JFS: Why are no heads rolling?

This invidious, calamitous episode should not be left to fade

By Jonathan Freedland, January 7, 2010

It’s a new year, a new decade and a time when we are told to look forward, rather than back. Nowhere is this attitude stronger than among the leaders of British Jewry who, after one of the most appalling episodes in our communal history — the Supreme Court ruling that the admissions policy of JFS fell foul of the law on racial discrimination — are keen that we draw a line and move on.

Some of our communal chieftans are in a desperate hurry to make the whole nasty business go away, hoping to rush through a change in the law that would allow JFS and other Jewish schools to go back to the old ways. Others treat this episode as if it were no more than a hostile act by a few judges that no one could have foreseen and of which we are the blameless victims. We need to close ranks and put it behind us.

Not so fast. Rather than scrabbling to find a legalistic dodge round this mess, we need to take a long, hard look at it. We need an honest reckoning with what happened here.

That effort would begin with an acknowledgement of the scale of the screw-up. The decision to fight a legal battle through a succession of the highest courts in the land has cost hundreds of thousands of pounds — money that would otherwise have been spent meeting genuine communal needs, perhaps in education.

The result is the imposition of a new faith test on would-be pupils at Jewish schools that simply does not fit the people we are. It has culminated in the absurdity of people collecting points to prove their piety — clocking their children in and out of synagogues, reducing Judaism to a supermarket loyalty card scheme.

A government minister or chief executive guilty of such a failure, would lose his job

Above all, it has brought about a kind of collective humiliation, obliging the secular courts of England to determine a matter we should have settled ourselves: namely, who is a Jew.

There are victims of this fiasco: the children denied a Jewish education, the good causes deprived of cash diverted into legal bills and the good name of British Jewry itself. And there are culprits.

Some want to blame the Supreme Court justices, but that is a delusion. Those who led our community into this dead end have to admit their own responsibility.

Among them are the governors of JFS, the United Synagogue, the office of the Chief Rabbi and the Chief Rabbi himself. Not one of them called a halt to this madness, when it was utterly obvious to anyone who cared to look that it was going to end in disaster. I remember a conversation with a lawyer in the case at least two years ago in which I worried, first, that JFS could not possibly win and, second, that the consequence would be a change in the status of Jews in the eyes of English law, recognising us only narrowly as a faith group. If a layman outsider could see that, why could not those who are paid to safeguard our interests?

A pragmatic solution was easy and available. As my colleague Geoffrey Alderman — him upstairs — wisely wrote, JFS simply had to admit the children concerned, adding in a side-letter that their admission to the school had no bearing on future decisions regarding their Jewish status. The children would have got a Jewish education, the court case would have been avoided, all that cash would have been saved and we would not now be begging parliament to redefine Jewish identity in the eyes of the law.

If such a monumental error of judgment happened in any other area, the demand for accountability would be swift and ruthless. If a government minister or a corporate chief executive were guilty of an equivalent failure — one that incurred a massive loss of cash and reputation and was equally avoidable — he would surely pay with his job. Yet for some reason no one says this in our community. We act as if our misfortunes fall out of the sky, nothing to do with us, and as if our leaders were protected by divine mandate, so that even to question them constituted an act of heresy.

But they are all too human — and they must be held to account.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010


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