Who is a Jew? The great debate:
Remember the English Jewish school that was meaninglessly called 'racist' by the politically correct British establishment for allowing Muslim and Christian pupils but disallowing the Jewish children of converts?
The recent UK Court of Appeal ruling over school admissions which forced the school to accept Jewish children has brought the issue of Jewish identity into sharp relief. Four thinkers, from across the communal spectrum, tackle the issue in a round table discussion with Gerald Jacobs.
September 30, 2009
● Jeffrey Cohen, emeritus rabbi of Stanmore United Synagogue
● Jonathan Freedland, writer and journalist
● Naomi Gryn, filmmaker
● Howard Jacobson, novelist and broadcaster
● Chair: Gerald Jacobs, JC literary editor
Gerald Jacobs: Let me start things off by offering opposing definitions of Jewish identity. At one end of the spectrum, you are Jewish if you are born of a Jewish mother or converted by a respected Jewish authority. At the other end is Sigmund Freud’s definition of his own Jewish identity: “Since I don’t believe in any religion whatsoever, including Judaism, and since I despise all forms of nationalism, including Zionism, it may be asked what, then, is left of me that remains Jewish — to which I would reply, a very great deal and probably its very essence.” So, with those contrasting notions in mind, I am going to ask each of you to give your own short definition of Jewish identity.
Jonathan Freedland: I grapple with this question all the time, and did so in the book I wrote — Jacob’s Gift — about what I was giving my child, whether it was a burden or a blessing, because they are inseparable.
The Israeli novelist David Grossman plays this game of defining yourself with three things. He says: “Jewish first, male second and Israeli third.” It struck a chord with me because I am Jewish, male, British.
We are not just a religion. I wrote in the JC recently about the Woody Allen test — when you read in an interview that he says: “I am an atheist,” you don’t throw down the paper and say: “I could have sworn he was Jewish.” Equally, though, Jews are not just an ethnic group. While you can’t just convert and become black, you can become Jewish.
We don’t fit any of the usual boxes and that is why we have so many problems explaining ourselves to other people, as well as to ourselves. So you end up with a case like that of the JFS, where the judges are trying to put us in one box or another and they can’t because we are sui generis.
In the end it is a blessing and a gift, even with all the encumbrances, because it gives you this key to an extraordinary civilisation. That is the word I would end on. We are neither, narrowly, a race nor a religion. We are something like a people, a civilisation.
GJ: Jeffrey, before you give your personal view, can I ask you first: where does this matrilineal definition come from?
Jeffrey Cohen: In the talmudic period, 2,000 years ago at least, there was already discussion about how we interpret identity. Certainly when Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism came on the scene, a few centuries before the common era, matrilineal descent was already well established.
The question of identity is difficult. Ben Gurion, the founder of the Jewish state, apparently wrote to 400 scholars and asked them: “Who is a Jew and what is a Jew?” I’m sure that he got 400 different answers.
Jewish identity is the crucible in which I was formed. It is one of my greatest sources of inspiration.