Jewish affairs rather than a personal recognition of Livingston's undoubted worth. Livingston is not the only Jew to attend a Mass, though. I have attended quite a number of them over the years for one official reason or another.
Every Representative Council President wants to be remembered for some achievement or innovation during his term of office. Some have done very valuable work for the community. Others have left behind them only relief that they have gone.
Livingston introduced the idea of 'key topic' discussions which enabled delegates and members of the community to air their views on things like education, welfare, defence, youth affairs, and the role of the council itself.
He also conceived the admirable idea of inviting the London-based Board of Deputies of British Jews to have one of their meetings in Glasgow in March 1994 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Representative Council. It was the Board's first meeting in Scotland since it was established 234 years earlier. Some of the Londoners seemed to be surprised we northerners did not run about smeared in woad and clad in loincloths.
The guest speaker was Mr Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, who was personally known to many of the delegates and of course to us in Scotland as he came from a well-known Edinburgh family and was a former Secretary of State for Scotland. He's now Foreign Secretary .
Mr Rifkind was having a pleasant Sunday among us when his day was clouded by the resignation of Sir Peter Harding, Chief of the Defence Staff, who had been revealed by the News of the World to have had a torrid romance with Lady Bienvenida Buck, the ex-wife wife of Sir Anthony Buck, a former Defence Minister.
Like Lord Provosts some Representative Council Presidents have more to offer than others. One or two gave me the impression they just liked to sit at the top table in the centre of their executive officers and be looked at by an admiring audience. Their contributions certainly did not add much to the sum total of the world's knowledge.
Many years ago it was suggested I become honorary secretary of the Representative Council and work my way up the hierarchical ladder to the Presidency but there are certain conventions one must obey to be lay leader of the Glasgow Jewish community and I was never very good at obeying rules.
Among them are strict adherence to religious observance, going to synagogue on every Jewish festival, eating only food prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, and taking certain courses of action, not necessarily because they are productive, or even sensible, but because the President of the Representative Council is expected to be seen to be doing something about a given situation whether there is any point in his efforts or not.
On many occasions there isn't. Time after time over the more recent years the President of the Representative Council has been persuaded to issue pronouncements about international events because our community thought this was the right thing to do or because they thought their tiny voices should be heard. I really cannot see that anyone in the international corridors of power gives two hoots about the opinions of even a vociferous ethnic minority in Glasgow. I don't know how anyone can be so naive, or arrogant, to believe otherwise. The campaign for Soviet Jewry was entirely different as it was part of a world-wide campaign which went on for years.
For a time I was chairman of the council's public relations committee but I gave up the post when I quickly discovered that I was the only one actually doing anything while everyone else just talked. The same thing applied to the Media Committee whose function was to monitor the Scottish news media and respond to anything which we thought mistepresented any aspect of Judaism or the policiies and activities of our co-religionists in Israel. No-one on the committee was prepared to buy a large number of newspapers and listen to every radio or television news broadcast so the only thing the committee could decide, after lengthy deliberation, was when to hold the next meeting.
The Jewish community is not an easy one to serve. Golda Meir, a former Prime Minister of Israel, once told a visitor that Israel had three million prime ministers, all of whom thought they could do the job better than she. The Glasgow Jewish community also has experts on every subject, a failing shared with every other Jewish community I have ever known. The less they know about a subject the more expert they are. It is no secret that I am sometimes not a patient man and I don't like to do things merely for the sake of appearances, nor do I like to be told to how to do my job by people who know nothing about it.
It was an event in Russia which brought the Representative Council into existence. A Jew named Mendel Beiliss was put on trial in Kiev in October 1913 for allegedly killing a small boy, Andrew Yushinksy, for the purpose of obtaining from his body blood to be used in Jewish sacrificial rites. The charge was so ludicrous that Jews, and Christians, throughout the world protested to their own political leaders and to the Russian Government.
In Glasgow the Lord Provost and a number of other local politicians signed a protest which was sent by leaders of the Jewish community to the Russian ambassador in London. Beiliss was eventually cleared of the charge against him and as a direct result of the "blood libel" against Beiliss Glasgow Jewish Representative Council was formed in February 1914.
It's ironic to note that in April 1981 when I was working 12 or more hours a day to promote the city of Glasgow I also helped to get Dundee some of the worst publicity in its history. The Labour-controlled city council had created considerable anguish to Jews and non-Jews alike by twinning with the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Nablus, flying the flag of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the City Chambers, and sending Lord Provost James Gowans and councillors Colin Rennie, Ken Fagan, and Ian Mortimer on a 'courtesy visit' to Nablus.
A leader in The Scotsman commented, To take part in a well publicised love-in with the Palestine Liberation Organisation is a strange way for any group of Scottish politicians to behave, even if they all come from Dundee.
The Lord Provost and his colleagues demonstrated their razor-sharp intellect and awareness of the rightness of things by presenting the mayor of Nablus, Mr Bassam al-Shaka, with a bottle of whisky he could not drink because he was a Muslim and a kilt he could not wear because his legs had been amputated after an extremist bomb attack on his car.
