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Jew is as Jew does

November 23, 2009 – 8:08 pm6 Comments

By Jewin’ the fat

We knew it would happen eventually, and you know what they say – when the shit hits the fan, everyone gets covered in it.

whoisjewI’m talking of course about the imminent ruling of the Supreme Court in Britain, regarding the case of a Jewish boy who was born to an Orthodox Jewish father and Progressive Jewish mother (a convert). This boy, whom the courts have dubbed ‘M’, was denied enrolment to the Jewish Free School (JFS) in London, on account of the fact that the school adheres to a strict Orthodox-only enrolment policy. M’s parents decided to sue on the grounds of racial discrimination, and so we find ourselves waiting with bated breath for the ruling that could change the very way we define ourselves, and our community as Jewish, right here in Australia.

Up until now, JFS’ admissions procedure has been protected by the laws in the UK governing religious freedoms, especially in running educational institutions. Now, whatever you believe about the validity of a school operating for the youth of a particular religion, this case is basically proposing that rather than a religion, being Jewish is purely a blood-line – a ‘race’.

In fact, this case goes to the very fibre of what a ‘Jew’ is in our contemporary society – a race, ethnicity, culture, nation, religion – and whether it is possible to have our cake and eat it too.

I’ll begin with a story. As with most great stories, this is a tale follows a simple and popular narrative structure. There is a boy. He meets a girl. At a summer camp for young (Jewish) people. Needless to say, by the end of the camp, they are smitten, and they begin to date. He is a good Jewish boy, from a nice family in Sydney’s north, and she is a sweet, funny Jewess from the south-east of the city. The relationship barrels along, sparks fly, plans are made and before you know it, he is on one knee on a beach proposing they spend forever together.

Except that Mother didn’t tell her daughter that when she married the girl’s father, she converted as a Reform Jew. And that her Orthodox-educated, raised and believing daughter, according to Halacha, is one too.

Now at this point, the story shifts focus, and for many, it becomes a crash course in “choose-your-own-adventure” – something that many Jews are not prepared for at all. I mean, she was from the right side of the tracks – hell, she could even be more observant than he is, but it changes little in terms of the strict Halacha that governs these situations. And again, agree or not with the Jewish law, this is a purely religious standard, for those who wish to abide by it.

But what about civil liberties? Where is the space in this paradigm for human rights? The ability of a citizen of a country to choose his or her own destiny, regardless of their race, religion, class, sex or sexual orientation? Recent calls by prominent Muslim community spokesperson, Keysar Trad, to integrate Shariah Law into the Victorian legal system were met with anger and condemned as being an affront to the very independence and scope of justice. For all. Imagine if the laws governing Jewish marriage, death, divorce – were all suddenly absorbed into a secular, national system, and overruled by it.

Australians are beholden to a justice system steeped in British traditions, according to our history as a former British colony. Our government system, our pastimes, our eating habits – even the Jewish community in Australia looks to the London Beth Din to dictate the terms of Orthodoxy, and rule on matters of Jewish life and law.

So what happens if the British Supreme Court rules in M’s favour?

Well, no doubt its decision would need to be accepted by the London Beth Din, and changes made to the JFS accordingly. It means that the right to define who is a Jew is taken away from the community, and given to the courts, in direct contradiction to the human rights of the individual to practise their religion freely and without prejudice.

It means for Australian Jewish schools, clubs and organisations, precedents are being set removing the autonomy of the institution, and the religious structure of the Australian community may begin to erode. It means that while our claim as a nation may be upheld, our religious rights as Jews may not be.

It also means that for Australians, we may have to accept that being a Jew is no longer just an ethno-culture or religion, but strictly defined by the word ‘race’, a concept created by those groups who would have seen Jews eradicated – and almost did.

For our generation, and many more to come, this will have sweeping effects on our self-determination in Australia, and our choice to identify ourselves and our children, or not, as Jews.

And that is something I, and you, should not be forced to abide.

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Postscript: I believe firmly in the rights of all people to believe and behave as they choose, as long as it does not impose itself on the rights of others to do the same. This is my personal opinion, and all hate mail should be directed to jewinthefat@gmail.com.

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This article first published on Jewin’ the fat.

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