Q&A on JFS

By Simon Rocker, January 7, 2010

Why did the Board of Deputies want to amend the Equality Bill to overturn the Supreme Court judgement on Jewish school admissions?

The Supreme Court ruled that Jewish schools can no longer admit children simply on the basis of whether their parents are Jewish. This is because Jews are considered by law as an ethnic group (like Sikhs, but not Christians or Muslims) and to choose children according to parental descent is a matter of ethnic origin, therefore a case of racial discrimination.

JFS, the Orthodox Jewish school at the centre of the dispute, had argued that deciding places according to Jewish status was a matter of religious law, not ethnic origin. Faith schools are permitted to choose pupils on religious, but not ethnic, grounds.

Even some of the judges who ruled against JFS felt that the law may have had unintended consequences and that one remedy would be to change it. But, as one judge said, that was for parliament, not the courts.

The Board of Deputies felt that it was not the place of the courts to rule on such issues of Jewish identity and that the ruling could have wider ramifications. So it sought to put an amendment to the current Equality Bill which would effectively neuter the Supreme Court judgment.

So why has the Board dropped the amendment plan?

Only a few months are left before the next election and the Equality Bill is back in the Lords next week, so there was not much time to draft an amendment. If the wording were wrong, it could backfire at some later date. After all, no one foresaw at the time that the 1976 law against racial discrimination would come to be used against Jewish schools. So the Board, with broad backing from synagogue leaders, thought better of trying to rush through change.

But could there be any other reason for shelving it?

The Board thought it could lobby for changing the law only if it there were widespread support across the community. But the Reform, Liberal and Masorti made their support conditional: they wanted an undertaking from the United Synagogue that there would be no return to the previous policy of mainstream Orthodox schools rejecting the children of non-Orthodox converts. The United Synagogue was not in a position to deliver such a pledge — within the available time frame. So there was no consensus for the Board to go ahead.

Even if there were no consensus in the community for changing the law, could not the United Synagogue still have tried to go it alone?

In theory, if the Board failed to secured support from non-Orthodox leaders, it could have tried to go down the legal route on the basis of a majority vote from its deputies. But that most likely would have unleashed the worst inter-communal conflict in years, with disastrous consequences for the Board.

The United Synagogue, as the largest synagogue body in the country, could have got backing from the Federation, Sephardi and strictly Orthodox to lobby parliament on its own.

Its spiritual leader, the Chief Rabbi, is now himself a member of the House of Lords.

But if the Orthodox had decided to go it alone, the non-Orthodox would have protested. And politicians may have been reluctant to support a change in the law if they saw a major split in the Jewish community. The Chief Rabbi could have been left with egg on his face if the amendment were defeated in such circumstances.

Is a change in the law now out of the question?

No, it depends on a number of things. Everyone is adopting a wait and see approach. First, how does the Supreme Court ruling affect Jewish schools in practice?

Secondly, can the United Synagogue and non-Orthodox schools reach agreement over entry policies to mainstream Orthodox schools? That could, for example, mean some schools deciding to become independent of the Chief Rabbi’s authority and thus free to set their own entry rules. So if there were an eventual change in the law, they would not revert to the old policy of rejecting the children of non-Orthodox converts.

Thirdly, with an election looming, which party will be in government?

So how does the ruling now affect Jewish schools?

Since schools can no longer choose pupils simply on the basis of their parent’s Jewish status, they have to introduce new tests of Jewish practice – based on synagogue attendance, involvement in Jewish education etc. This has been a headache for synagogue administrators who have had to arrange new “certificates” of practice for parents to accompany school applications.

Fears have also been expressed that children from more secular homes may find it more difficult to gain a place at a Jewish school. However, no one will know for sure until September whether the court ruling has had any real effect on Jewish children going to Jewish schools.

There is something else. The new Jewish Community Secondary School – the first cross-communal, rather than Orthodox-run, Jewish secondary – opens in autumn. There actually could be more places available than Jewish applicants in future at secondary level – so the argument of whether “non-halachic” Jewish children can get a place could largely become academic.

Last updated: 5:11pm, January 7 2010