British Rule on What Makes a Jew
Not mom anymore
The British Court of Appeal ruled late last month that Jewish schools must admit students based on faith, not birth or conversion. Citing the Race Relations Act of 1976, the three judges overruled a prior judgment that upheld the right of Jews’ Free School, the oldest and largest Jewish day school in Britain, to reject a boy because it did not recognize his mother’s conversion. As a result, the country’s 97 Orthodox schools may be forced to introduce “faith tests” similar to what church schools, which require their pupils to attend Sunday mass, have implemented.
The trouble seems to have been how the boy’s mother became a Jew—she used what Haaretz calls an “independent progressive synagogue”—which led Britain’s Office of the Chief Rabbi, which decides on the legitimacy of such conversions, to reject her claim to Jewishness. In their ruling, the three judges wrote: “The motive for discrimination, whether benign or malign, theological or supremacist, makes it no less and no more unlawful,” a decision that reflects the broadest state intervention into the affairs of British Jews since Oliver Cromwell allowed them back into the country.
Interestingly, this sets a international precedent for something Israel is trying to accomplish: the introduction of civil unions as an alternative to the Orthodox-approved religious kind (currently the only legal way to go for Jews there). A bill to do that was recently outvoted in the Knesset when Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party absented itself from the vote, claiming the measure—sponsored by a swath of Labor and Kadima Knesset members—was designed merely to humiliate the party by forcing a wedge between it and its conservative religious allies. Yisrael Beiteinu candidates had campaigned in the last Israeli election as very much in favor of allowing civil marriage, a move popular with one of its largest voting blocs, Russian immigrants who, having grown up in the Soviet Union, are often deemed insufficiently Jewish by the Israeli rabbinate. But Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu’s ally, is against civil marriages.
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