A British court has ruled that the fundamental premise of Judaism—that Jews are physical descendants of Abraham—is inherently racist, and that the only determinant of religious membership can be belief. Warns Rabbi Lord Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi:
“An English court has declared this rule racist, and since this is an essential element of Jewish law, it is in effect declaring Judaism racist. To be told now that Judaism is racist is distressing. To confuse religion and race is a mistake.”
In short, the British court imposes non-Jewish criteria on Judaism which, if pursued to their logical conclusion, would erase Judaism as a religion. We are still quite far from that, but this is an attack on the integrity of the Jewish people and their religion without precedent in the postwar period.
What disgusts me the most about this is that Britain’s Reform Jews sought the intervention of the courts with the explicit intent of destroying a foundational principle of Judaism. It is one thing to to argue against tradition; it is quite another to solicit the civil courts to determine that a principle one opposes is “racist.” For this, Britain’s Reform leaders deserve condemnation.
As reported by today’s New York TImes, here are the facts:
“This is potentially the biggest case in the British Jewish community’s modern history,” said Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper here. “It speaks directly to the right of the state to intervene in how a religion operates.”
The case began when a 12-year-old boy, an observant Jew whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a Jewish convert, applied to the school, JFS. Founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School, it is a centerpiece of North London’s Jewish community. It has around 1,900 students, but it gets far more applicants than it accepts.
Britain has nearly 7,000 publicly financed religious schools, representing Judaism as well as the Church of England, Catholicism and Islam, among others. Under a 2006 law, the schools can in busy years give preference to applicants within their own faiths, using criteria laid down by a designated religious authority.
By many standards, the JFS applicant, identified in court papers as “M,” is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew nor was her son. It turned down his application.
That would have been the end of it. But M’s family sued, saying that the school had discriminated against him. They lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal this summer.
In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism whether one’s mother is Jewish was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”
The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.
“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”
The same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin,” the court said.
The trouble is that the UK government pays for more than thirty Jewish schools, and therefore has standing to say who gets in and who doesn’t. It is not clear to me, though, that simply withdrawing from the state system and creating a school system funded entirely with private contributions. Once a legal principal is accepted that the basic premise of the Jewish religion is racist (despite the fact that Israel is full of black Jews), the thin end of the wedge is in. Once a court in a (formerly) civilized country has linked “Judaism” and “racism,” Pandora’s Box is open.
The school has appealed to Britain’s Supreme Court, as the Jewish Chronicle reports from London:
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on the JFS admissions dispute before the end of the year.
In the court’s most high-profile case since it opened last month, nine judges will decide whether Jewish schools can allocate places according to whether a child’s parent is Jewish.
JFS has contested a Court of Appeal decision made on behalf of a boy who had originally been rejected because the Chief Rabbi does not recognise his mother’s non-Orthodox conversion.
The Court of Appeal ruled that using parental descent to decide places is racial discrimination because it is based on ethnic origin but JFS, backed by the United Synagogue, says this is a question of religious status, not race.
Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the British Humanist Association supported the Court of Appeal in submissions made to the Supreme Court.
But the Appeal Court decision was challenged by both the Board of Deputies and the government.
The Board, representing the “cross-denominational interests” of the community “as a whole”, said: “The court should interpret the provisions of the Race Relations Act in a way that does not interfere with the rights of those who belong to a religion to define its own membership test.”
But the court was also made aware of the individual positions of non-Orthodox movements.
In a memo to the Board presented to the court, Reform chairman Stephen Moss explained why it backed the Board’s intervention. “The Movement for Reform Judaism,” he wrote, “regards the wider, long-term implications of a definition of Jewish status based on descent and conversion being labelled ‘racist’ as damaging and potentially disastrous for the Jewish community”.
I do not know what the full implications of this measure are, and will try to obtain better legal opinions. The fact that JFS is a publicly-funded school gives the government more standing than otherwise it would have, although it would seem that the same sort of complaint can be made under American anti-discrimination law.
Judaism has nothing to do with race—there are Jews of every race—but it does have to do with family. Jews are members of Abraham’s family. Not only tradition, but a great deal of DNA evidence support this claim. To insist that Jews adopt the criterion of “belief” for membership is to rule that God must act in accordance with a human court’s notion of the permissible range of God’s behavior. No wonder the Reform Jews and the British Humanist Association support this.
It will be interesting to see how Christians respond to this. Some Christians, to be sure, rankle at the idea that the election of Abraham’s family continued after the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and will watch the proceedings with silent satisfaction—I can imagine the grin on the face of Bishop N.T. Wright, for example. Others will observe that salvation for Christians means no more or less than adoption into Israel; it is Israel that is saved, and the individual Christian is saved by the miracle that makes adoption possible (the blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ). If there is no election of Israel to begin with, no miracle is required for the adoption of Christians, and therefore Jesus’ sacrifice was—how to put it?—somewhat less than absolutely necessary.
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