Is Judaism a race or a religion?

Now the courts begin to decide

On the face of it, yesterday's verdict by the UK Supreme Court that JFS (formerly the Jewish Free School) in north London was guilty of illegal discrimination in refusing entry to pupils whose mothers it did not consider to be "properly" Jewish seems a good one. As I wrote before about this case, the decision hinged on whether the Chief Rabbi's office recognised a potential pupil's mother as Jewish -- which means, specifically, Orthodox Jewish. Doesn't it seem immediately fair that those whose mothers are Reform, Liberal or Progressive Jews should be able to go to this very well-regarded institution as well?

Those who dislike the idea of faith schools altogether have also taken cheer from this ruling, on the grounds that they find any kind of religious entrance criteria to be odious and discriminatory. But we do now find ourselves in the curious situation that Muslim and Catholic schools might have a greater ability to determine eligibility than JFS does in future. No one expects Catholic schools, for instance, to give equal priority to the children of churchgoing Anglicans. But this decision certainly seems to force JFS -- an Orthodox school -- to be more open to other branches of Judaism.

A further complication is that the case was fought on the basis of ethnic, not religious, discrimination (which is why I don't take seriously Ed Balls's suggestion that this ruling may threaten the admissions criteria of all faith schools, which is how the Telegraph and the Mail rather alarmistly chose to report the news of the decision). JFS, it is said, excluded children it did not consider ethnically Jewish, because, according to Halachic law, that status belongs only to those with Orthodox Jewish mothers.

As the New York Times put it, in its much less hysterical report:

"One thing is clear about the matrilineal test; it is a test of ethnic origin," Lord Phillips, president of the court, said in his majority opinion. Under the law, he said, "By definition, discrimination that is based upon that test is discrimination on racial grounds."

The Catholic Education Service has already hit back at the ruling, saying:

What constitutes membership of a faith group or a religious denomination should be a matter for that faith or denomination to determine. That any other authority should deem to do this in place of the faith group, or for a body outside the faith group to claim that its decision as to what constitutes membership has priority, is a sad and undermining state of affairs.

But it also adds: "It is important, whilst noting our sympathy for our Jewish brothers and sisters, to remind that the judgment should not impact on Catholic schools. This is because the definition of being Catholic is clearly based on baptism and not on any ethnic or other factors."

Note those last few words, "ethnic or other factors". The argument that Jews constitute an ethnic group under the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Public Order Act 1986 was an important factor in a trial in Leeds this year, in which two men were convicted of inciting racial hatred against Jews. (I should add that while the anti-Semitic nature of the material they published is not in question, they are appealing the convictions on other grounds.)

An expert witness called to make that case, Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, is a liberal-minded man, a distinguished academic and a Reform rabbi. It is not in his nature to want to discriminate against anybody, still less to act in any way contrary to the preservation and good health of the Jewish community. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if a body of case law builds up, suggesting that Jewishness should be considered a matter of ethnicity, there might come to be a problem with having any Jewish schools at all.

The New York Times also quoted David Lightman, a JFS old boy whose family has been affected by the school's admissions policy. " 'God can work it out,' Lightman said. 'He's a big boy; he's been around for a long time. He can decide who's Jewish and who isn't.' " Much as one might wish to agree with him, the Supreme Court ruling means that it is no longer just up to God or the Chief Rabbi. The law is now having its say in this question, too -- and that is something everyone involved, ultimately, may rue.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution