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Who defines a Jew?

by David Edmonds


Here are some of the relevant facts about a landmark legal ruling last week – involving a dispute that illustrates an irresolvable tension within multi-culturalism. 


JFS is a Jewish ‘faith school’ in North London.  It achieves impressive academic results.  Faith schools’ are perfectly legal – indeed, they seem to have been encouraged by this government.  If oversubscribed, as the JFS usually is, faith schools are allowed to favour members of their faith.  There are many Christian and Islamic faith schools.


The legal case involved a boy, ‘M’.  JFS refused M a place because his mother, who was not born Jewish, converted to Judaism in a Progressive synagogue.  This conversion process is not recognized by the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR).  The family of the boy regularly attended Progressive synagogue.  

The Court of Appeal has just ruled that the JFS’s admissions policy contravened the Race Relations Act because of the requirement that for a pupil to qualify for admission “his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or by conversion’.  This, the court said, was a “test of ethnicity”.

Here are a few minor comments about this case.


·        Most parents send their children to faith schools not because of their religious teachings but because of their exam results.  Faith schools encourage almost comical levels of hypocrisy – with parents attending services and feigning a set of beliefs, to boost the prospects of their child earning a place.


·         It’s not at all clear why the secular population should have to subsidize indoctrination by the major religious denominations.  JFS is a state school and is supported by tax payers’ money;

·         This ruling will rightly make all faith schools anxious – because it holds out the threat that all their admissions’ procedures will be subject to closer scrutiny.

But there is a much more interesting point here.  We live in a Christian country, with an established church and Bishops who sit in the House of Lords.  In the end, the court’s judgement reflects this: it smuggles in a Christian conception of religion.

According to the OCR you are Jewish if you convert according to the rules laid down by the OCR or if your mother was Jewish, and your mother counts as Jewish if she herself was born to a Jewish mother, or if she converted according to the rules laid down by the OCR.  So, incidentally, the son of, say, a Sudanese or Indian woman, who converted to Judaism, would himself be Jewish.  Judaism has always used this matrilineal test. 

I think faith schools are sectarian and divisive.  If they have to exist, then the criterion for admission should be religious observance – attendance at church, mosque, synagogue etc.; so to that extent I’m with the court.  But this conception of religion is not itself independent of religion.   It accords with Christian principles but is contradictory to the Jewish definition of faith.  So, in answering the question, ‘Who is Jewish’, the court is claiming authority over the Chief Rabbi’s office  and applying a non-Jewish definition of Jewishness – which seems very odd. 

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1 Comment on this post

  1. What’s a Jew? It is a question with many functions. One function has to do with who gets to become an Israeli under the “law of the return”. The Orthodox Jews insist that you can’t be a Jew unless you are the child of a Jewish mother or a become a Jew by proper conversion. The fight in Israel is over who (which version of Judaism) gets to determine who is a Jew? Another function is to determine who the enemy is. For the Nazis, a Jew was a Jew by race (inheritance), and for a while they treated “part-Jews (Mischlinge) differently from whole Jews for the purpose of degree of persecution. Not for long.

    The Jewish mother connection is practical. One never really knows who the father was. But the argument for it biblically is convoluted. In Exodus you find people coming into the tribe of the “children of Israel” through the father, where the mother is not of the line of Jacob. Yes, there is a distinction between the children of Abraham and the subset called the children of his grandson, Jacob (Israel). It gets sillier as one goes on toward Ezra/Nehemiah and then reads the prophets’ discussion of who gets the protection of the Abrahamic god.

    In this case, the function of the decision about who is a Jew has a different function, although similar to the question having to do with admission to Israel under the law of return. The argument that this was discrimination on account of race is nonsense. There is no genetic alteration caused by a conversion ceremony. As to ethnicity, an anthropological term, sometimes politely used instead of race, this is a cultural distinction that seems to merit more study, but doesn’t suddenly kick in when a mother goes through a conversion ceremony. The child’s culture depends on how the child is raised and the child’s cultural references, e.g. with respect to the relevant ethical and etiquette norms that govern behavior. The discrimination in this case is a kind of negative enforcement of the rules of a particular branch of Judaism that holds that only it’s ceremonies are valid in the sight of the Hebrew God for the purpose of bringing one into the select tribe. Call it tribalism. But there is no law or norm against tribal distinctions or cultural distinctions being made, especially if they serve a rational purpose. The rational purpose of the discriminator here was to retain the purity of a tradition that the discriminator was trying to make part of the personality of the students.

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