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.
It is unclear what effect the ruling, if it is upheld, will have on other religious schools. Some Catholic schools, accustomed to using baptism as a baseline admissions criterion, are worried that they will have to adopt similar practice tests.
“How dare they question our beliefs and our Jewishness?” David Lightman, an observant Jewish father whose daughter was also denied a place at the school because it did not recognize her mother’s conversion, told reporters recently. “I find it offensive and very upsetting.”
The title is tongue-in-cheek, as the Church of England, a Protestant denomination (unless you talk to some obstinate Anglo-Catholics), is the established church of England. My point though is that the British authorities seem to be enforcing a Protestant understanding of religious identity, in fact, a specifically dissenting Protestant conception of religious identity, that what you believe & confess is what “counts”. This is of course not something which is widely agreed upon, and in fact, implicitly it is probably a minority viewpoint, even in other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. Within Judaism the historical tradition for the past 2,000 years has been upon the necessity of matrilineal descent, or, conversion. Judaism is understood as a nation as well as a religion. The British authorities seem intent on rewriting this understanding, and by doing so are imposing a very sectarian Christian understanding of the nature of religious identity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s what’s going on.
And these sorts of issues are why the concept of religious “neutrality” is simply incoherent. By the act of definition and demarcation one is engaging in an act of discrimination and preference.