Sunday, 6 July 2008

Licensed to discriminate: Jewish school wins controversial court case

The JFS, a Jewish school in North London, has just won a significant court case over admissions. They'd refused a place to an 11-year-old boy, because they didn't consider him to be Jewish, even though he'd been brought up and raised in the religion. The father took the school to court on the grounds of racial discrimination, and has just lost.

I think this is a very significant case, which people outside the Jewish community need to pay attention to. It throws up some very major questions about the relationship between the State and all kinds of religious groups.

A bit of background. There are around 250,000 Jews in Britain, and the majority belong to Orthodox Judaism. The other main group, Progressive Judaism (which splits into Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism), is still a pretty significant denomination, with about 50,000 members. Orthodox Judaism is in a dominant position, however, because it runs most of the key institutions, like the religious courts and the office of Chief Rabbi.

Orthodox Judaism generally cooperates fairly well with the two Progressive movements, but there's one big area where they can't agree: people converting to the faith. If you convert to Orthodox Judaism, you're recognised as a Jew by everyone, no problems. But if you convert to Progressive Judaism, the Orthodox community won't accept you as a Jew.

It's this little theological spat which has landed the JFS comprehensive in the dock. The boy's mother had converted to Judaism, but in a Progressive community. From the Orthodox perspective, she's not Jewish at all, and therefore her son isn't either. That's why the school wouldn't accept him, and that's why this whole argument has ended up rather messily in court.

I have some sympathy for Justice Munby, who made the ruling. A British secular court isn't the place to decide religious questions like "who is a Jew?". I'm sure he just wanted to get the issue out of his courtroom, and pass it back over to the community. What he's actually done is handed total control over Jewish status to one particular, theologically very conservative Jewish denomination. So perversely, whilst trying to avoid making a religious decision, the judge has come down on the side of one main Jewish group, to the exclusion of the other one.

If you're going to have state-funded Jewish schools, they ought to be open to anyone who practises the Jewish religion, in any of the Jewish denominations. I'm really uncomfortable with a movement that represents 80% of British Jews being able to force its views on the other 20%, and to hijack state funding away from members of Progressive communities. I'm even more worried to see this happen with judicial approval. It sets a very dangerous precedent, and people of all religions and none should take notice.


ben rich said...

You're right to highlight this case and I agree with your analysis although you're wrong on one or two of the facts. The combined progressive movements represent over a third of British affiliated Jewry as against 55% United Synagogues, the rest being Haredi etc. In this case the mum was an Israeli ORTHODOX convert not a reform one and the Chief Rabbi even chose to reject her, although that doesn't make your point any less valid.

Fortunately the next Jewish state secondary school to come on stream - JCoSS - to open in Sept 2010, will be cross-communal, recognising as Jewish anyone seen as Jewish by any mainstream Jewish movement - for more check out

Jonny Wright said...

Cheers Ben -

Are you sure about that? Check out the link from the Jewish Chronicle; it says that the boy's mother was a Progressive convert:

Jewish Chronicle article

Do you have any figures for the membership of the progressive movements in the UK? I had real trouble finding the numbers, but came across a figure of about 40,000 registered members for Reform, and about 10,000 for Liberal - but I'm not all that confident of them, so if you have more accurate figures I'd be happy to update the article.

James Schneider said...

No Jonny. If we're going to permit (fund) faith schools they must be non descriminatory. If a Hindu wanted to go to JFS, for what ever reason, there should be no impediment. Its a ghettoising system which inculcates and discriminates.

Tristan said...

Simple solution - remove state funding of all schools...
(actually not so simple since we need to reform the economic and political systems to remove state granted privilige)

Until then, we should seek to allow schools to run themselves, in which case discrimination will occur. However we would also have the ability to set up schools easily (in a home, a synagogue, mosque or church, anywhere really)

brad said...

Hello - Considering this weeks cover of The New Yorker magazine, (Obama as the devout Muslim, despite his professed adherence to, and roots in Christianity), the timing of this court decision is almost ethereal.
I'm no expert on the subject, but the concept of religious lineage/validation based on matriarchy is not entirely foreign.
Are we seeing lines being drawn here that cross the boundaries of established western social doctrine?
As a fellow blogger, I'd suggest keeping your eyes open for another reference to a landmark decision in the media to a racially, ethnically, or religion based legal decision outside the norm. -after all, "Good things always come in threes".
(Or was that bad things?)

NUR said...

It is an extremelly sad and backwards thing anyway to deny a child who was brought up as Jewish the chance for a Jewish education. Even if one of the parents only is Jewish... It is even more shameful and extremelly sad that a British court has done nothing to prevent this from happening, in an attempt to keep its hands 'clean'.

It is the responsibilty of this country to avoid and penalise such obvious and appaling discrimination. One would expect in the 21st century from a school to embrace a child's choice. It is extraordinary that the child's rights and choices are ignored and cruely rejected because of elitistic and discriminatory views rooted in a community who manages to get away with it. In all honesty, as a Jewish person myself, it makes me sick...