Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Moving JFS from a race school to a faith school

This is a little dated now but...

The admissions policy of JFS, my old school, is currently being debated in the Supreme Court. JFS is an Orthodox Jewish state school. Until recently their admissions policy held that in order to be eligible for entry, you had to be Jewish according to the Orthodox Jewish law – and that means having a Jewish mother. What you believed in and practised was irrelevant. All that mattered was who your mother was.

The case began with disgruntled parents whose child was denied a place in the school on the grounds that their mother’s conversion (incidentally an Orthodox conversion) to Judaism was illegitimate. The family keep kosher and attend synagogue. They believe and practise pretty mainstream Judaism. The reason their child was denied a place in the school was not because the child did not adhere to the Jewish faith, but rather because the child was not deemed by the United Synagogue to be a Jew. A bacon munching practising Christian whose mother happened to be Jewish, by contrast, would be eligible for the school.

Now if someone adheres to the Christian faith then they are a Christian. But adhering to the Jewish faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for someone to be a Jew (according to the Orthodox). And from this stems the problem with the old admissions policy of JFS.

Let’s take a step back: what’s a faith? My dictionary offers ‘reliance, trust; a belief in religious doctrine’. So a faith is something you can believe in and express. A faith is not something you can ‘be’; it is not something you ‘are’. What’s a race? A Race is ‘a group of people with common ancestry... esp as grounds for discrimination or division’.

Moving from the definitions of these words, we can say that a faith-school concerns belief and expressions of that belief. A race-school concerns people’s ancestry. With its old admissions criteria, JFS came closer to the second category than the first. It was concerned with who you ‘are’ and not what you believed in. It had a race-based criterion of Judaism and not a faith-based criterion.

Now at this point a few objections may be raised.

First, people get very angry about suggesting that Judaism may be a race. After all, it isn’t: you can convert to Judaism; whereas (Michael Jackson notwithstanding) you can’t convert from one race to another. This is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that taking who someone’s mother is as a criterion for admission to a school has nothing to do with belief and practise and everything to do with their ancestry.

Second, some people object to the law courts ‘defining Judaism’. I find this objection absolutely bizarre. The judges aren’t defining Judaism. Rather they are rather assessing whether or not the Orthodox definition of Judaism, when applied to a school’s admissions policy, does or does not contravene the race relations act.

Some people at this point raise a third objection: that the judges are in effect branding Judaism as being racist. This is nonsense. It is true that the judges are acknowledging that the Orthodox definition of Judaism is not simply a concerned with faith. But then the Orthodox would accept that themselves. What the courts are saying is that a non-faith based definition of Jewishness, concerning as it does parenthood and not belief, is not justifiable criteria for a faith school. Faith schools are allowed to discriminate between applicants on the basis of faith. But not on the basis of parenthood and ancestry. Orthodox Judaism is perfectly entitled to a definition of Jewishness that is based on parenthood and ancestry. But a schools admissions policy is not.

A final objection – and this one really is the silliest – is that it should be up to every faith group (prior to any definition of what a faith is or is not) to decide for themselves what they mean by ‘faith’. Thus the Jews should be allowed to say that, even if he is an anti-religious atheist, a person with a Jewish mother is – astonishingly – a part of the Jewish faith. This approach is anti-semantic, abusing as it does the meaning of words. The logical conclusion of such an argument also commits its proponents to allowing any group to call itself a faith and apply any criteria they want. After all, who are the courts to say what a faith is?

Just imagine the Griffinist faith group. To be a Griffinist you have to be white. Griffinists also have some beliefs, like worshiping a guy called Nick. Now let’s imagine the Griffinists want a state-funded school for their faith. To be eligible for admissions you would have to be a Griffinist. The courts object, saying that their admissions policy is not based on faith and is therefore unjustifiably discriminatory. The Griffinists get irate: how dare the courts tell us what our faith is!

Now of course Judaism is nothing like Griffinism. But I use the analogy to show that the argument that it should be up to every faith group – without first defining what a faith group is – to decide for themselves what they mean by ‘faith’ is ludicrous. It strips the word ‘faith’ of any meaning. The courts must have some basic parameters for what they will allow the term ‘faith’ to include. You’re very welcome to argue that the definition should include ancestry and parenthood, but don’t be surprised if people turn back and say ‘that’s funny, I’ve never seen a dictionary understand ‘faith’ in such terms – you seem to be talking about something else, like ‘race’ or ‘peoplehood’, and I'm not sure we should be discriminating between people on these terms'.

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