Who decides what is Jewish?

By , December 16, 2009 11:59 pm

EDIT: I’ve rewritten the final few paragraphs, my thoughts on all this, and apologize for any confusion.

Bond posted a while back about a court case where a British court was asked to rule if a Jewish school was being racially discriminatory when it rejected a student who did not have a Jewish mother:

The case in question concerns a 12-year-old boy, referred to court documents simply as “M,” whose application to London’s Jews’ Free School was rejected on the ground that his mother’s conversion to Judaism was not overseen by Orthodox rabbis. The case has forced a reexamination of whether Judaism is a religion, a race, or an ethnicity.

The court has ruled that the school was practicing racial discrimination. From The Guardian:

M’s father took the school to court claiming racial discrimination. In June, the court of appeal ruled in his favour. It said the school’s policy amounted to racial discrimination because it prioritised applications from children with Jewish mothers.

And, ultimately, the supreme court ruled (5 to 4) that the school had “directly discrimintated against M on grounds of his ethnic origins.”

Looking back at Bond’s post at Dear Diaspora, I think I see her point: Judaism is both a religious and tribal identity, and attempting to separate the two speaks to a certain amount of cultural imperialism.

At the same time, I agree with the imposed culture. I feel like if you want to view Judaism as both of those things, to interweave the religious with the tribal, you need to then take the bad (that discriminating based on that tribal identity is racist) with the good (acknowledging the long tribal history and lineage of the Jewish people).

Now, in all fairness, I don’t think Bond is trying to discriminate at all – she goes out of her way to say that she simply recognizes the “logical necessity of disregarding non-Orthodox conversions” for Orthodox Jews, even if she doesn’t agree with their position.

For what it’s worth, I also agree on that logical necessity. From the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, the position that this child was not Jewish (or not as Jewish) as children born to Jewish mothers makes sense. But I’m going to take things a step beyond saying “Yes, it makes sense.”

Being logical and internally consistent doesn’t remove the racism inherent in the school’s viewpoint or mean it’s anything I think is worth supporting. I’m going to say that race is a genetically ridiculous concept, and not one we should be trying to uphold. That using millennia-old religious documents to justify racism is still, well, racism.

When originally participating in the discussion surrounding Bond’s post at Dear Diaspora, I let my own struggles with the religious aspects of Judaism get in the way of expressing my dislike of Orthodox Judaism specifically, for what I perceive to be sexist and racist practices. (And I’m an equal-opportunity dislike-er of orthodoxy of any stripe.) I don’t think that protecting religion in the name of cultural relativism should take precedence over the stated goals of egalitarianism within a society, whether the religion is Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or whatever. I do think that it’s desirable and necessary to tread very carefully in determining when and how to make that call, and I’m glad the decision isn’t mine.

But I do think the British supreme court made the right call in this case.

17 Responses to “Who decides what is Jewish?”

  1. Kei says:

    I always thought Judaism as a religion and nothing more.
    Not every Jewish person is white so it can’t really be called a race.

    My sister would often say that we were Jewish by some kind of blood.
    I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I got her a Hanukkah card for Christmas just because she says it so often around the holidays.

    I will say this and not apologize; whether or not you celebrate it, it’s still a day so Merry Christmas even if it’s just the twenty fifth.

    • Rebecca says:

      Not every Jewish person is white so it can’t really be called a race.

      I think the point being made is that people who consider Judaism a race wouldn’t consider themselves white, they would consider themselves Jewish. Or, at the very least, Jewish and white.

      And Happy Channukah, Merry Christmas, and a festive solstice to you, too!

      • BenYitzhak says:

        Yes, it’s always with a hint of hesitation that I mark “white” on surveys.

        • Rebecca says:

          Thank you for the comment, Ben. I think this speaks to the inherent problems with trying to classify people by race for ‘official’ purposes. That is, it makes sense to me that people divide themselves into racial/ethnic/tribal groups, based on religion and physicality and geographic origin and cultural history and a host of other things. But to try and define those races and 100% distinct, with no overlap, seems futile.

    • Rebecca says:

      PS – I wanted to add a link to Wikipedia’s article on Who is a Jew? Not to imply that they’re a definitive source on Judaism, just to highlight how complicated the question is, or can be.

  2. Bond says:

    Hey Rebecca,

    Who decides what is Jewish?

    See, I think the answer should be, unequivocally, the Jews, not the Church of England the British supreme court.

    I don’t think that protecting religion in the name of cultural relativism should take precedence over the stated goals of egalitarianism within a society

    How about in the name of religious freedom?

    Also: This wasn’t overriding a religion for being sexist. This was bypassing a minority group’s right/ability to set its own boundaries, that is, to have a say in what it, itself, actually is. Last time I checked Christian groups are still afforded this right. I wonder if a British Catholic school would can slammed by the supreme court because they showed less preference for a student who’s mother had converted to the Anglican church (i.e., to a different movement of the same religion) and raised him as such?

