My pulse started racing when I read in the New York Times this morning that the British government has stepped into the center of the hopelessly snarled “Who is a Jew?” debate. A court ruled that basing school admission on whether or not the applicant has a Jewish mother is discriminatory under British law. If Britain’s Supreme Court upholds the ruling, life will become easier for interfaith children who want to identify as Jews.
The court heard how the Jews’ Free School, one of 7000 religious schools in Britain receiving government financing, refused to admit a boy for not being Jewish enough. Although he has a father who was born Jewish, and a mother who converted, she was not converted by the Orthodox. The family sued for discrimination and lost, but the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in the summer.
The court argued that basing school admission on the religion of the applicant’s mother was an ethnic test, and not a religious test, and that whether the criterion was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist, makes it no less and no more unlawful.” Last week, the case was before the Supreme Court, which is expected to give a final ruling before the end of this year.
As a result of the Court of Appeals ruling, the school has already shifted to a new admissions policy which requires applicants to meet certain litmus tests of Jewish practice, rather than relying on parentage. This mirrors the shift among Reform Jews in America after 1983 from matrilineality as the test of Judaism, to proof of sufficient Jewish practice.
As a (patrilineal) interfaith child, I certainly agree with the court that religion is a set of beliefs and practices, not an ethnicity, and thus cannot be inherited. To say otherwise is deeply offensive not only to interfaith children, but to people who convert to Judaism, including adoptees who are converted as infants.
As an American, I hold dear the concept of separation of church and state, and I’m a bit aghast at the very concept that the British government is funding religious schools. So there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the co-mingling of public education and religion in Britain led to this groundbreaking legal ruling on the discriminatory nature of matrilineal descent. I do find myself wondering, if the US government funds vouchers to parochial schools, does that give us power to demand the same scrutiny by courts here?
Yet in America, where only about 10% of Jews identify themselves as Orthodox, interfaith children have many more options for Jewish community and Jewish education than in Britain, where Orthodox Jews constitute a majority and appear to exert a power akin to that in Israel. Here in the US, we have schools representing multiple forms of Judaism, and the freedom to create our own communities in which Judaism is truly a matter of belief, not ethnicity.