British Jews weigh fight after court ruling on ‘Who is a Jew’

State-funded Jewish schools may not award places on the basis of whether a student's parent is Jewish, Britain's Supreme Court ruled. (Board of Deputies of British Jews)

State-funded Jewish schools may not award places on the basis of whether a student’s parent is Jewish, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled. (Board of Deputies of British Jews)

LONDON (JTA) — To fight or not to fight?

That question has bitterly divided the Jewish community in Britain following the Supreme Court ruling a month-and-a-half ago striking down a Jewish school’s policy of limiting admission to the children of Jewish mothers.

The ruling, which said that state-funded Jewish schools may not award places on the basis of whether a student’s parent is Jewish because it contravenes Britain’s Race Relations Act, went beyond forcing an expansion of admissions criteria to children whose Jewish identity is a matter of dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

By detaching Jewishness from Jewish legal criteria, whether Orthodox or Reform, it opened up the possibility that non-Jews could qualify for admission. It also introduced the idea that the government, rather than Jewish religious authorities, can determine who is Jewish in Britain.

“This case had nothing to do with denominations or conversions,” Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote in the London Jewish Chronicle. “It focused on one simple fact: that Jewish identity is — conversions aside — conferred by birth, by the mother, or in the case of liberal Judaism, by the father if the mother is not Jewish.”

The court decision in mid-December struck down those interpretations of Jewish identity and introduced its own, Sacks said.

British Jews across the denominational spectrum have viewed the ruling with alarm as government intrusion into religion.

But a bitter debate has erupted within the Jewish community over exactly how to respond, exposing deep fault lines in the community and fueling Britain’s “Who is a Jew?” debate.

For now, the umbrella organization for British Jewry, the Board of Deputies, has decided to take a wait-and-see approach on how the ruling will play out. Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements here have praised the stance, but Orthodox leaders remain unsatisfied by the process.

“We were deeply concerned that a change in legislation is not being actively pursued,” said the rabbinical council of the United Synagogue, Britain’s mainstream Orthodox movement.

The debate started with the case of a Jewishly observant 12-year-old boy, identified in court papers as “M,” whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a convert to Judaism through the Reform movement.

The boy applied to the state-supported JFS school, a flagship of North London’s Jewish community founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School. The school, which has about 1,900 students, rejected M on the grounds that he was not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law, which traditionally holds that only those born to a Jewish mother or a woman who converted to Orthodox Judaism can be considered Jewish.

Britain has nearly 7,000 state-supported parochial schools, including some 50 Jewish schools. Under the law, schools can give preference to applicants from their own faiths using criteria set by a designated religious authority.

But M’s family sued, saying the school had discriminated against him. The family lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals.

Ultimately the case reached Britain’s newly created Supreme Court, which ratified the Appeals Court decision in a 5-4 ruling, saying that basing school admission on whether one’s mother is Jewish is by definition discriminatory and in violation of the 1976 Race Relations Act.

The decision has left British Jews divided.

On one side are the Orthodox, who advocated early intervention by seeking an amendment to legislation that effectively would nullify the court’s decision and re-establish halachah — and with it, the primacy of British Orthodoxy – as the determining criterion for school admission.

On the other side are representatives from non-Orthodox Jewish movements, who said they would support a change in legislation only if their converts henceforth would be accepted into mainstream Orthodox schools. These representatives were pleased that the court ruling struck a blow against Orthodox dominance of religious matters even as they were alarmed by the government’s level of meddling in internal Jewish religious matters.

To articulate a unified Jewish response to the ruling, the Board of Deputies established a community consultative committee comprised of representatives from the various denominations, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim. Haredim generally attend Jewish schools that do not receive state funds.

The effort to forge a consensus Jewish position failed, however, and a default approach was adopted: wait and see.

“Consultations with synagogue and other leaders had made it clear that the vast majority of the community would rather see how the Supreme Court judgment impacts on their activities and then consider what kind of amendment we need rather than rush into it,” said Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman. “Everyone felt it sensible to wait.”

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform movement, praised the board’s approach as confirming that Britain’s non-Orthodox movements “are now indispensable to consensus” — in other words, on equal footing with the Orthodox movement.

But Rabbi Yitzhak Shochet of the Orthodox United Synagogue accused the non-Orthodox movements of shattering any possibility of consensus by “holding us to ransom in this matter to only agree to a change of legislation on condition that we do not revert to the status quo ante.”

Meanwhile, Jews in Britain remain concerned that the government is interfering on the question of Jewish identity. They are worried, too, that the ruling means the state views Judaism as somehow being discriminatory.

Sacks, who is Orthodox, warned that the ruling defined any distinction between Jew and non-Jew as discriminatory, which is a problem for all Jews, regardless of denomination or position on conversions.

“Any discrimination, regardless of motive, between Jew and non-Jew, unless specifically exempted by law, has now been held to contravene the 1976 Race Relations Act,” he wrote in the Chronicle.

The president of the court, Nicholas Phillips, said in announcing the verdict in mid-December that it did not mean that those responsible for the school’s admissions policy had acted in a way that was “racist as that word is generally understood.”

But Jewish groups in Britain remain concerned that the ruling, which forces schools to consider applicants’ Jewish practice rather than their halachic status as Jews, might stigmatize Judaism as a discriminatory religion anytime schools give preference to those who are Jewish according to Jewish law.

Meanwhile, some Orthodox leaders criticized members of their own movement for refusing to work with non-Orthodox leaders to find a remedy to Britain’s “Who is a Jew” problem so the community could present a united front against the bigger problem of government intrusion into the Jewish religious sphere.

“What needs to happen now is that rabbis and lay leaders across the denominations work together in addressing new realities and furthering the interest of the community as a whole,” Rabbis Michael Harris and Naftali Brawer, the vice-chairmen of the rabbinical council of the United Synagogue, wrote in the Jewish Chronicle.

They called on “all denominations” to work together to reverse the Supreme Court’s judgment through a change in the law.

In the meantime, JFS and other state-funded Jewish schools have made some major adjustments to their admissions criteria. The criteria now focus on requiring applicants to demonstrate participation in faith-based activities, such as synagogue attendance — something Sacks characterized as “a Christian solution for a Jewish school.”

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