Thursday, 16 July 2009

So, who exactly is a Jew, anyway? (UK version)

Not in Israel, mind; with Rabbis revoking the conversion status of immigrants ill-advised enough to stand in the way - literally and figuratively - of well connected Rabbis, I suspect that this is what Father Jack describes as an ecumenical matter...

(nb: If you are not familiar with Father Ted, I beseech you, please seek it out. I think even Voltaire would have been proud of its cleric-baiting credentials)

...but more to do with the recent ruling of the British Court of Appeal concerning the admissions policy of the Jews' Free School.

It isn't a straightforward matter, involving - as it does - the arcane rules that govern the quasi independence of so-called 'faith schools' in the United Kingdom, schools whom receive funding for their day to day operations from central government but are largely left alone to administer academic and bureaucratic matters as they wish.

Faith schools, whilst forbidden from explicitly excluding applicants because they are not members of the denoted faith, are allowed to set criteria to establish priority if they are over-subscribed; in simple English, this means that if there are more kids clamouring for a place than places actually available, then the school is allowed to put in place tie breakers to decide who gets in and who stays out.

It is an important point because 'Faith' schools are commonly believed to outperform - significantly - secular schools in the state sector. Parents have been known to rediscover generations-dormant piety, to baptise their children in faiths that they have never subscribed to, and to do other (otherwise) outlandish things in order to secure a place in their school of choice.

Church schools usually employ the criteria of giving preference to actively practising Christians, with references from their parish priest and evidence of active participation in church activities required. It is easy work for a determined parent to make mincemeat of this stipulations...

JFS (as it was rebranded a few years ago) - and, I assume, other Jewish 'Faith' schools - falls under the jurisdiction of the British Rabbinate - Orthodox, that is. Their tie-breaker in the case of over-subscription - and JFS is always oversubscribed - takes the halachaic definition of Judaism as the starting point; a child born to a Jewish mother.

A case has been rumbling along omniously lately, concerning a child denied a place at JFS because his mother became Jewish under the auspices of a ceremony not recognised by the Rabbinate - i.e. not an Orthodox ceremony.

(I think that the mother converted to Judaism in the early 1970s, and in Israel, under a reform Rabbi. But I don't remember exactly.)

Anyway, the point is that her son was turned down for a place - or, to be exact, not given the preference that would have secured him a place - because "his mother had converted to Judaism in a procedure not recognised by the Chief Rabbi".

Her husband sued, and after having the case dismissed in the High Court, won the appeal on the grounds that the policy employed - of enforcing the matrilineal definition of Judaism, in conjunction with the recognition of only sanctioned conversions - was discriminatory.

(The whole issue is more complicated than this, fiendlishly so, and this summary is informed more by my knowledge of British school admission law than of Judaism per se - if I've misunderstood anything, please let me know.)

It is also worth noting that the mother of the boy attends Shul regularly.

The ruling has caused a stink. A big one. Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom commented that the ruling brands Judaism as racist, and others have suggested that the ruling could be employed as the starting point for a court-defined definition to that vexatious question...

I must confess to being more than a little puzzled. Looking at it from a personal perspective: As applied up until now, the admissions policy at JFS would give precedence to my son - the child of an agnostic Catholic (don't ask what that means, it'll take too long) and a secular Jew - over the child of an observant, but non-Orthodox Jew.

That doesn't sound completely right.

On the other hand, it isn't for me to even attempt to define what is and what isn't correct when it comes to matters like this. If you have any thoughts, do drop a comment or two. I am genuinely curious...


thebookmistress said...

If your school receives money from the government, then you have no right to use the "level of Judaism" as criteria for admission. Problem solved. If you are oversubscribed, then you can use admission test results, or living in a catchment area, or other objective criteria.

If the government is paying money for X, then it has a right to decide how X operates. Don't want to government to decide who goes to your school? Don't take government money to operate the school.

Goy said...

I agree. However, the British government itself has been remarkably woolly headed on this point, essentially ignoring this point until now...

Religion and State in Israel said...

thanks for the interesting post.

If your readers are interested in the issues of religion and state in Israel, I recommend visiting Religion and State in Israel.

Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.

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Goy said...

Thank you for the link.