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.