In a narrow decision by the UK Supreme Court, an Orthodox school in London has been ruled in violation of the country's race-relations law for refusing admission to the son of a non-Orthodox convert. "The judges knew they were handling a hot potato," comments the author of a 2008 report on the future of Jewish schools in the UK, who reads the decision as an open invitation to Parliament to revisit and re-write a defective law. But alarm bells have been ringing loudly in the Jewish community ever since the case started its way through the lower courts; the columnist Melanie Phillips sees dire implications.
Behind the core issue in the decision lies a truly venerable trail of disputation. Are the Jews a religion, or a people? Although the biblical answer—they are both—could not be clearer, the sharper edges of this issue have been debated for centuries, especially in the European context where it formed a perennial crux for societies contemplating a grant of citizenship to their Jews. In England, as Michael Clark illuminates in a study of the first Jewish Members of Parliament, the nature of Anglo-Jewish identity remained ambiguous well into the late Victorian period.
According to the UK race-relations act, discrimination by religious institutions on religious grounds is acceptable; not so, discrimination on ethnic grounds. In the court's judgment, since religious status in Jewish law is defined not through tests of faith but through descent or conversion, the Orthodox school, by adhering to the traditional definition in its admissions procedures, was applying an "ethnic" and hence inadmissible criterion.
Triggering the court case was the fact that the child's mother had been converted to Judaism through the Conservative (Masorti) movement, whose procedures are not accepted by the office of the Orthodox chief rabbi. Thus, inevitably if needlessly, did matrilineal descent become another lump of contention in the legal and media stew. Here American Jews may feel on familiar ground, at least since the controversy aroused by the 1983 decision of the Reform movement to revise millennia-old understandings and accept the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as a Jew. On this issue, Alexander Schindler and Lawrence Schiffman present opposing sides; Meir Soloveichik takes a fresh look.
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