LONDON - 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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”