Backlash Hits British Court for Deciding Who's Jewish

Responses to a British court case over Judaism and matrilineal descent

This article is from the archive of our partner .

A British Jewish school's rejection of a 12-year-old applicant for being insufficiently Jewish has, over the course of a lawsuit and a controversial court decision, provoked an international uproar. What happened? The school argued that the boy, who has a Jewish father and a (converted) Jewish mother, was not actually Jewish because his mother converted in a progressive synagogue, which Orthodox Jews don't recognize. When the family sued, an appeals court ruled in favor of the boy, arguing that admissions criteria determining Jewishness by matrilineal descent--a traditional determination--are a form of discrimination.

The blogging world exploded. In the ensuing furor, the debate has expanded into questions not just of Jewish matrilineal descent, but of secular Judaism, nationality, Protestant Christian concepts of faith, and the separation of church and state. Here are the most interesting responses:

  • The British Court is Hypocritical: See Citizenship  Orthodox rabbi and talk show host Schmuley Boteach is outraged. "The Jews," he declares, as many others have likewise been declaring, "are first and foremost a people and only secondary a faith. We were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai and began practicing Judaism's tenets ... Jewishness is not something that can be lost and it is not something that can be renounced." It is unlike Christianity, "which is a conscious act of affirmation." Thus, one can be an atheist Jew but not an atheist Christian, he argues. That the British court should declare matrilineal descent of "peoplehood" racist, he says, is absurd:
In you are living in Britain you become a citizen automatically if your parents are British. Even if you don't behave particularly British, or hate the country of your birth, the UK cannot take away your passport. And if you're an American living abroad ... [e]ven if you never celebrated the Fourth of July or ever heard of Abraham Lincoln, you and your children are as American as George Washington himself.

So is it really that difficult for British judges to understand that peoplehood is conveyed through a parent?
  • Why Is Martin Luther Ruling Britain?  Razib Khan, otherwise known as "David Hume" at the Secular Right blog, points out that the idea that "what you believe [and] confess is what 'counts,'" is "a specifically dissenting Protestant conception of religious identity." It is by no means "widely agreed upon"; thus, the British courts are "rewriting" the dual nation-religion nature of Judaism according to Protestant principles. "[T]hese sorts of issues are why the concept of religious 'neutrality' is simply incoherent," Khan argues. "By the act of definition and demarcation one is engaging in an act of discrimination and preference."
  • Offensive to Both Science and God  "Judaism," writes David Goldman, "has nothing to do with race–there are Jews of every race–but it does have to do with family," specifically Abraham's family. This is not just tradition: "[A] great deal of DNA evidence support this claim." This new "belief" criteria for determining Jewishness, Goldman says, "rule[s] that God must act in accordance with a human court’s notion of the permissible range of God’s behavior."
  • Message to Secular Jews: You Don't Exist  JoeSettler on group Israel advocacy blog The Muqata notes that "basically, the British court has defined all secular Jews to be non Jews (and if I was a secular Jew I'd be outraged, but who knows if Brits get visibly excited about anything)." He also offers a singularly concise summary of the nation-religion question: "Judaism ... is a nationality many of whose central laws are theological in nature."
  • Why Secular Jews are Jews: Shared Experience  True Slant's Gina Welch, of Jewish descent on her mother's side, says that "it isn’t the Orthodox definition of matrilineality that makes me identify as Jewish ... It’s the phantom pull of the whole history of anti-Semitism, knowing that no matter what I believe there are lots of people who will always see me first as a Jew--whether or not they’re even aware they do it." She agrees with other writers that "the tissue connecting modern Jews isn’t religion per se," but offers a variation on the reason: "[I]t's that non-Jews have always lumped us together, the godless and the godly alike, which has given us a shared history and a shared culture."
  • None of This Should Have Been an Issue  The Guardian's Geoffrey Alderman has a bone to pick with British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose "personality," he claims, "is written all over [this] extremely expensive legal imbroglio." The matter, he says, is simple: "Faced with applications from pupils whose Jewish identity he questioned (but whose Jewish identity--please note--was and is not suspect in Israel), Sacks should have turned a blind eye."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.