Yes! If you will it, you’re a Jew

The JFS decision exposes what we have known all along: being Jewish is ethnic and cultural as well as religious

By Jonathan Freedland, July 9, 2009

If it’s physically possible to give a cheer and a sigh at the time, then that was my reaction on hearing last week’s ruling in the JFS case.

I cheered that the Court of Appeal had seen the injustice in denying a boy a Jewish education just because his mother’s conversion was not deemed good enough by an Orthodox establishment that prides itself on having the most intransigent “standards” in the entire Jewish world.

But I sighed that, with this ruling, English law has declared that Jews are, essentially, adherents of a religion — rather than an ethnic group or, better still, a people. I dread the prospect that participation in Jewish life — first schools, but who knows what could be next? — could be barred to those who fail to prove their faith is sufficiently zealous.

In a sense, a judgment like this was only a matter of time. The Court of Appeal has merely exposed a contradiction that, if we are honest, we have always known was there.

Sometimes we define ourselves as if we were a religion, with our synagogues and our faith schools. More often, however, we conduct ourselves as if we were an ethnic group, with our emphasis on history, culture, food, music, books and affinity to Israel, none of which rely solely on theological belief.

We usually move between the two categories almost unconsciously but now the court has put a stop to that. It has told us we have to be one thing or the other. It has seen that JFS presents itself as a faith school and concluded that Jews must, therefore, be a faith. Since membership of a faith is not determined by the blood in your veins, or by the recipes your grandmother taught you, but by the beliefs in your heart, then it is belief that counts.

We can rage at the learned judges for stating it so baldly, but it’s not their fault. The blame lies with the Orthodox authorities who could so easily have accepted the child at the centre of this case, and the two others who went before him. As Geoffrey Alderman made clear here last week, the mechanisms for doing it were not complicated.

Instead, the Chief Rabbi preferred to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of communal money to prevent three Jewish children getting a Jewish education — and, in the process, he exposed all our contradictory ways to the cold light of English law.

So now we are forced to answer the question we have long avoided: who is a Jew? The Court’s answer is simple: a Jew is someone who follows the religion of Judaism. The howl of protest in response — even from the religious authorities themselves — tells us we don’t like that definition. It doesn’t fit the people we know we are.

Think of it as the Woody Allen test. If you read that Woody considered himself an atheist, would you say: “That’s funny, I could have sworn he was Jewish”? Of course you wouldn’t. Which means we are much more than a religion. We are a culture, a people, a civilisation.

It is time we admitted that and embraced it. It will mean dropping the pretence that our faith schools are solely about faith. They are, as former JFS head Jo Wagerman wrote last week, about teaching Jewish language and history, including Zionism, as well as religion; they are “about teaching a worldwide Jewish identity.” I agree — but that surely means those schools have to be open to anyone who identifies Jewish history as their own history and Jewish destiny as their own destiny.

And if that’s true of Jewish schools, it has to be true for the Jewish community itself. We don’t want Jewishness to be determined by a faith test. But the law now says it can’t be determined by blood-line either.

We have to take this ruling as an opportunity to declare, at long last, that a Jew is anyone who identifies him- or herself as a Jew. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 4:50pm, July 9 2009