Motions passed at March plenum

Two motions were passed at the Board of Deputies’ March plenum – on the Christchurch massacre and the Sydney Beth Din.

CHRISTCHURCH MASSACRE

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies plenum:
1. Expresses its horror and revulsion at the massacre of 50 innocent people, and the injuring and traumatising of many others, while they were at prayer at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March 2019.
2. Condemns utterly this wanton act of terrorism and mass murder and the ideology of racial supremacism associated with it.
3. Sends its heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathies to the victims, their families, all people of the Muslim faith in New Zealand, Australia & elsewhere, and the citizens and government of New Zealand.
4. Joins with other faith communities and people of goodwill in both our countries, in uniting for mutual respect and understanding and peace between us all, whatever our ethnic, religious and political beliefs and differences.
5. Commends the Prime Minister of New Zealand for her exemplary leadership in these terrible circumstances, for her government’s prompt action on gun control, social media and the monitoring of extremists of all ideological or religious backgrounds;
6. Commends the Prime Minister of New Zealand for her ground-breaking initiative for a national leader, of declaring that the perpetrator should not be named by her, her government or by implication by others in future, so that he cannot gain the notoriety and celebrity he craves;
7. Resolves to follow the lead of the Prime Minister of New Zealand in this regard, and to remember and refer only to the victims by name, not the person who took their lives.
Passed unanimously.

SYDNEY BETH DIN

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (the Board) notes the judgments recently delivered by the Supreme Court of NSW and the Court of Appeal of NSW concerning the Sydney Beth Din (SBD)*. These judgments arose as a result of an alleged commercial dispute between two corporations, the principals of which are observant Jews. The findings of misconduct against the SBD are of particular concern to the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, whose constitution charges it with the responsibility to “ensure and safeguard the religious, political, economic, civil and cultural rights, status and interests of Jews resident in New South Wales.”
The Board:

1. Expresses its deep concern about the defects in the ownership structure, governance, mechanisms of accountability and dispute-resolution processes of the SBD which were the subject of detailed findings by Justice Sackar in the Supreme Court proceedings, which findings were not disturbed by the Court of Appeal and included the following:

• The SBD is a private partnership. “As at 1 January 2015, the ASIC records indicate only Rabbi Gutnick and Rabbi Ulman are the partners of the Sydney Beth Din”;
• The SBD “is an organisation that wishes, indeed demands, the respect and reverence from its parishioners and adherents, and yet appears to be a law unto itself”.
• The conduct of the rabbis of the SBD “displays either arrogant disregard of their own procedures and rules of natural justice, substantial ineptitude, or inexperience dealing with commercial disputes”.
• That conduct was “entirely inappropriate for a religious body, or any body, which prides itself on adhering to the principles of natural justice.”

2. Notes further that Justice Sackar refused to accept certain critical aspects of the evidence given by one of the SBD rabbis, and that the majority of judges in the NSW Court of Appeal proceedings, consisting of the Chief Justice of NSW and the President of the NSW Court of Appeal, considered that when that rabbi’s evidence is read in its entirety “it discloses an obstinate refusal to understand the role of the Beth Din and its relationship to the civil law”.

3. Affirms the public statement made by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in relation to these judgments on 30 December 2018 and endorses the public statement and call for reform of the SBD made by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry on 31 December 2018.

4. Notes that Justice Sackar further found that in the context of the alleged commercial dispute:

 Three senior rabbis who acted as judges of the SBD and a fourth rabbi who acted as its Registrar had threatened one of the principals with religious sanctions (not being counted in a minyan, not being called to the Torah during services, not being offered any honour in the synagogue) unless the person submitted to the jurisdiction of the Beth Din;

 The threat impeded the relevant corporation’s unconstrained access to the civil courts and thus had a real tendency to interfere with the administration of justice generally;

 The issuing of the threat therefore amounted to a criminal contempt of court, although the contempt was found not to be “contumacious”.

5. Notes that on appeal to the NSW Court of Appeal, the Chief Justice of NSW and the President of the NSW Court of Appeal largely agreed with the decision at first instance of Justice Sackar, but reduced what they described as the “manifestly excessive” amount of the fines and cost orders imposed on the rabbis by Justice Sackar. The third appeal judge, Justice McColl, delivered a minority dissenting judgment in which Her Honour considered that the conduct was in essence a threat of religious sanctions by a religious body for a religious transgression and therefore did not amount to illegitimate pressure in the circumstances.

6. Notes that the rabbis of the SBD have commenced proceedings seeking special leave to appeal the NSW Court of Appeal decision to the High Court of Australia.

7. Calls on the SBD, and the lay leadership of the Sydney orthodox community, regardless of the outcome of the special leave application or of any appeal to the High Court concerning the issue of criminal contempt, to enact meaningful reform of the SBD as a matter of urgency to remedy its defects as highlighted in the judgments of Justice Sackar and the majority of the Court of Appeal.

8. Resolves to review the matter as soon as the special leave application and any appeal to the High Court has been decided, or if necessary sooner, subject to the agreement of the plenum, set up an ad hoc committee, including members of the
lay leadership and congregational rabbis of the Sydney orthodox community who have accepted in principle.
Passed unanimously.

*Live Group Pty Ltd & Anor v Rabbi Ulman and Ors [2018] NSWSC 393 (29 March 2018) and Live Group Pty Ltd and Anor v Rabbi Ulman and Ors [2017] NSWSC 1759 (14 December 2017), as upheld by the NSW Court of Appeal in Ulman v Live Group Pty Ltd [2018] NSWCA 338 (20 December 2018).