We Jews cannot have it both ways

We Jews cannot have it b

"Scarcely believable," "shocking story," "mind-boggling," "astonishing," "unbelievable infringement." These are just a selection of the phrases incorporated by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach into his literary onslaught ( "The British determine who is a Jew?!," November 10) against the British judicial system following last summer's ruling by the Court of Appeal in London in the case of the child known as "M." Boteach may be learned in Orthodox Jewish law. But his diatribe, while exuding a great deal of heat, shed very little light on the issues involved and did, I regret to say, reveal an inability - or perhaps unwillingness - to interpret these issues correctly and in context. "M" is the child of an halachicly Jewish father and a mother who had undergone a non-Orthodox conversion. The father applied for his son to be admitted to the Jews' Free School (JFS), an extremely prestigious and heavily oversubscribed taxpayer-aided "faith" school in north London. The United Synagogue's chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, refused the application on the ground that he - Jonathan Sacks - did not regard the mother as Jewish. The Court of Appeal ruled that, in so doing, he and the school breached the 1976 Race Relations Act, the protection of which Jews enjoy by virtue of having long ago been categorized as an ethnic group entitled to its protection. Quite simply, in refusing "M" a place at the school, Sacks (said the Court of Appeal) relied on an investigation of "M's" parental descent, rather than on a judgment of his - or his parents' - religious practice. "M" was, therefore, the victim of ethnic (and not religious) prejudice. The 1976 Race Relations Act has been of immense benefit to Britain's Jewish communities, enabling British Jews to bring successful actions against, for example, employers who refuse for whatever reason to employ persons of Jewish identity. But we Jews cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that we will invoke the act when it suits us, but when it doesn't, demand the right to ignore it and to be shielded from the penalties it invokes. THE CENTRAL question for the Supreme Court (to which the JFS and Sacks have appealed against the Appeal Court's ruling) is whether, in denying "M" a place because of the fact that he is his mother's son, the 1976 act was in fact breached. It may interest Boteach to know that immediately after the Appeal Court had delivered its (entirely predictable) verdict, Sacks issued a statement in which he declared that "the principles underlying membership of the Jewish faith... have nothing to do with race and everything to do with religion. Ethnicity is irrelevant to Jewish identity." And in a confidential briefing paper for the media, his office insisted that "any person of any ethnic origin can convert to Judaism and, once converted, a person is Jewish." Boteach may care to ask himself this: If being Jewish has nothing to do with race and everything to do with religion, why was Sacks the slightest bit interested in "M's" mother? "M" now attends a Masorti synagogue. The lawyer speaking on behalf of Sacks argued before the Supreme Court that although it may well be true (as it certainly is) that the rabbinical authorities of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues regard "M" as Jewish, the criteria Masorti Judaism chooses to apply are not those of Orthodox Judaism. Indeed the lawyer speaking for the United Synagogue went further, asserting that "the different denominations of Judaism are... separate religions." But "M's" counsel answered this by presenting to the Supreme Court a document, signed by Sacks personally in 1994, certifying the St. Albans Masorti synagogue as "a congregation of persons professing the Jewish religion." Perhaps Boteach can enlighten us as to why, if Masorti Judaism is a religion "separate" from Orthodox Judaism, such certification was ever given. Although "M" and his father "E" brought the original action against the JFS and Sacks, they were in fact joined in the action by Mr. and Mrs. David Lightman, who were married in an Orthodox synagogue in New York. Mrs. Lightman - who teaches at the JFS - had been converted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. Her children are Jewish in Israel but not - if Lord Sacks has his way - in England, because he refuses to recognize this conversion. Can Boteach explain at what precise point on the flight from Tel Aviv to London Mrs. Lightman ceases to be Jewish, and why? Boteach writes passionately about the alleged awesome precedent that the verdict of the Appeal Court represents (if not overturned) in terms of the UK government's "unbelievable infringement in the affairs of a religion... a legal assault on the very integrity of the Jewish religion as practiced in Britain." I can assure him that there are numerous such precedents, ranging from state interference with Jewish marriage laws in the 19th century to regulation of (and interference with) the laws pertaining to shechita (slaughter of food animals) in the 20th. British Jewry - British Orthodox Jewry - has survived them all. Peoplehood may indeed be conveyed via a parent. The Court of Appeal has not said otherwise. It has merely ruled that when considering an applicant for admission to a Jewish faith school, tests can only be applied that relate to religious practice. The haredi schools already do this, of course. Is it too much to ask the "mainstream" Jewish schools to follow suit? The writer is Michael Gross Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham and the author of Modern British Jewry.