Who Is a Jew? And is Judaism/Jewish a Religion, Race, or Ethnicity? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question

November 9th, 2009

From the New York Times, Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question (H/T Instapundit). A student applied to an Orthodox Jewish school in the UK, and the School found that he wasn’t Jewish, and would not admit him. While the boys mother converted in a Progressive Synagogue, because she did not convert in a Orthodox synagogue, the school did not consider the boy Jewish.

The questions before the judges in Courtroom No. 1 ofBritain’s Supreme Court were as ancient and as complex as Judaism itself.

Who is a Jew? And who gets to decide?

On the surface, the court was considering a straightforward challenge to the admissions policy of a Jewish high school in London. But the case, in which arguments concluded Oct. 30, has potential repercussions for thousands of other parochial schools across Britain. And in addressing issues at the heart of Jewish identity, it has exposed bitter divisions in Britain’s community of 300,000 or so Jews, pitting members of various Jewish denominations against one another.

While schools in the UK can base admissions on religion, they cannot base admissions on race or ethnicity.

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

I have always considered question of how to define Judaism, but I never thought it makes much of a difference. I’m Jewish. It describes my identity, and who I am. Whether that is a race, religion, or ethnicity, I don’t know, or particularly care.

I do not know anything about this U.K. discrimination law, but it strikes me as curious that a school can discriminate based on religion, but not race or ethnicity. Why distinguish. A person’s identity defines who they are. Also, it will be pretty tricky for a Court to step in an divine how to define Jewish faith. Murky indeed. I’ll keep an eye on this, anyway.

But, here is one take on what defines a Jew 😉