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Posted by on Jul 5, 2009 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Is Judaism racist? Or is it racist to say Judaism is racist?

Interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday.

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, issued a rallying cry for Jews today to defend their schools from English law after the court of appeal decided that admission on the basis of a parent’s Jewish status was discriminatory. Writing in this week’s Jewish Chronicle, he condemned the ruling, saying it branded Judaism “racist”.

Go here.

Who is being racist, if anyone? I take racism to be unjustified discrimination on the basis of race (note “unjustified” – there’s nothing racist about, e.g. targeting treatment for an illness on the particular race that suffers from it).

Sacks’ line seems to be that Jewish schools discriminate on the basis of religious orientation, not race, and this boy was not technically of Jewish faith because (i) his mother was not Jewish, and (ii) neither the boy nor the mother had converted by an appropriate mechanism.

The idea that having a Jewish mother is sufficient to make you Jewish, in the sense required for entry into a Jewish school, or Israel, surely is a criterion based on “race” rather than belief (assuming schools don’t also require religiousity – which Israel doesn’t, I believe). Neither your mother nor your mother’s mother, etc. need be a believer. Just a member of the right “race”. So the charge of racism might stick.

But only if this discrimination on the basis of “race” was unjustified.

It’s possible that, by this criterion, many contemporary Palestinians are Jewish (it would depend on when the Jews as a “race” began – if the answer is more then 8K years ago…). Go here and here:

About two-thirds of Israeli Arabs and Arabs in the territories and a similar proportion of Israeli Jews are the descendents of at least three common prehistoric ancestors who lived in the Middle East in the Neolithic period, about 8,000 years ago.

I use “race” in scare quotes because I am unsure precisely what a “race” is in this context, given the very close ancestry and genetic inheritance of supposedly different “races”.

I am by no means expert on precisely what Jews believe about the nature of Jewishness, so if I have got something wrong, apologies and do please correct me.

POST SCRIPT. Notice Sacks insists that the discrimination is religious not racial. However, the school’s own website makes the actual judgement clearer:

“the Court decided that, since the test of who is a member of the Jewish faith is based on descent or conversion, it is a racial test.”

Notice “by descent”. It is sufficient that you be descended on the mother’s side from someone of the Jewish faith. But by how many generations? If neither your mother nor your grandmother were practising Jews, you still get to go to the school if great-grandma was. This is, in effect, discrimination on the basis if being ethnically Jewish. If you are – you’re in (even if you and your Mum are atheists). If you’re not, well you or your mother (or grandmother, etc.) have to pass a faith test. This is ethnic or racial discrimination – whether or not justified (argue that it is, if you like). It’s ethnic discrimination dressed up as faith-based discrimination.

The school says:

“any criteria based on membership of the Jewish faith has been held by the Court to be unlawful,”

That is not true, it seems to me. If the school applied only a genuinely faith-based test (as other religious schools do), that would presumably be ok. But this school also says it is sufficient to gain entry that you be ethnically/racially Jewish. If it simply drops that racial or ethnic criterion, it is presumably back within the law. What’s being legally objected to is discrimination in favour of a race or ethnic group.

In Sacks article, he says:

“if Jewish schools are compelled by English law to impose a test of religious practice instead of the existing test of membership of the Jewish faith, they will no longer be able to teach the Jewish faith to those who have little or no experience of practising it.”

Correct. Ethnic Jews who aren’t practising won’t be able to get in to the school, if non-ethnic Jews who aren’t practising can’t either (just as non-practicing Catholics can’t get into many Catholic schools). Trouble is, Sacks has no interest in teaching the Jewish faith to non-ethnic Jews with little or no experience of practising it, but who want to attend the school. He wants them banned as pupils. Why?

Because they are not ethnically Jewish. That’s the legal problem.


Perhaps the discrimination could be defended like this. A Jewish school teaches a Jewish heritage. And, arguably, those that are ethnically Jewish should get first dibs. In the same way that e.g. a college teaching about African-American heritage might argue African Americans should get first dibs on places, as its their own heritage that’s being taught (but that analogy is not quite right, as Jewish schools don’t just put ethnic Jews first in line, they actually prohibit non-Jews from attending).

POST POST POST SCRIPT. Notice by the way, that Sacks defines someone as being of the Jewish “faith”, and passing the “faith” test (you are thereby a “member of the Jewish faith”), if you are militantly atheist, are descended from a long line of atheists, but your mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s mother happened to be a Jew. That’s obviously not really a “faith test” at all, as most of us would understand the phrase. It’s a racial or ethnicity test. “Faith” is being defined in terms of bloodline.

POSTPOSTPOSTPOST SCRIPT. There is a much fuller and more informative report here. This is also helpful in explaining what being Jewish involves.

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