Not news when Jew sues Jews

By Simon Rocker, April 7, 2011

In February last year, Walter Bader took part in Scotland's first Masorti service. A few weeks later, he lost his position as a burial officer with the Orthodox Glasgow Hebrew Burial Society.

The board denied that there was any connection between the two events, citing other reasons for his removal including "cost-effectiveness".

Mr Bader sued for religious discrimination but last month the two sides reached a settlement, just days before his claim was to have been heard by an employment tribunal.

It would have been a landmark case - the first, as far as I am aware, of a Jewish organisation being sued by a Jewish person for religious discrimination on account of Jewish belief.

Now another claim has come to light: a former kashrut supervisor in London is taking the United Synagogue to a tribunal next month partly over alleged objections to the straggly nature of his beard.

A kashrut supervisor is taking the US to a tribunal over his straggly beard

Both cases illustrate the boomerang effect of the growing body of equality legislation - which may protect the rights of religious minorities but also makes it easier for disputes within minorities to end up in the secular courts.

The most spectacular example of this, of course, was the case brought to the Appeal Court against JFS on behalf of the child of a non-Orthodox convert in 2009. Since Jews are legally classified as an ethnic (as well as a religious) group, the court ruled that Jewish schools could no longer use parental descent for determining entry because this was a matter of ethnic origin, rather than religious belief, and therefore a breach of race-relations law.

Despite the outcry from many Jews that the ruling (later upheld in the Supreme Court) was an unprecedented interference in the community's internal religious affairs, the campaign to change the law appears to have ground to a halt.

What the JFS case demonstrated was that anti-discrimination legislation can be used in ways that were not originally anticipated.

As equality and human rights law has grown, so has the expertise of specialist lawyers capable of finding new applications.

The Race Relations Act, introduced in the mid-1960s, was supplemented in 2003 by laws against discrimination on other grounds, including religion and sexual orientation. Last year, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies successfully fought a claim of religious discrimination brought against it by a former Israeli tutor in Hebrew who alleged her redundancy had come about as a result of her conversion to Christianity.

As it stands, the law would not force an Orthodox synagogue, for example, to employ a gay rabbi. But take the following scenario: a Reform synagogue has a lesbian rabbi: the synagogue advertises for a second rabbi and another lesbian rabbi applies but some members argue that this would make the rabbinic team "unbalanced" and instead want a heterosexual candidate. This would probably fall foul of the law given that the Progressive movements officially subscribe to egalitarianism.

The provisions against harassment at work in particular contain pitfalls for unwary employers. You do not have to be the actual target of an antisemitic remark, for instance, to make a complaint if one is made in your earshot.

Let's suppose you work in a Jewish communal organisation. Someone makes a comment like "I don't understand those frummers" or, conversely, "Reform Jews aren't proper Jews, anyway", which, depending on your religious affiliation, makes you very uncomfortable. You bring it to your manager's attention; nothing happens. The remarks persist and eventually you feel so unhappy that you resign: you may be able to make a claim of constructive dismissal on the grounds of religious discrimination.

The handful of Jewish cases that have so far reached the courts are unlikely to be the last.

Simon Rocker is the JC's Judaism editor

Last updated: 3:57pm, April 7 2011