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British Court Considers What Makes a Jew

And makes an observer proud to be an American, where there’s church-state separation

Gabriel Sanders
November 09, 2009

Reading about the “Who is a Jew?” case now before British Supreme Court, the American observer can’t help but feel a little smug. Ah, if only they did things our way and kept church and state separate, the American thinks, they wouldn’t be in this mess. But, then, at a time when the push for charter schools (in some cases religiously inflected ones) is gaining steam on this side of the pond, it probably behooves us to take a look at what’s going on over there with some sympathy.

To recap: the case in question concerns a 12-year-old boy, referred to court documents simply as “M,” whose application to London’s Jews’ Free School was rejected on the ground that his mother’s conversion to Judaism was not overseen by Orthodox rabbis. The case has forced a reexamination of whether Judaism is a religion, a race, or an ethnicity. And if there’s anything recent history has taught us, it’s that such discussions rarely yield easy answers.

Among the curious facets of the case is a 2006 law stipulating that in busy years parochial schools—which in Britain receive public funding—can give preference to applicants based on religiously-based criteria. In busy years. But what about the light years? Does the law not force the religious authorities in charge of parochial schools to accept students they would otherwise deem ineligible?

One of the more misguided-seeming solutions to the problem of how to gauge Jewishness if not by matrilineal decent was the Court of Appeals’ introduction of a “religious practice test,” which gives points for things like going to synagogue and doing charitable work. Under such a test, who is deemed most worthy? The student who donates the most? Who prays the longest? The flagellant?

Among those painted as hardliners in the ongoing debate is a Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet. To underscore his point that matrilineal descent is all that concerns him, and that observance matters not at all, he has said that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish.”

To our mind, the rabbi makes a valid point. There’s just one problem: his position seems to be at odds with his country’s laws.

Gabriel Sanders is Tablet’s director of business development.