Anglo Jewry Defeats Itself

Does it make sense, at a time when the community in England is shrinking, to reject people who want to be Jewish?

LONDON - Once again, the Anglo-Jewish establishment has scored a spectacular own goal, this time over the Jewish Free School's admission criteria. The soccer analogy seems appropriate: This kind of self-defeating pomposity seems to have become as integral to our community as soccer is to our national identity.

Last week, the Supreme Court here ruled that the admissions policy of the state-funded secondary school breached racial discrimination legislation. To anyone unfamiliar with the case, the details are extraordinary. The school refused entry to a 10-year-old boy because his mother's conversion to Judaism had not been an Orthodox one (even worse, she converted abroad) - never mind the fact that the family members are dedicated, observant Conservative Jews. This was unacceptable to the United Synagogue, the main Orthodox organization in the United Kingdom, with its essentially Haredi beit din (rabbinical court).

This is far from the first time that JFS has gotten into a muddle over admissions policy, and previous instances have been similarly excruciating. There was the mother who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in Israel, but because her subsequent observance was not considered strict enough, her son was retrospectively judged a gentile. Then there was the woman who converted with an Orthodox rabbi and remained impeccably religious, but because her husband was a kohen and thus barred from marrying a convert, her daughter was deemed a halakhic impostor. In both cases, the children were refused admission to the school.

Does it make sense, at a time when the community in England is shrinking, to reject people who want to be Jewish? Yes, apparently, believes the United Synagogue, whose head, the recently ennobled Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, thought it suitable to pursue this case to legal extremis, at a reported cost of 1 million pounds.

Thus we are faced with the bizarre situation in which, quoting Deuteronomy in its decision, the Supreme Court is prevailed upon to decide just who is a Jew - something we haven't exactly managed to do ourselves in several thousand years.

Forget those who bleat that the state has no right interfering in the affairs of a religious school, or who point to this as the latest example of British anti-Jewish hostility (after all, didn't our legal system try to nab Tzipi Livni?).

This is not an issue that British judges ever wanted to address. This is simply an example of the peevish arrogance of a Jewish establishment that seems irresistibly attracted to zero-sum games.

Indeed, the Anglo-Jewish community has made quite a habit of fighting battles it cannot win. Witness the doomed attempts to wreak revenge on London's then-mayor Ken Livingstone after he compared a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard. A consummate politician, Livingstone breezed through months of expensive wrangling to be cleared of all wrongdoing. The community was forced to back down and meekly accept the mayor's "Simcha in the Square" initiative, a risible celebration of Anglo-Jewish life sandwiched between Eid and Diwali in Trafalgar Square.

More recently there was the debacle over a rally held during the Gaza war, ostensibly in support of the beleaguered citizens of Israel and the Palestinians suffering under the yoke of Hamas. Of course, such a distinction was lost on many British Jews horrified at such literal flag-waving, as hundreds were dying in Gaza - and was also entirely lost on the wider public and the media, which saw Jews apparently rallying in support of the shedding of Palestinian blood.

And now, despite some creeping schadenfreude from a few Liberal and Reform quarters, even those who opposed United Synagogue policy are keeping quiet over the affair. It's clear that the whole sorry mess has emphatically not been good for the Jews. It seems impossible to find even an Orthodox establishment figure who isn't privately groaning over the behavior of the US, the chief rabbi, and the school.

"It all could have been avoided if the United Synagogue had not opened this can of worms," sighs one senior community figure. "Insane and indefensible," says another.

But it's not over yet. Sacks has vowed to fight on and has already reportedly been personally lobbying the relevant government minister for changes to the existing Equality Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament and is intended to harmonize and extend current discrimination law. The United Synagogue wants faith schools exempted from legislation, something the government will consider only if the Jewish community is absolutely united on the issue.

And it isn't. The Liberal movement, for one, is just as intent on opposing any change to the law, and is already making overtures to the Conservative party - likely to form the next government in a few months' time - whose deputy treasurer just happens to be one of their patrons.

It's not just the cross-communal infighting this case has provoked. The JFS affair will also set a legal precedent. Some warn that it will even have an impact on the future activities of other faith-based service providers, such as Anglo-Jewry's entirely uncontroversial, halakhically uninterested and excellent social care organizations. Ironically, the "cross-communal" Jewish Seconary School, due to open in September in north London - and originally set up to bypass such admissions idiocy - is also going to have to base its entry criteria on religious observance (rather than descent) to avoid the same racial discrimination pitfalls.

Lacking the confidence of the American community, and the nonchalant identity of Israeli Jews, Anglo-Jewry once again has wasted its resources, not least the patience of its constituents. From the increasingly ultra-Orthodox United Synagogue to its misguided lay leadership, from the poor child who wanted to study at JFS to the school itself - this has been a game, doomed from the start, in which there are no winners.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.