Who is a Jew? (Do you want your government to answer that?)

Last week, a British Court of Appeals ruled that an individual’s Jewish beliefs, not birth or conversion, determines Jewishness, and that to deny a child admission to a Jewish school due to the circumstances of his birth is racism. This was in response to a British court case in which the parent of a child was denied admission to JFS (formerly known as the Jews Free School), a publicly-funded Jewish school, because his mother’s conversion to Judaism was through an independent progressive synagogue that the Orthodox United Synagogue didn’t recognize. This is the second time that the case has been heard. JFS has said that it will appeal the case to the House of Lords, which functions like the US Supreme Court in being Britain’s court of last appeal.

If the appeals court decision stands, the 97 Jewish schools in Britain, all of which are Orthodox, will have to create new criteria to determine who is eligible for admission into Jewish day schools. A spokesperson from the British Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the United Jewish Communities in the US) told Haaretz that Jewish schools could be compelled to use “faith tests” similar to those done by publically-funded church schools in Britain. These faith tests could include home visits and attendance checks at the local synagogue. I can envision it now, desecrate the Sabbath, get kicked out of school!

Rabbi Tony Bayfield of the Movement for Reform Judaism in Britain strongly disagreed with the JFS admission policy, but said he was “extremely worried about the state interfering in our right as a Jewish community to define for ourselves who is a Jew,” the Forward reported July 8. Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive of the Liberal Movement, however, welcomed the ruling, because his movement contends that Judaism is transmitted by identity and upbringing.

This case is also a disaster because a child is being denied the opportunity for a first-rate Jewish and secular education. The JFS admissions policy did not even consider what was in the best interest of the child and should not have rejected the child for admission based on his mother’s conversion in the first place, and the case should never have been necessary. The father who brought the case has spoken anonymously in the Jewish Chronicle:

My son has very much wanted to go to JFS throughout. It is much better suited to his Jewish beliefs, commitments, involvement and needs, as well as his academic ability. It has been difficult to be kept from the school and culture best suited to him when others he knows have been freely admitted. He cannot wear his kippah, for example, at his present school because of teasing and the absence of Jewish pupils. He has to his credit made the best of it and never disparages the school, for which I am grateful.

He still very much wants to go to JFS and is hoping to start soon. He has been extremely patient and I fully support him. There is no other way for him to receive the Jewish secondary education he wants.

At the same time, this is the first time in the 350 years since Britain readmitted the Jewish people that the government has involved itself in Jewish communal matters. If the case stands, the British government will be put into a position to decide who is a Jew. This seems like both an abridgement of religious freedom in Britain, and a potentially divisive issue in the Jewish community. It certainly has been divisive in the State of Israel, where the rabbinical courts first refused to recognize non-Orthodox conversions and then rejected conversions by Orthodox batei din (religious courts) in the Diaspora that they didn’t like. In a recent case, ultra-Orthodox rabbis on the high rabbinical court in Israel attempted to reject wholesale conversions from Israel’s own (Orthodox) conversion authority. According to Jewish law, Jewish people are supposed to accept converts, wholly and fully, without questions. The last thing the Jewish people needs is yet another government in a position to argue over who is a Jew.

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3 thoughts on “Who is a Jew? (Do you want your government to answer that?)

  1. I don’t know how I feel about this at all! On the one hand, I firmly believe that to deny a child access to a Jewish education based on a narrow definition of “Jewishness” is wrong and fundamentally against the spirit of Judaism, I don’t know how I feel about the government getting involved in this case!

    For me, it’s odd that anyone who wants a religious education would be denied it. Don’t we want to increase the number of people participating in our way of life?

  2. Sharon,
    I can agree that any Jewish denomination has the right to be autonomous over their own communities. I wrote this because I really feel that they are missing the bigger picture of engagement and the fact that they let this situation get so as to have forced the government’s hand is crazy.
    Robin
    - Network Director

  3. The complexities of the “Who is a Jew?” question are difficult to avoid. On the one hand, the Reform movement’s belief that Judaism is primarily a religious choice affirms conversion and active involvement in religious life. On the other hand, the refusal to acknowledge born-but-not-raised Jews or secular Jews as “really Jewish” negates the experience of culturally-identified Jews. Orthodox and Conservative Jews recognize matrilineal descent, with or without religious training (as far as I know, so do Reconstructionists), but reject patrilineal descent even WITH a religious upbringing. Secular Jewish Humanists seem to believe a Jewish identity is primarily cultural (at the end of the day, without cultural exposure it’s hard to connect with Judaism so I tend to agree with that perspective.) Obviously there are many secular people who consider themselves Jewish.

    If Jews can’t agree, how can a court decide?

    Why would anyone who wants to encourage Jewish continuity vote to keep a child out of a religious school?

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