What the Brits can teach us about Jewish identity

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series includes a poignant metaphor for racism the in the discrimination against “Muggle-born” wizards (wizards born to non-magic parents) by “pure-blooded” wizards.  Recently in England, the question of “pure-blood” status moved from a fictional magical community to the real-life Jewish community, as a London Jewish high school denied acceptance to a 12 year old boy whose father is Jewish and whose mother converted.  The high school defines one’s Jewish identity by the Orthodox standard that Judaism is passed through the matrilineal blood line, and since the boy’s mother converted in a Progressive shul, her conversion did not meet the school’s Orthodox standards.  The family sued and lost, but the decision was reversed on appeal.  Last week the British Supreme Court made the final call on a sensitive question: who is a Jew?  It decided in favor of the boy.

In Harry Potter, the term “mudblood” refers to someone with Muggle (non-magic) blood, and is considered a highly offensive, ethnic slur.  Alternatively, it is acceptable and common to refer to people as “half-Jews” or for folks to identify themselves as “one-quarter” or “one-eighth” Jewish.  Why do we put such stock in these distinctions?  The problem with identifying one’s blood status is that implies a hierarchy of Jewishness – that some Jews have a more legitimate claim to Judaism than others. (Some Jews are not “more equal” than others.)  This type of hereditary hierarchy breeds what we now understand to be discrimination.

The British court overturned the ruling, recognizing a distinction between religion and ethnicity. The court decided that a decision based on blood was an ethnic test, and that a religious test should be based on the belief and practice of Judaism, and perhaps more importantly, one’s own asserted identity. 

Freedom of religion is important to Jews, but we are hypocrites if we do not acknowledge that true freedom of religion means that anyone can be Jewish. Converts to Judaism face prejudice and exclusion simply because they were not born to Jewish parents. As we have seen in the media blitz over Ivanka Trump’s conversion, the Jewish community is distrustful or suspicious of women converting to Judaism for their spouse, often making accusations of insincerity or “gold-digging.”

The Jewish community must take into account the reality that the Jewish family is diversifying.  We must consider Jewish adoption and its effect on identity as people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds are being raised in Jewish families.  Nicole Opper deals with some of these issues in her new film, Off and Running, a documentary about an African-American girl raised by a Jewish lesbian couple.  The inclusion of GLBT Jewish families breaks down the matrilineal bloodline argument even further – is a child Jewish if he has two dads?  What if the child’s mother is a transwoman? 

In fact, our contemporary understanding of identity is informed by gender scholarship, and if we have learned anything from the gender theory, it is that identity is something asserted by the individual.  Identity is something you feel you are, not something assigned to you or decided for you.

The British courts have instructed Jewish schools to use religious practice, rather than blood, as a test of Jewishness.  This is a step in the right direction, but is still problematic because not all Jews are practicing.  When Wizarding parents in Harry Potter produce a child who is does not perform magic, he or she becomes an outcast in Wizarding society.  This is not a perfect comparison to atheist, non-practicing, unaffiliated, or secular Jews, but it is close enough.  Non-religious Jews have an equal and legitimate claim to Jewish identity because Judaism is more than just a religion.  When you are Jewish, Judaism is your history, your culture, your cuisine, your values, your traditions, your family, your people. For plenty of non-practicing Jews, their Jewish identity is central to their understanding of self.

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was founded by four teachers, one of whom believed that only pure-blooded students should be admitted.  That teacher’s final descendent, Voldemort, became the most powerful and most evil Wizard of all time. Voldemort envisioned a perfect society of pure-blooded Wizards.  He turned pure-blooded Wizards against their mixed-blood neighbors.  He created an army of “Death Eaters” to round up mixed-blood wizards and their Muggle relatives, and torture and kill them.  His aims and methods should sound familiar, especially to Jews. 

Harry Potter has taught a generation of kids and young adults that to discriminate by blood status is in no uncertain terms racist, immoral, and evil.  The Jewish community should take a lesson from the Brits – in real life and in fiction — and remember that exclusion or hierarchy based on one’s ethnic or blood status can lead to discrimination, hate, and violence.

At a time when the Jewish community is worried about the continuity of the Jewish people, we should not close our doors to those who consider themselves Jewish, or wish to become Jewish.  Many groups consider intermarriage a threat, but it is only threatening if we employ such limited definitions of Jewish identity. If we’re worried about shoring up the numbers, we should accept the children of intermarried couples as members of the community, regardless of their mothers’ blood status.  If these children are welcomed warmly into the fold, they will be that much more likely to identify as Jewish, and raise their own children as Jews. The power to expand the Jewish community will come from acceptance and equality, not exclusivity and hierarchy.

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