The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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?