Board fights 'racism' label in JFS hearing

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on the JFS admissions dispute before the end of the year.

In the court’s most high-profile case since it opened last month, nine judges will decide whether Jewish schools can allocate places according to whether a child’s parent is Jewish.

JFS has contested a Court of Appeal decision made on behalf of a boy who had originally been rejected because the Chief Rabbi does not recognise his mother’s non-Orthodox conversion.

The Court of Appeal ruled that using parental descent to decide places is racial discrimination because it is based on ethnic origin — but JFS, backed by the United Synagogue, says this is a question of religious status, not race.

Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the British Humanist Association supported the Court of Appeal in submissions made to the Supreme Court.

But the Appeal Court decision was challenged by both the Board of Deputies and the government.

The Board, representing the “cross-denominational interests” of the community “as a whole”, said: “The court should…interpret the provisions of the Race Relations Act in a way that does not interfere with…the rights of those who belong to a religion to define its own membership test.”

But the court was also made aware of the individual positions of non-Orthodox movements.

In a memo to the Board presented to the court, Reform chairman Stephen Moss explained why it backed the Board’s intervention. “The Movement for Reform Judaism,” he wrote, “regards the wider, long-term implications of a definition of Jewish status based on descent and conversion being labelled ‘racist’… as damaging and potentially disastrous for the Jewish community”.

Mr Moss added that the Board’s intervention dealt “only with that aspect of the case and, rightly for a cross-communal representative body, takes no position on the original JFS entry criteria, which the Reform movement have always and will continue to oppose”.

Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich stated the Liberals had been the only Jewish movement to welcome the Court of Appeal ruling.

But it had “reluctantly agreed that the Board could intervene on the general matter of whether or not it was in order for the state effectively to have a say in how the Jewish community defines ‘who is a Jew’.”

Masorti’s senior rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, said that his movement deplored the original JFS entry rules and wanted any child recognised by any of the synagogue bodies to be eligible for the school.

But he said that the dispute should have been resolved within the Jewish community.

“We are concerned at the involvement of the British courts in the question of determining who is, or is not, Jewish,” Rabbi Wittenberg said in a statement to the Board. “We can also appreciate the concern lest the judgment, though it does not indicate this, be misconstrued or misused to claim that ‘Judaism is racist.’”

    Last updated: 4:42pm, November 5 2009