Friday, 26 June 2009

JFS: the court got it right

First of all, apologies for not blogging in several months (again). In my defence, I had exams, more exams, and then scary pupillage interviews.

Secondly, what I am about to say is very likely to annoy a lot of my fellow Jews who might be reading this. So again, apologies in advance. Take it in the spirit of healthy debate; it's certainly not meant as an attack on Jewish schools or Jewish identity.

But in a nutshell: I think the court got it right this week, when they ruled that a Jewish school's admissions policy was unlawful. Having said that, I'm not quite convinced I agree with their logic; I would come to the same answer for different reasons.

JFS, a Jewish school in London, had refused to admit a boy on the grounds that he "wasn't Jewish". The boy practised the Jewish religion, but from the perspective of orthodox Judaism, that isn't enough. To be considered Jewish, either you must be the child of a Jewish mother, or you must undergo the orthodox Jewish conversion process. The boy's mother had converted to Judaism in a progressive ceremony, not an orthodox one. Through orthodox eyes, this meant that she wasn't really Jewish - and therefore, neither was her son.

The Court of Appeal decided that this was racial discrimination - he was being denied a place because of his parentage. That doesn't entirely ring true, because you don't have to belong to a particular ethnicity to be Jewish. Anyone, of any racial background, can join the Jewish religion, and the worldwide Jewish community is very ethnically diverse.

My real objection to the JFS is that they were applying the orthodox criteria for Jewish status, when they should really have focused on the boy's own religious beliefs. JFS is a publicly-funded Jewish school, and should therefore be prepared to take anyone who practises Judaism, in any branch of the faith, whether orthodox or progressive. Orthodox Jews are quite entitled to decide who can be a member of their synagogues, and take part in their worship. However, no one grouping within British Jewry should have the right to set the legal standard for Jewish status in the British courts.

There is a wider debate about whether we should allow faith schools at all; I don't want to get into that minefield right now. I would simply argue that if we are going to allow schools to prioritise students of a certain religion, the sole criteria should be the student's own religious beliefs, and not the criteria set by a particular religious authority (such as the United Synagogue) - because that would mean giving away control of admissions policy to an unaccountable religious grouping with its own agenda. Admissions policy should be a public matter.

(Incidentally, I blogged about this issue last time it was in the courts a year ago: you can read my original article here.)


Anonymous said...

Sorry Jonny. Faith schools are for people who actually are of the faith, not people who practice the faith "unofficially". Maybe born again Christians can see the light and take Jesus into the hearts without involvement of any organised church, but Judaism is founded on community and constituted as a "people". You don't get to be Jewish wothout being born Jewish or being accepted by the community of Jewry. It does not matter what you happen to believe privately about the Almighty or the sort of worship you indulge in.

There has to be an arbiter who decides who is Jewish and who isn't for practical purposes such as community worship and entry to a Jewish school, because there is a wide spectrum of Jewish groupings and some dispense with so many of the traditional tenets as to call into question whether they practice Judaism. Therefore their "conversions" are not safe.

You will never get a solution to please everyone but where there is a national representative of the faith (Chief Rabbi) his say goes, because he speaks for the mainstream of British Jewry.

I do agree with you that the argument about racism is absurd.

Jonny Wright said...

Just read the full text of the judgement. Interestingly, the court raised the point that if Jewishness is a religious, rather than a racial, criterion, then discrimination against Jews would not be prohibited under the Race Relations Act - which is clearly absurd. I think there may be some merit to this racism argument, on second thoughts.

Allan said...

I also agree with the court's judgement. While I think it's sensible not to restrict the term "Jewish" to Orthodoxy alone, allowing Progressive/Reform converts automatic admission could be risky due to the relatively short duration of their conversion procedures.

However, this case is more complicated as I understand the mother converted in Israel. I further understand that she was not allowed to convert through Orthodox channels for various reasons, hence her progressive conversion. Nevertheless, you are right that the religious beliefs of the child should be the primary concern of the school, and not the Jewish legal status of the parent(s).

Anonymous said...

Jewishness is not strictly a racial issue. The Jewish people are a people, but you can join them if accepted by the community, regardless of ethnicity.

The problem may be that the "faith school" model does not exactly fit Judaism. Jewishness is not about faith (you can be a Jew who doesn't believe in God - I know plenty of those), it is about membership of a community either by maternal descent or absorption on the community's terms.

The racial model fits closer than the religion model so Jews should still be protected under race laws. And my argument about letting the Chief Rabbi decide who is Jewish still works under the "community" model, without need to switch to a religion based interpretation.

