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
Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

0800 7318496