Board may seek law change over JFS row

By Leon Symons and Simon Rocker, July 23, 2009
Vivian Wineman

Vivian Wineman

The Board of Deputies has launched a two-pronged strategy in the wake of the Court of Appeal’s decision that the admissions policy operated by the JFS school broke the Race Relations Act.

Deputies at Sunday’s plenary meeting in central London were told that if JFS sought leave to appeal to the House of Lords or the Supreme Court, which may take over responsibility for such matters, the Board would intervene as a “friend of the court” to give it guidance on “who is a Jew”.

The school has now decided to take such action.

Additionally, the Board will seek to have the law changed via the new Equality Bill when it reaches its report stage in November.

President Vivian Wineman and chief executive Jon Benjamin have spoken to Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, about the Bill, but admitted to the meeting that they would have “to work hard and very fast” to insert a new clause.

Mr Wineman said the Board was not taking any side in the matter but was acting for the good of the community as a whole, and was the only communal organisation qualified to do so. For the intervention, it had already been offered the services of barristers who would act pro bono (without a fee).

Mr Wineman said: “This does not just affect the United Synagogue, but the community as a whole, and there is concern across the community.”

In a serious and lengthy debate, QC Eleanor Lind (New London Synagogue) said: “There are obviously very serious implications for the Jewish community to do anything that would undermine the protection it receives under the Race Relations Act.”

Whatever the Board chose to do would be problematic, she said, because the complexity of the issues made it very difficult even for lawyers to comprehend.

Jonathan Hoffman (Woodside Park) said the judgment against JFS “drove a coach and horses through common sense” while Malvyn Benjamin (Hendon United Synagogue), who is a former JFS governor, said the issues raised by the JFS case “would affect every aspect of our lives”.

Susan Pascoe (Ner Yisroel) said the Court of Appeal ruling was “a massive attack on all faith schools” while Bernard Silver (Western Marble Arch) made a plea for the community to remain united.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (North West Surrey) said: “This Board is obviously divided between those who believe in halachah (Jewish law), and those who don’t and want it changed.”

Retiring Northampton deputy John Josephs said: “This ruling has to be challenged because it affects other schools — for example if a Roman Catholic school decides it will admit only Roman Catholics.”

Vice-president Jerry Lewis called on deputies to lobby their MPs if the Board decided that it would push for a change in the law.

In winding up the debate, Mr Wineman said the Board had consulted all the religious authorities across the religious spectrum.

In answering all the points made by a large number of deputies who spoke, he acknowledged that the community was divided but that “people should work together in a good atmosphere”.

Simon Rocker writes: JFS was due to ask the House of Lords yesterday [Thursday] to hear an appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling.

“We are submitting our petition,” JFS chairman Russell Kett said on Wednesday.

“Then we will await the decision of the House of Lords as to whether we can proceed with an appeal. We are requesting that this be expedited as much as their Lordships are able.”

The school’s governors are due to meet over the weekend to discuss the situation following the Appeal Court judgment.

JFS has been told it must reconsider giving a place to M, the boy whose rejection two years ago sparked the court case.

Last updated: 5:23pm, July 23 2009