JFS is inclusive - exclusively so

So much money is being spent by JFS on the current court case - but for what purpose?

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 5, 2009

Last week, in a packed Supreme Court, I heard learned counsel advance arguments against and for the view of the Court of Appeal that, in acting on an edict handed down by the United Synagogue’s Chief Rabbi and so refusing a child (“M”) admission to JFS, that school had breached the 1976 Race Relations Act.

That this is an important case needs no emphasising. But, if anyone doubted its significance, the presence in that court room of the world’s press (to say nothing of communal representatives of every shade of opinion) ought to have settled the matter.

The case — whatever its outcome — marks a defining moment for British Jewry. We need to recognise this fact, and understand its significance.

Though I refer to its importance, paradoxically we need to admit that in one sense it is not at all important. In its adjudication on a preliminary matter in early October, the Supreme Court made it clear that, whatever the outcome of the appeal by JFS (and, by inference, by its religious authority, the Chief Rabbi) against the ruling of the Court of Appeal, M has now been admitted to the school, and (the adjudication revealed) “JFS accepts that he and any siblings of his will stay there regardless of the decision on its appeal.”

Mark those words: “he and any of his siblings.” So M and his family have won no matter what the outcome of last week’s legal protestations.

JFS, US and the Chief Rabbi all resent the accusation that they are racists

That being the case, we do then need to ask why so much money is being spent trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Court of Appeal erred in condemning as a breach of the 1976 Act the inquiry into “M’s” matrilineal antecedents that resulted in the original rejection of this child’s JFS application.

The answer seems to be that the JFS governors, the United Synagogue and the Chief Rabbi all resent, deeply and sincerely no doubt, the accusation that they are racists, no better (it might be said) than the vilest thug who finds himself in the dock for uttering crude anti-black or even anti-Jewish epithets.

I do understand this resentment. But I have little if any sympathy with it.

In his statement of the grounds upon which JFS wished to overturn the judgment of the Court of Appeal, David Pannick QC admitted that M would be regarded as Jewish by a Jewish school that applied criteria used by Reform, Masorti or Liberal Judaism but not by Orthodox Jews.

But what Lord Pannick could not then have known was that Dinah Rose QC, representing M’s father, was about to present the Supreme Court with a letter, signed by Chief Rabbi Sacks himself, personally, in 1994, certifying that the St Albans Masorti synagogue “constitutes a congregation of persons professing the Jewish religion”.

Unless the Chief Rabbi believes that there is more than one authentic “Jewish religion” (and if he does no doubt he will share this fascinating belief with the rest of us) the words he used 15 years ago can only mean that he for his part accepts that Masorti Judaism constitutes merely an acceptable variant of the Judaism he practises — rather like Lubavitch chasidim, for instance.

And if Masorti Judaism is just an acceptable variant of Orthodoxy, then a person accepted as Jewish by its rabbis must surely be Jewish.

In other words, what was really on trial at the Supreme Court last week was Lord Sacks’s policy of “inclusivism,” the policy he proclaimed so loudly and eloquently 15 years ago, but has since abandoned.

And, after all (as Ms Rose pointed out), we are talking about JFS, an inclusivist school if ever there was one, not some exclusivist strictly Orthodox academy.

Jews of my acquaintance have argued with me that, whatever the merits or demerits of inclusivism, the Court of Appeal’s diktat must nonetheless be overturned because it represents an unprecedented interference by the state in a purely religious matter.

Well, it doesn’t. I can quote a number of instances going back 100 years and more in which the British state has interfered with what one might think of as matters purely internal to Anglo-Jewry — for example, marriage laws in the 19th century and slaughter regulations in the 20th.

We Jews are expert at negotiating modi vivendi with the British state. And, if the ruling of the Court of Appeal remains undisturbed, I do not doubt that we shall all stop panicking (or even Pannicking) and learn instead to live within the boundaries the law prescribes.

Last updated: 4:58pm, December 10 2009


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