One of the prime movers in the "love-in" with the PLO was the young secretary of Dundee Labour Party, Mr George Galloway, who 13 years later as Member of Parliament for Hillhead, Glasgow, created considerably anguish in the Labour Party by going to Baghdad and appearing on Iraqi state television with the butcher of Iraq, Saddam Hussain, to salute his "courage, power, and indefatigability." Mr Galloway was understandably severely reprimanded by chief whip Mr Derek Foster and warned to behave in future.
The flagrant disregard by the city council of the feelings of most of the people of Dundee, and a great many outside it, prompted Glasgow Jewish Representative Council to stage a protest meeting in Dundee. Among the people invited to join the meeting was Mr Greville Janner, Q.C., M.P., who was also President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I wrote a story about the impending visit and sent it to all the major news media.
Mindless vandals chose the day of the visit to cover the walls of Dundee Synagogue with swastikas and other anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slogans, escalating what might have been an ordinary news story into an event of international interest. In the weeks that followed the news media gave wide coverage to Dundee's indiscretions. Among the milder comments about the city was one by Tom Brown in the Daily Express who wrote that Dundee was now the city of jute, journalism and jackasses.
Greville Janner wrote to me later to tell me, Thanks for all you have done and are doing to ensure that the Dundee episode will provide a sufficiently nasty shock to the people concerned, at least to minimise the chance of a repetition elsewhere. I'm glad my Labour masters in Glasgow didn't know what I was doing otherwise my local government career might have been cut dramatically short.
Another event for which I managed to achieve a great deal of publicity was the 50th anniversary in November 1988 of Kristallnacht, night of the broken glass, when the Nazis ran amok in German and Austria and murdered and arrested thousands of Jews. Reporters flocked to a commemorative service organised by Glasgow Jewish Youth Council and hundreds of Jewish homes in the city had lighted candles in memory of their co-religionists who suffered the night of mindless violence and terror when 36 Jews were killed, 40 seriously injured, and 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps, 191 synagogues were set ablaze, 76 demolished and more than 800 Jewish shops and 170 homes were destroyed. I supplied the press with the names and address of several Glasgow people who had survived that terrible night, November 9, 1938.
Although I try not to be obtrusive about it I am one of those people who think that people living in comfort and safety, including my fellow Jews, should not be allowed to forget the things that have happened to our co-religionists over the decades, and even centuries. My own community was by no means the only ethnic community for whom I handled publicity projects. I took the view that it would do my community no harm if a Jew was known to be willing to help others, too, and over the years I helped the Chinese, French and Muslim communities with publicity projects. In November 1986 Bashir Maan, a leader of Glasgow's Muslim community and at the time a district councillor (he is again now) asked me for help in publicising a feat achieved by eight-year-old Jamil Moghul.
Jamil had memorised the 86,430 words of the Koran, the sacred book of Mohammedans, and had successfully passed a test of random passages. My story of his achievement went round the world. Bashir told me later that my story appeared in the newspapers of most Islamic countries, in America, and even in Japan.
The book, written in Arabic, is regarded as the word of God as revealed to the prophet Mahomet through the angel Gabriel. Its various parts were written down from the prophet's lips on dried leaves, bits of leather and whatever else came to hand. Those who could not write memorised the words, which consists of history, legends, prophecies, moral precepts and laws. Only about one per cent of the world's Muslims (the faithful) memorise the Koran these days, Bashir told me.
The histories are chiefly about Old Testament characters and many of the doctrines and laws are the same as those of Judaism or of Christianity. Moses, Jesus, and Mahomet are named as the greatest of the line of prophets sent by God to lead mankind in the path of truth. All of which makes me wonder why there is such hostility between many of the devotees of three of the world's leading religions.
There was one occasion in which I had to turn down a request for my help. In May 1984 the Central Mosque was opened in Glasgow at a cost of £2,750,000, in what was the old Gorbals area and Bashir Maan asked me if I would do some Public Relations work for it.
At that time I was what the news media described as "a leading member of the Jewish community," and as Muslim countries, including Pakistan, did not, and still doesn't, recognise the State of Israel which means so much to people like me I had to decline the invitation.
It's interesting that an ethnic community other than my own had to come to me at all. The reason was that although they had spokesmen these were only called upon by the news media when "something bad" happened in their communities. "Very little of the positive things that happen among us, in cultural, social, communal activities appear in print," said Bashir.
Some years ago I was one of several members of the executive of the Jewish Representative Council who met, at their request, with a number of Asian leaders who were interested in forming a representative council. After the formal talks were over one of our visitors told me, "We can't form an organisation like yours. We would start a war between ourselves over who would be the President."
Nowadays there are a number of Asian journalists among their 150,000-strong community in Scotland but apparently still no-one who can supply the news media with the more positive type of material about the community's activities, a lack which I think is rather sad.