jewin' the fat

Jew is as Jew does

We knew it would happen eventually, and you know what they say – when the shit hits the fan, everyone gets covered in it.

I’m talking of course about the imminent ruling of the Supreme Court in Britain, regarding the case of a Jewish boy who was born to an Orthodox Jewish father, and Progressive Jewish mother (a Convert). This boy, whom the courts have dubbed ‘M’, was denied enrolment to the Jewish Free School (JFS) in London, on account of the fact that the school adheres to a strict Orthodox-only enrolment policy. ‘M”s parents decided to sue on the grounds of racial discrimination, and so we find ourselves waiting with bated breath for the ruling that could change the very way we define ourselves, and our community as Jewish, right here in Australia.


Up until now this has been protected by the laws in the UK governing religious freedoms, especially in running educational institutions. Now whatever you believe about the validity of a school operating for the youth of a particular religion, this case is basically proposing that rather than a religion, being Jewish is purely a blood-line – a ‘race’.  

In fact, this case goes to the very fibre of what a ‘Jew’ is in our contemporary society – a race, ethnicity, culture, nation, religion – and whether it is possible to have our cake and eat it too. 

I’ll begin with a story. As with most great stories, this is a tale follows a simple and popular narrative structure.

There is a boy. He meets a girl. At a summer camp for young (Jewish) people. Needless to say, by the end of the camp, they are smitten, and they begin to date. He is a good Jewish boy, from a nice family in Sydney’s north, and she is a sweet, funny Jewess from the south-East of the city. The relationship barrels along, sparks fly, plans are made and before you know it, he is on one knee on a beach proposing they spend forever together.

Except that Mother didn’t tell her daughter that when she married the girl’s father, she was impatient, in love and ill prepared for the tumult of Orthodox conversion. So she converted as a Reform Jew. And that her Orthodox-educated, raised and believing daughter, according to Halacha, is one too.

Now at this point, the story shifts focus, and for many, it becomes a crash course in choose-your-own-adventure – something that many are not prepared for at all. I mean, she was from the right side of the tracks – hell, she could even be more observant than he is, but it changes little in terms of the strict Halacha that governs these situations. And again, agree or not with the Jewish law, this is a purely religious standard, for those who wish to abide by it.

But what about civil liberties? Where is the space in this paradigm for human rights? The ability of a citizen of a country to choose his or her own destiny, regardless of their race, religion, class, sex or sexual orientations? Recent calls by prominent Muslim community spokesperson, Keysar Trad to integrate Shariah Law into the Victorian legal system were met with anger and condemned as being an affront to the very independence and multilateralism of justice. For all. Imagine if the laws governing Jewish marriage, death, divorce – were all suddenly absorbed into a secular, national system, and overruled by it. It will destroy a system that thrives in its separation of church and state.

Australians are beholden to a justice system steeped in British traditions, as according to our history as a former British colony. Our government system, our past times, eating habits – even the Jewish community in Australia looks to the London Beth Din to dictate the terms of Orthodoxy, and rule of matters of Jewish life and law.

So what happens if the British Supreme Court rules in ‘M”s favour?

Well, no doubt it’s decision would need to be accepted by the London Beth Din, and changes made to the JFS accordingly. It means that the right to define who is a Jew is taken away from the community, and given to the courts, in direct contradiction to the human rights of the individual to practise their religion freely and without prejudice.

It means for Australian Jewish schools, clubs and organisations, precedents are being set removing the autonomy of the institution, and the religious structure of the Australian community may begin to erode. It means that while our claim as a nation may be upheld, our religious rights as Jews may not be.

It means that the rights of the individual are protected in law, above and beyond the rights of the community. Unlike other peoples, Jews have ensured their survival over millenia through the power of tzdaka, the importance of tikkun olam and the power of the many, over the self-interest of the few. It would be a shame to start now.

It also means that for Australians, we may have to accept that being a Jew is no longer just an ethno-culture or religion, but strictly defined by the word ‘race’, a concept created by those groups who would have seen Jews eradicated – and almost did.

And that is something I, and you, and even those still perched on the fence,  should not be forced to abide.


7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Important to remember that the legal basis for the lawsuit arises from the fact that JFS is a state-funded institute.

Your write: “Imagine if the laws governing Jewish marriage, death, divorce – were all suddenly absorbed into a secular, national system, and overruled by it.”

No need to imagine! Simply visit Religion and State in Israel.

Joel Katz
Religion and State in Israel
@religion_state on Twitter

Comment by religionandstateinisrael

I cannot understand how an already Jewish boy wanting to attend an orthodox Jewish school, be immersed in a traditional faith will ERODE our traditions.

I am saddened by the politics, and fragmentation of the Jewish community – between Orthodox and Chabad, Safardi and Ashkanazi, Orthodox and Reform.

We all read the same Torah, we all believe in Hashem. We all say the Shemah.

I would have thought that Judaism stems from the belief in Hashem as the one true God “blessed is he, king of the universe.”

As far as I am concerned, everything else is rhetoric.

Comment by Claire

Well that is exactly the question being posed by the court – how does one define a ‘Jew’?

It can’t be purely in religious terms, though the religious terms (in the Orthodox tradition) are simple (one is born a Jew through the mother). It can’t be purely a race (though the means for qualification include blood-lineage), because there have been converts since biblical times (Ruth, one of the most famous convert’s was a direct ancestor of Kind David).

Maybe it’s just a culture? Or is it a series of traditions and ritual, as you say? But then again, that means if you keep the Sabbath, or only eat Kosher, or indeed believe in one God (Hashem) you are a Jew.

Regardless, it is obvious this is a purely orthodox debate, and those who choose to follow another stream will continue to do so regardless of this ruling.

What this ruling will affect in broader terms is a power of ANY religious institution to determine their membership guidelines. And that is a problem – Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or Scientologist.

Comment by jewinthefat

continuing the debate here:
(thanks to – check out BaruchTrotsky on the JFS Ruling:

Comment by jewinthefat

“It means that the right to define who is a Jew is taken away from the community,” I think you are missing the point of this case. The court is not deciding who is and is not a Jew (the court is not interfering in who can go to a synagogue or Jewish marriages) the court is deciding who should be able to get a Jewish education in a state funded school payed for by non Jews and the same people who can’t go to the school.

Comment by Claire

With your story about this boy meeting this girl at the summer camp, in life many Jews will go to university, work in non Jewish companies and meet non Jews and Reform who they might be attracted to so are you going to argue that no Jewish person should go to university or that we should have Jewish universities that only accept Orthodox Jews so that no Jewish Orthodox person will fall in love with any reform person?.

When Jewish girls and boys go to summer camp an school they are too young for serious relationships/ getting married and their relationships don’t last.

Comment by Claire

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