Who Is a Jew?

This article reminds me of that Margaret Cho bit where someone approaches her and says: Are you Chinese or Korean?  I can never tell you Asians apart!  And Cho replies: Why would you need to tell us apart?

Great Britain has embarked on that perennial question: Where does a “People” end and an individual’s belief system begin?  And, perhaps more singularly interesting when it comes to Judaism, where does a community end and “A People” begin?

Schools in the UK can base admissions decisions on religion, but not on ethnicity or race.

So is Jewishness a race?  Or is it a religion?

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

“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. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

Two interesting questions here.  It seems the difference between a religion and a race connects intimately with which affiliations are by choice, and which affiliations are intrinsic.  For instance, while a rabbi may push me away with his left hand while pulling in with his right, I am capable of “becoming Jewish,” as defined by the Jewish community’s assessment of my relevant ideology.  But, try as I might, it would be impossible for me to be accepted as “Asian,” simply because there’s a phenotype associated with the Caucasian/Asian divide that simply isn’t present at the Jewish/Gentile cleavage.

The second question comes from how the court approached this question.  When the court first asked how the community determined who was a member, that interpretation of “Jewishness” proved “explosive.”

Noting that some Catholic schools “use baptism as a baseline for admission,” the article suggests no similar baseline for Judaism.  Indeed:

[T]he Court of Appeal ruling threw the school into a panicked scramble to put together a new admissions policy. It introduced a “religious practice test,” in which prospective students amass points for things like going to synagogue and doing charitable work.

That has led to all sorts of awkward practical issues, said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, because Orthodox Judaism forbids writing or using a computer on the Sabbath. That means that children who go to synagogue can’t “sign in,” but have to use methods like dropping prewritten postcards into boxes.

Evidently even if the judiciary arm of the state did look to Jewish assessments of “Jewishness,” there’d still be some controversy.  Not surprisingly, denominations that differ along ideological lines also differ across definitions of who’s in and who’s out:

The case has stirred up long-simmering resentments among the leaders of different Jewish denominations, who, for starters, disagree vehemently on the definition of Jewishness. They also disagree on the issue of whether an Orthodox leader is entitled to speak for the entire community.

What’s interesting is that the court completely disregards how the individual defines himself.  It makes sense that when asking about a categorical inclusion (or exclusion) with regards to a community, that the court would look only to how the community determines how membership gets defined.

But this inflicts a categorically racial analysis on the whole question.  Religion is a personal, internal choice.  If the court really wanted to know whether an individual is categorically Jewish, they would look to see how coherent his beliefs are with some monolithic Jewish system, no?  Whereas if the state begins from the proposition that what characterizes a person as Jewish is somehow external, non-fluid, or determinative only by community acceptance (or not), then the state begins from a presumption that Jewishness functions as a race.

What do you think?

 

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