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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.


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.


This article first published on Jewin’ the fat.

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  • Chaim says:

    The problem is public funding of the religious schools. I do not have a problem with this as these kids would otherwise be in public school and everyone benefits from improved education. BUT then, the schools have to then abide by secular court rulings by judges  which do not always understand  Judaism nor have its best interests at heart.  If the schools gives up the funding then they can do whatever they want.
    Also I mentioned on the previous article regarding this: Carmel school in Perth had a similar court case. They actually did open up admission willingly prior to the court case for Jews who were not halachically not Jewish but the boys were not allowed aliyahs to the Torah. The court ruled in favour of the school – “positive” discrimination.
    The findings: “It is the nature of religious freedom that what is thought to be important is essentially a matter for those concerned with the traditions of the faith to determine, rather than outsiders. The educational institution is excused from liability if, in good faith, it is generally upholding the religious cause it seeks to advance.”
    I also remember Jewish kids who went to Christian schools in Perth were forced to go to Chapel services… but not forced to say anything…..

  • jewinthefat says:


    I hope that the judges are as level headed as the case in Perth. It is my concern that in a society that is beginning to lean towards regarding the freedoms of the individual as paramount, over and above the potential ramnifications for the group as a whole, we may not see such a considered approach.

  • Francis says:

    I don’t quite agree with your characterisation that this case is ‘basically proposing that rather than a religion, being Jewish is purely a blood-line’.  There has been nothing in the judgements so far to suggest that UK law considers that Judaism is not a religion. As you noted, the case being argued (by the Jewish applicants themselves) on the basis of the UK racial discrimination Act. To the extent that being Jewish is based on ‘blood-line’, that is obviously based on the Halachic criterion (as well as Orthodox conversion, if that is what you believe).  If passing something through birth (i.e. Halachic criterion) is not based on ‘blood-line’, then what is? The question the secular judges are considering is whether this criterion breaches the UK Act.

     If we do not want to be defined by such notions  (and fair enough), then should we rely on racial discrimination legislation here to prosecute anti-semites? Isn’t that accepting the of antisemitism as race hatred (rather than religion hatred)? I guess what I am asking is, can we have it both ways? This was of great concern to the UK judges, and it will take the wisdom of Solomon for the appeal judges to sort this one out.

  • gedalia says:

    It is very worthwhile to obtain and read the actual court case for Carmel School in Perth.  It shows how the reform Rabbi stood up in the public court and starting mocking Jewish values and denigrating Judaism itself. 

    The UK case would do well to reference the Perth one, as the same principle issues sit behind the debate, and very similar cirucmstances. 

    Until this issue of Who is a Jew is resolved, and it can only be resolved by a change in practice and standards by non-orthodox movements, then Jewish unity in our generation will be unobtainable.  We keep ignoring the issue, but it has to be the number one concern for our community.  More important than interfaith dialogue is intrafaith dialogue!

    Read more at http://www.jewgleperth.com/?p=1007


  • Francis says:

    Hi Jewinthefat,  the JFS lost its appeal to the UK  Supreme Court (5-4 decision). I haven’t had a chance to the read the decision yet. The thing that still bugs me about this is that it is an intra-Jewish argument.  To put the cat amongst the pigeons (insert any other relevant cliche here), why do non-Orthodox converts want their children to attend a school with a policy based on Orthodox principles? When you convert non-Orthodox, it is very clear that you won’t be considered Halachically Jewish – nobody hides this fact.  I don’t know much about the UK school system – maybe there are limited non-Orthodox Jewish school options?

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