    (that discriminating based on that tribal identity is racist)

    No, it’s not. You said it yourself: discrimination based on tribal identity, not ethnic origin. We’re talking about a group that is multiracial and that anyone can join. The fact that there is a (sometimes arduous) process for joining doesn’t erase the fact that any sincere person is can convert. I think you completely sidestep this fact in your post. Once again, this actually comes down to questions about the mother’s conversion — if the family were Orthodox, nothing would be at issue. Since it’s the family’s religious affiliation that counts, how can this be a racial test?

    Also, I have to wonder whether border-policing and internal disagreement about tribal membership by a tiny minority (0.5%) should be compared (by dint of the the term “racism”) to the systemic oppression of people of color.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for your reply, Bond.

      I want to take a step back from the specifics of this case to try and explain more broadly where I’m coming from. The situation, as I see it, is that an organization determined the status of an individual based on that individual’s parentage. And, as a result, determined that individual’s acceptance into the group.

      To me, that is a bad thing. And one that I don’t think should be supported by the state.

      Moving back to the specifics of this case, I don’t think that Orthodox Jews (or any religion) should be forbidden from determining the membership of an individual to that religion, based on whatever methods they see fit. If a religion wants to determine membership based on height, skin color, or parentage, I think they should have the right to do so. All in the interest of, as you say, religious freedom.

      However, I believe freedom within that selection/membership process should be restricted when it enters the public sphere – determining housing, determining job status, determining entrance to a school.

      Also: This wasn’t overriding a religion for being sexist. This was bypassing a minority group’s right/ability to set its own boundaries, that is, to have a say in what it, itself, actually is.

      I’m not sure I agree. By saying that the school “directly discrimintated against M on grounds of his ethnic origins” the court actually agreed that there was a substantive difference between children born of Orthodox parents and those not. To my eyes, they justified the ability of Orthodox Jews to create a hierarchy of Jewish-ness. What they’re not allowed to do is determine entrance or participation to schools based on that hierarchy.

      As for your comment on whether Christians would get the same flack for a similar situation, you’re probably right: They wouldn’t. But I don’t think that justifies improper admittance standards in this situation.

      …this actually comes down to questions about the mother’s conversion — if the family were Orthodox, nothing would be at issue. Since it’s the family’s religious affiliation that counts, how can this be a racial test?

      Because they’re judging the child’s religious standing based on parentage. Again, that’s fine from a religious standpoint, but I agree with the court that it shouldn’t be OK from a perspective of who receives access to services such as education.

      Also, I have to wonder whether border-policing and internal disagreement about tribal membership by a tiny minority (0.5%) should be compared (by dint of the the term “racism”) to the systemic oppression of people of color.

      I’m not trying to compare the scope or effect of this situation to systemic oppression of people of color, and am sorry that’s how it came across. I agree, those are of completely different magnitudes. But I still think that making judgments based on the mother of a child is, if not racist, a short step away from it.

      • Bond says:

        To me, that is a bad thing. And one that I don’t think should be supported by the state.

        Fair enough — as a rule, I don’t think religious schools should get public funding in the first place. The stricter the church/state separation, the better. But we’re talking about a country with a national church.

        As for your comment on whether Christians would get the same flack for a similar situation, you’re probably right: They wouldn’t. But I don’t think that justifies improper admittance standards in this situation.

        I don’t think it justifies (or makes any comment about) the admittance standards, but I do think it takes all credibility from the court decision. Maybe the school was being racist, or unfair — but it is most definitely racist that the government stepped in on this issue and would (I guess) never dream of doing so in my Catholic/Anglican example.

        Should the US Supreme Court step in forthwith and stop this?

        • Rebecca says:

          I can’t really argue with how the British supreme court would treat Christian schools, and I agree that having a state church is a Bad Thing.

          That said, whether the US should intervene with blood quantum laws depends – in my opinion – on the degree to which the US exerts control over Indian reservations. My (limited) understanding is that there is some degree of autonomy and sovereignty within reservations, but also receive money from the US government.

          My gut reaction is that, yes, the US should not be supporting groups determining membership based on blood. That said, I’m massively ignorant of the details of reservation sovereignty, US funding of reservations or tribes, and so on. For that reason, I want to emphasize that I don’t know enough to hold an informed opinion, just an emotional reaction.

          • Bond says:

            Clarifying question: Do you have an objection to the existence of tribes/tribal identity, or only to government support of such?

          • Rebecca says:

            A few things. First, that’s correct – my objection is only to government support or encouragement of such.

            More broadly, I’ve thought things through a bit more and you’re right: what was happening here was not racist. I was using too broad a definition of racist and, on looking at some different definitions, I agree that i was wrong.

            It was, however, an example of unfortunate prejudice, which I still don’t think the government should be supporting.

      • Bond says:

        Also,

        However, I believe freedom within that selection/membership process should be restricted when it enters the public sphere – determining housing, determining job status, determining entrance to a school.

        Britain has already decided that religious schools may consider religion in admissions. The question is whether Orthodox Jews can use there own religious standards when making these state-sanctioned decisions — and the ruling is that they cannot.

