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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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.