Every once in a while, a story comes along so jolting that it is scarcely believable. One such story appeared in The New York Times, of all places, this past Sunday, about how the Jews’ Free School in London has been ordered to admit a child whose mother had a non-orthodox conversion after the child’s parents sued.
I will not enter here into the ongoing and bitter divide in England between orthodox and progressive Jews. It was a battle that I witnessed and worked hard to mend through countless essays and public forums over the 11 years that I lived in the United Kingdom. Less so will I address here the very pressing questions of Jewish status as determined by conversion on the part of Judaism’s three major branches. I am a passionately orthodox Jew who is equally passionate about Jewish unity. Our divisions must indeed be addressed and healed. But this shocking story in Britain raises something far more pressing that is of equal concern to orthodox and non-orthodox alike.
What is mind-boggling is that a British court of appeals, which ruled against the school, said that the Jewish community’s ancient tradition of deciding Jewishness through parenthood is ethnically based, discriminatory, and therefore unlawful.
“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. Whether the reasons were “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist makes it no less and no more unlawful.” In an astonishing ruling, the court said that if the child practiced Judaism, then he is Jewish. But to base the decision on his parents was an unlawful emphasis on ethnicity, rather than on religious faith. One can immediately understand the implications for Jews who are not at all observant. Presumably the British government would not consider them Jews.