UK Jews weigh fight after court ruling on ‘Who is a Jew'

"Case had nothing to do with denominations or conversions,” Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote in London Jewish Chronicle.

sacks 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
sacks 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])

LONDON - To fight or not to fight?

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

The ruling, which said that state-funded Jewish schools may notaward places on the basis of whether a student’s parent is Jewishbecause it contravenes Britain’s Race Relations Act, went beyondforcing an expansion of admissions criteria to children whose Jewishidentity is a matter of dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

By detaching Jewishness from Jewish legal criteria, whether Orthodoxor Reform, it opened up the possibility that non-Jews could qualify foradmission. It also introduced the idea that the government, rather thanJewish 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, wrotein the London Jewish Chronicle. “It focused on one simple fact: thatJewish identity is -- conversions aside -- conferred by birth, by themother, or in the case of liberal Judaism, by the father if the motheris 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 overexactly how to respond, exposing deep fault lines in the community andfueling Britain’s “Who is a Jew?” debate.

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

“We were deeply concerned that a change in legislation is not beingactively 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-oldboy, identified in court papers as “M,” whose father is Jewish andwhose mother is a convert to Judaism through the Reform movement.

The boy applied to the state-supported JFS school, a flagship ofNorth London’s Jewish community founded in 1732 as the Jews’ FreeSchool. The school, which has about 1,900 students, rejected M on thegrounds that he was not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law,which traditionally holds that only those born to a Jewish mother or awoman 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 givepreference to applicants from their own faiths using criteria set by adesignated religious authority.

But M’s family sued, saying the school had discriminated againsthim. The family lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court ofAppeals.

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

The decision has left British Jews divided.

On one side are the Orthodox, who advocated early intervention byseeking an amendment to legislation that effectively would nullify thecourt’s decision and re-establish halachah -- and with it, the primacyof British Orthodoxy – as the determining criterion for schooladmission.

On the other side are representatives from non-Orthodox Jewishmovements, who said they would support a change in legislation only iftheir converts henceforth would be accepted into mainstream Orthodoxschools. These representatives were pleased that the court rulingstruck a blow against Orthodox dominance of religious matters even asthey were alarmed by the government’s level of meddling in internalJewish religious matters.

To articulate a unified Jewish response to the ruling, the Board ofDeputies established a community consultative committee comprised ofrepresentatives from the various denominations, with the exception ofthe ultra-Orthodox, or haredim. Haredim generally attend Jewish schoolsthat 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 clearthat the vast majority of the community would rather see how theSupreme Court judgment impacts on their activities and then considerwhat kind of amendment we need rather than rush into it,” said Board ofDeputies President Vivian Wineman. “Everyone felt it sensible to wait.”

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

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

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

Sacks, who is Orthodox, warned that the ruling defined anydistinction between Jew and non-Jew as discriminatory, which is aproblem for all Jews, regardless of denomination or position onconversions.

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

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

But Jewish groups in Britain remain concernedthat the ruling, which forces schools to consider applicants’ Jewishpractice rather than their halachic status as Jews, might stigmatizeJudaism as a discriminatory religion anytime schools give preference tothose who are Jewish according to Jewish law.

Meanwhile, some Orthodox leaders criticized members of their ownmovement for refusing to work with non-Orthodox leaders to find aremedy to Britain’s “Who is a Jew” problem so the community couldpresent a united front against the bigger problem of governmentintrusion into the Jewish religious sphere.

“What needs to happen now is that rabbis and lay leaders across thedenominations work together in addressing new realities and furtheringthe interest of the community as a whole,” Rabbis Michael Harris andNaftali Brawer, the vice-chairmen of the rabbinical council of theUnited 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 madesome major adjustments to their admissions criteria. The criteria nowfocus on requiring applicants to demonstrate participation infaith-based activities, such as synagogue attendance -- something Sackscharacterized as “a Christian solution for a Jewish school.”