Human Rights

Discrimination in Faith Schools

Most of you will have read the story of “M”, the child of a father who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, and of a mother who converted to Judaism in a Progressive Jewish ritual. “M” applied for a place at the Jewish Free School, a state funded comprehensive, and was refused a place on the grounds that they did not regard “M” to be Jewish.

“M” applied for judicial review on the decision, arguing that the refusal of the place constituted discrimination on racial grounds. He was represented by Dinah Rose QC (on whom I had a crush when I was 12). As you’ll have seen, he lost.

Orthodox Jews only regard converts who have undergone an orthodox conversion process to be Jewish. They do, however, regard the children of an orthodox Jewish mother to be Jews. They’d take that view, even the family in question were athiests, adherents of another religion, or anti-semites. In other words, belief in Judaism plays no part in the calculus. You could be a child from a family which engaged in precisely the same Jewish practices as any religious Orthodox family, and which accepted Orthodox theology. However, if the United Synagogue in the United Kingdom decided that your mother was not halachically Jewish, they’d take the view that you were not a Jew at all.

Reform and Progressive Jews, by contrast, use a significantly belief-based what it means to be Jewish. This is the definition which Liberal Judaism uses:

For a child of mixed parentage the process of becoming Jewish involves three stages. (a) At birth, the future status of the child is in doubt (safek) since it may or may not be raised as a Jew. (b) However, we would do everything in our power to encourage the parents to raise their child as a Jew, to give a formal undertaking to that effect and have a baby-naming ceremony in the synagogue. A declaration of intent on the part of the parents makes the child Jewish by presumption (chazakah) and entitles the child to be treated as Jewish in the same way as all other Jewish children. We hope that parents will carry out their undertaking by giving their child a good Jewish education, with Barmitzvah or Batmitzvah and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation), at the age of 16 or thereabouts. (c) At that stage, when the young person can confirm his or her own identification, Jewish status becomes definitive (vaddai); a certificate to that effect will be issued by our Rabbinic Board on request.

It is possible for anybody to convert to Orthodox Judaism: so charges of racism aren’t really that fair. It is just that isn’t very easy. I suspect that Orthodox Judaism adopted its non-prosyltising stance as a necessary strategy for survival while living in hostile Muslim and Christian societies. It wasn’t always near-impossible to convert to this religion.  

The Orthodox Jews ought, in my view, to adopt the Liberal definition of “Jewishness”. It is absurd to regard the child of a Jewish mother as Jewish, if he has no other connection with the religion.

To be fair, though, the manner in which religions set their own entry conditions is really a matter for their adherents, and wannabe members. It ought to be no concern of mine. By contrast, the admissions procedures of state schools is the business of any person in this country, of any religion or none.

I do not personally favour the division, along sectarian lines, of public education. However, ultimately, I do believe that parents, as taxpayers, are entitled to a certain degree of choice in relation to to the sort of education which their children receive. If all schools were secular, then there would be no issue. However, given that most schools have a broadly Christian ethos, parents should be able to send their children to a school with a religious ethos which reflect, broadly, their beliefs.

The crucial word here is “beliefs”. It may be acceptable for a religious school to define itself in terms of what the parents of the children who attend them believe. It is not acceptable, in my view, for a school to exclude children whose families share the beliefs that the school promotes, but whose child does not meet one particular religious definition of “Jewishness”.

This dispute boils down to a pretty simple question. Do faith schools belong to parents, the community and the nation? Or do they belong to the religious sect which runs them?

This is not a problem which only relates to Jewish schools. My impression is that many religious groups which run schools use their admissions policy as a method of exerting improper authority over those families who want their children to attend the school. I have one friend from a Catholic family who was told by the priest, when the family missed a couple of Sunday services: “we’re beinging to question your dedication to the Church, and we’ll have to mention that when it comes to making a decision on admission”. I’ve heard similar stories from other friends.

In the wake of the failure of this judicial review, it is time for the Government to take action. Faith schools should be allowed to consider whether the families of prospective pupils identify with, believe in, and practice the religious in question: as opposed to another religion.

However, that is all they should be entitled to do.

(Also, read Danny Finkelstein on the subject)