Jewish: or just Jew-ish?

Furore over faith school discrimination

The UK's new "Supreme Court" (I'll leave aside my thoughts on the necessity of that) is due to consider whether JFS, formerly the Jewish Free School, in north London, broke race laws by refusing to admit a pupil whom it deemed to be not properly Jewish. The pupil's case is being supported by the JFS's own head of English, Kate Lightman, whose daughter has also been refused entry because the Chief Rabbi's office does not recognise Mrs Lightman as sufficiently Jewish.

This is a big subject in itself, but what caused me to put fingers to keyboard was how Newsnight reported the story last night. Throughout its film, the reporter talked about the question of being Jewish -- when in fact the issue at stake here was whether someone was Orthodox Jewish. I was surprised, given the high regard I feel justified in having for Newsnight, that this distinction was so elided. Perhaps particularly because I posted last week about not characterising Islam as monochromatic, it struck me as a grave error for the programme not to explain clearly the similar diversity within Judaism.

It's an important distinction and it's an equally important oversight, because the Chief Rabbi is regularly presented as speaking for all Britain's Jews -- when that is far from the case. Judaism had its own reformation in the 19th century, and since then, Liberal, Reform and Progressive Jews have become separate strands to the Orthodox Jewry to which JFS subscribes. You won't be surprised to learn that the problem for JFS is that the mother of the child it rejected converted in a Progressive, rather than an Orthodox, synagogue. It wouldn't have been a difficulty the other way round.

I'm not going to get into the issue of faith schools here. My beef is with Newsnight's conflation of the description "Orthodox Jew" with "Jew". It's really not difficult to explain, and in this case seriously misrepresents the practices and beliefs of non-Orthodox Jews, many of whom will accept either matrilineal or patrilineal descent. And if JFS took that line there would be no case at all.

Still others don't even worry about that. In his provocative book The Paradox of Anti-Semitism, Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok writes about the Humanistic Judaism founded by Sherwin Wine in Detroit in the 1960s. In answer to the question of who is a Jew, he writes, the movement declared:

"We the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that survival of the Jewish people depends on a broad view of Jewish identity. We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish experience regardless of ancestry. We challenge the assumption that Jews are primarily or exclusively a religious community and that religious convictions or behaviour are essential to full membership of the Jewish people."

Bizarrely, an Orthodox rabbi interviewed by Newsnight seemed to concede that point by admitting that all that mattered was whether your mother was Jewish -- that gets you a pass, he suggested, even if you were given to eating ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur!

Another part of the Humanistic Jews' declaration, and one I applaud:

"The children and spouses of inter-marriage who desire to be part of the Jewish people must not be cast aside because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to undergo religious conversion. The authority to define 'who is a Jew' belongs to all Jewish people and cannot be usurped by any part of it."

This matters rather a lot, both in terms of inclusiveness and exclusiveness; not least because Jewishness is something that people aren't always allowed to disavow if they want to, in the way that, say, I could cease to be a Catholic or a Methodist. One friend, a man with a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother, once found himself seated next to an Orthodox rabbi at a dinner. Noting his Yiddish-sounding surname on the place card, his neighbour asked him if he was Jewish. "I'm Jewish enough for Hitler, rabbi," he replied, "but not Jewish enough for you."

I know plenty of people in that situation, people whose family members perished in Auschwitz and whose surnames would make them targets for anti-Semites today. But they're not Jew-ish enough for JFS.

See why it matters, Newsnight?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.