The question of Who Is A Jew has been at the fore of the British legal system now for more than a year.
The case was initially brought by a Jewish father whose wife is not Jewish and whose child was rejected from the Jews Free School (JFS) in London. The court initially ruled in favour of the school, which boasts more than two thousand students and which operates under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and the United Synagogue.
The family appealed the ruling and ultimately won their case in the Court of Appeal, resulting in the child gaining entry into the school. The Court of Appeal ruled that to discriminate against a child who identifies himself as Jewish on account of his father falls foul of the Racial Discrimination Act in the country.
The United Synagogue together with JFS, having already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal fees, decided to take it the Supreme Court.
This is one of the very first cases to be heard by the newly formed Supreme Court, which was superseded by the House of Lords. The seriousness of the case is reflected in the fact that nine judges will be hearing the case rather than the anticipated three. The hearing begins tomorrow.
While the trustees of the United Synagogue and the Chief Rabbis office made a conscious decision not to speak to the press prior to the hearing, one Rabbi who has been especially outspoken on the matter is chairman of the Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet.
When the case initially went to court in 2008 Rabbi Schochet was invited to debate against a leader of the Liberal movement on prime time Television (Channel 4 News Hour) in which he made some exceptionally strong points.
Several times over the course of this past year he took the opportunity to defend the case of Who Is A Jew, most recently when addressing a United Synagogue Council Meeting before Rosh Hashanah.
Tuesday, on the eve of the Supreme Court hearing he went on a full blown offensive, first doing a half hour interview on BBC Radio 4, in which the father of the child in question was also interviewed, as were members of different denominations and different faiths. He was also invited onto Newsnight, which is the flagship news Television programme, usually dealing with prominent politicians and high profile news stories.
Rabbi Schochet explained that “this is not about discriminating against an individual this is about defining the Jewish faith. And if the individual is going to take me to court in order to get me to redefine the Jewish faith, then I have to defend that no matter what.”
Responding to a reform leader’s suggestion that Judaism is based on principles, values and a philosophy, Schochet countered: “Judaism differs fundamentally from other religions in that it does not define a Jew based on observance level. If you are born a Jew – by definition to a Jewish mother than invariably you are a Jew. Having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t de facto make you non-Jewish…if you are born of a Jewish mother then you contain a unique Jewish soul which makes you a Jew. “
When the father of the rejected child broke down about the strain this has put him under Rabbi Schochet explained: “It’s not about him. It’s nothing personal. It’s about my faith, it’s about me protecting the essential future of the Jewish people.”
The veteran presenter, Tim Whewell implied to Rabbi Schochet that it was a form a bullying to which he retorted: “No! Those who brought this to court and those who supported them started up with Judaism, because they started up with Who Is A Jew, and then I have to do what I have to do at whatever cost to be able to properly defend that.
“They took Judaism to task?” asked the presenter. “They took Judaism to task and by extension they took G-d to task.”
The stunned presenter replied: “That’s quite a serious thing to say!” And Schochet replied: “I stand by what I say because I stand by my standards and I stand by my morals. And ultimately the way the law has now been defined, to all intent and purposes, when Judaism is being regarded as discriminatory, the law – not the judge – the law – in the ruling, is essentially suggesting, certainly from a Jewish perspective, that G-d is a racist, and that doesn’t wash! There is something fundamentally wrong when the law of the land is ultimately trying to force the hand of the law of G-d.”
Getting in with a final challenge the presenter asked: “But there are many different interpretations in Judaism and Jews within this country that would concur with the court of appeal!” Unflinching, Schochet countered once more: “In terms of traditional historical Judaism there is only one definition of the Jewish faith. If others want to redefine that, then that’s their business by all means create your own school. Don’t come to me in my Orthodox school and ask me to change my definition and my criteria to accommodate your newfangled standards.”
Meanwhile the government has also weighed in on the case and issued a statement, cautioning the Supreme Court that any ruling against the Jewish community can have wider implications to other mainstream faiths as well.