Special pleading's bad effects
At its recent biennial conference, Liberal Judaism's chief executive, Rabbi Danny Rich, warned his audience against "special pleaders" - by which he meant those who argue that faith groups should be accorded an exceptional position within British society.
He specifically cited pleas made by Roman Catholic adoption agencies to be permitted to discriminate against same-sex couples, and the demands now being made by some Jewish interests for a change in the law that would empower Jewish schools to exercise again the freedom they once enjoyed to deny entry to pupils their religious authorities do not regard as Jewish, irrespective of legislation designed to prevent discrimination on ethnic grounds.
By coincidence, last week's JC, which reported this speech, also reported that Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has apparently been prevailed upon to signal his support for precisely such a change in the law, in order to obtain the reversal of the Supreme Court's ruling in the JFS case. And, as I forewarned in this column on April 9, preliminary moves are already afoot (fortunately, behind not very well closed doors) with a view to presenting the new parliament with a formal proposal to this end.
So, if all goes according to the plan now being drafted, later this year the Jewish communities of the UK - or, rather, some of the Jewish communities of the UK -will present this formal proposal to the nation. Since there is likely to be one hell of a public row as a result, it seems to me that each of us should now carefully consider his or her position on this issue. For this debate goes to the very heart of the place of the Jew in British society.
It is not the first time we've had such a debate. The campaign for Jewish emancipation in this country, fought with such tenacity 160 or so years ago, was conducted on the basis that British Jews wanted no special pleading. They were simply Britons who happened to be Jews -that is, Jewish by religion. They were Britons of the Jewish persuasion rather than of the Anglican, Nonconformist or Catholic persuasions.
When, in 1851, Sir David Salomons sat down in the House of Commons as the duly elected MP for Greenwich who happened to be a professing Jew, and when he was ostentatiously thrown out of the House for this insolence, this was the very point that Sir David was making.
What he and Lionel de Rothschild and their supporters wanted was complete equality before the law: nothing less and nothing more. It was on this ground that Rothschild and Salomons later persuaded the government to reject the special plea of the then Chief Rabbi, Nathan Adler - that Jews be exempted from the legislation that instituted civil divorce in this country. Only a rabbinical court, Adler argued, should be empowered to dissolve a rabbinically authorised marriage. Interestingly, Adler had the support of the Deputies. But it was to the arguments of Salomons and Rothschild that the government listened.
From time to time since then, the case for special treatment has again been made. In 1933, Jews obtained special provision within the Slaughter of Animals Act to enable them to be provided with meat and poultry slaughtered in their approved manner.
In the Shops Act, 1936, they were granted permission to open their shops for retail trading on Sundays, provided they closed on Saturdays.
In the 19th century, Parliament made special rules for Jewish-owned factories to operate on Sundays and, in the 20th, for Jewish pupils to be withdrawn from acts of Christian worship in state schools.
But in each of these cases the object to which Parliament was asked to agree, and to which it did agree, was to put the British Jew in a position comparable, as far as was humanly possible, to the British non-Jew. It was not to bestow upon the Jew a privilege explicitly denied to the non-Jew.
To ask Parliament to exempt Jewish schools from the provisions of the 1976 Race Relations Act seems to me very wide of this mark. Such a request would be bound to open a Pandora's box, and to lead to unintended and very possibly unpleasant consequences for us all. The 1976 Act protects us all. What is to be gained by jeopardising this protection?