        • Rebecca says:

          This comment actually had me go back and reread the articles, including one here which mentions this ruling might be the beginning of the end of faith-based admittance, period. (Although it notes such an end is pretty unlikely.)

          While reading, I realized that you’re right, I hadn’t thought through the ramifications of allowing faith-based admittance standards while, nevertheless, denying Orthodox Jews the right to determine their own religious standards in making those decisions.

          In my perfect world, religion would not be an eligible admission requirement, period. That would resolve the incongruity in this situation.

          But that such an incongruity exists doesn’t change my fundamental position: This school was determining a child’s eligibility based on that child’s parent.

          That type of behavior should not receive state sanctioning.

          • Bond says:

            In my perfect world, religion would not be an eligible admission requirement, period. That would resolve the incongruity in this situation.

            In a perfect world you’d have religious public schools that are unable to give preference to students of their religion? What’s the point of that? In my perfect world, all religious schools would be private, but neither of us any say in how the Brits do things, and clearly these publicly funded religious schools are an important part of their education system.

            I feel like you care that M., one person, was treated unfairly, but even though you acknowledge that this decision treats the entire Orthodox community unfairly (because you agree that the same standards wouldn’t be applied to Christians), you can’t find the wherewithal to care. I disagree, personally, with the Orthodox on this issue (of what constitutes legit conversion) and pretty much every other — but that doesn’t stop me from insisting they to be treated without bias.

          • Rebecca says:

            You’re right, I cast to wide a net with that statement. Rather, I support all religious schools being private, and not eligible for government funding, if they wish wish to use religion as an admissions standard. That’s what I meant by “resolv[ing] the incongruity in this situation,” because then the school wold then either receive government funding and be unable to use religion as an admissions standard, or wouldn’t receive government funding and could use whatever admissions standards it wants.

            I feel like you care that M., one person, was treated unfairly, but even though you acknowledge that this decision treats the entire Orthodox community unfairly (because you agree that the same standards wouldn’t be applied to Christians), you can’t find the wherewithal to care. I disagree, personally, with the Orthodox on this issue (of what constitutes legit conversion) and pretty much every other — but that doesn’t stop me from insisting they to be treated without bias.

            You’re right, my dislike of orthodoxy and (Orthodoxy) has made me biased. I’ve been trying to step back from that, though (maybe not entirely successfully) to form a more consistent and unbiased opinion.

            As such, I disagree that this decision treats the Orthodox community unfairly. Rather, I think it applies a sound and sane standard to the Orthodox community but the courts would likely treat the Christian community unfairly.

            Basically, I’m saying the unfairness comes from who was or would be treated with undue bias. I don’t think that’s what was happening in this case, but agree it probably would happen in a case involving a Christian school. So I think it’s the Christians would would get unfair privilege, not the Jews who are getting unfair disadvantages.

            From there, I’d rather support this ruling and object to any similar ruling about a Christian institution than try to bring everyone ‘up’ to the same level of unfair/preferential treatment Christians enjoy.

  3. arielariel says:

    I found this piece via Feministe and I just wanted to say bravo. I actually think you hit the nail on the head with this. It looks like you’ve had a long discussion already about it, and maybe your point of view has changed, but I actually think your original argument is well-stated and mimics a lot of what I — a Jew — think about this stuff.

    I don’t know much about Christian schools, but what I do know leads me to believe that the family’s religious history doesn’t come into play as much. It is a much more evangelical religion.

    I fail to see how a decision that says the mother’s status affects the child’s religious standing, even though that child is a practicing Jew, is not racial. Why not just accept it? I don’t know that it is controlling how Orthodox Jews can practice their religion — it is just saying that if they want to use racial criteria, they are not going to be as eligible for funding. I think that’s okay and I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument for why that kind of standard is not, in fact, a racial one.

    • Rebecca says:

      Welcome, and thanks for the comment Arielariel.

      Since posting this, I have changed my opinion slightly. Specifically, I no longer think the school’s admittance standards were racist, but I still think they expressed prejudice against a trait (parentage) that should be protected. (I think there’s a subtle difference between basing opinions on parentage and on more well-defined race.)

      Concerning whether or not this restricts Orthodox Jews’ ability to self-determine what qualifies as Orthodox… Honestly, I see Bond’s point (the blogger with whom I was having a lot of this discussion). The court was saying that, for the specific purposes of school admittance, this Orthodox school wasn’t allowed to use their own preferred criteria to determine whether someone fit their definition of Jewish. Which does restrict their religious freedom.

      Because controlling who qualifies as a member of one’s religion could potentially restrict how Orthodox Jews practice their religion. Except that A) this was limited to school admittance, which is narrow enough that I think the limiting of religious freedom is worth it and B) as a society we accept that there are certain rights that cannot be infringed upon, not even in the name of religion. There’s obviously lots of disagreement over where to draw that line, but few would contest the line does exist in some way, shape, or form.

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