Millennium Dome said...

"there is a national representative of the faith (Chief Rabbi) his say goes, because he speaks for the mainstream of British Jewry"

I may be wrong, so please do correct me, but isn't the Chief Rabbi only the head of the orthodox Jewish synagogues, who are in fact a minority, and so he cannot really be said to speak for "mainstream" British Judaism?

And isn't saying that he's the one to decide whether the Orthodox or Reform are right a bit like asking David Cameron to decide whether Labour or Conservative candidates are allowed to contest a seat?

Allan said...

In response to "Millennium Dome", the Chief Rabbi is indeed "only" the head of British Orthodox Jewry. (To be accurate, he's the head of the United Synagogue, which is the biggest Orthodox organisation in terms of membership.) Specifically, he represents "Modern Orthodox" Jews, as opposed to strictly Orthodox/Hasidic/Charedi Jews.

I'm not sure if the membership of the United Synagogue represents a majority or a minority of British Jews, but it is certainly the biggest and, therefore, the most representative Jewish religious organisation in the country.

Jonny Wright said...

If I remember my stats right, Orthodox Jews are the overwhelming majority in the UK, although they're in the minority worldwide (particularly in the USA).

Allan said...

Johnny, I accept that Orthodox Jews represent the vast majority of British Jewry, but I'm not how many of them are US-affiliated. The ultra-Orthodox community is growing at a much faster rate than the Modern Orthodox community (mostly due to much higher birth rates and lower emigration rates) so I doubt the US has the same mandate it did, say, 20 years ago.

N.B.: By "US", above, I mean the United Synagogue, not the United States ;)

Fiona said...

great to see this discussion. I agree with lots of this. They didn't look at all at the 'quality of the conversion' and at whether JFS should accept reform/liberal conversions, which they should have. By the way was it tried by a panel? Were any of the judges Jewish? Were Jewish judges specifically excluded from looking at this? It's very interesting altogether.

earnest said...

I totally agree with the judgment. A State funded school should be based on religious practise rather than on criteria of the United Synagogue, an unrepresentative body which does not speak for Anglo-Jewry. Denying a boy of 11 from receiving a state education because he is not the right kind of Jew is totally unacceptable.The US has shot itself in the foot over this case, their control over the State school system is coming to an end.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interview about it.

The Chief Rabbi is merely Head of the United Synagogue. Nobody votes for him. Most Jews don't agree with him either, not even Orthodox Jews. The real issue is how do we define Jewishness for schools. The Orthodox definition seems to be flawed as far as the law is concerned, so what about redefining it? Perhaps you should have to have a letter from a Rabbi - any Orthodox Rabbi should do.

The issue is that many people want their kids to marry in. They don't want to do anything about it cos that's not interesting to them, so they sub-contract the marrying-in brainwashing to schools (this is incidentally why so many Jewish schools have crap Jewish education and turn off their kids). And of course it presupposes the idea that you meet and marry the person you love at school. Perhaps we should have Jewish universities!!

Allan said...

In response to Anonymous, I agree with some of what you said:

1. "The Chief Rabbi is merely Head of the United Synagogue." Correct.
2. "Nobody votes for him." Correct, although he is appointed by a committee.
3. "Most Jews don't agree with him either, not even Orthodox Jews." I don't think you're right there. He's very well respected in the community, in my experience, and while some disagree with him, he remains the leading authority for British Jewry.

As for your arguments about marrying-in, I see your point but I don't see what it has to do with this case.

Anonymous said...

He's well respected cos the US paid Parliament to vote through a bill in the 1870s which gives him status. The problem is that he speaks very well but fails to stand up for his own constituency, and so many people will admire the man's intellect but find him hypocritical in his actions in supporting far-right religious outlooks which he has sold out to. Witness the attacks both from the right and left wing, and within his own grouping.

As for the marrying-in argument, it is a constant refrain even from the most irreligious. The real reason why there are Jewish schools (for many people's purposes) is

1 to make sure their kids marry in DESPITE the parents' lifestyles / beliefs, and

2 to avoid their having to be in local comps with growing Muslim and other "undesirable" populations.

Schools like JFS are largely a contracting-out on the part of parents of their duties of giving their children a religious upbringing. That is why they boast on their website of the lack of religious practice and belief of their kids, and why they have come such a cropper in the courts.

Perhaps it's time people looked a little more carefully at Jewish education and the "do nothing" culture it has spawned in our community.