Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Discouraging the Potential Convert with Antisemitism

In the Talmud, the rabbis require that a potential convert be asked a pretty specific question:

The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: "Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted?"
If he responds, “I know, and I [feel] unworthy [to share their troubles]”, we accept him at once.
- Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47a

To my knowledge, all the movements ask this question during conversion, at one point or another. In an orthodox conversion, the question may even be asked twice: once during the beit din meeting and again while standing in the mikvah. However, it's possible to get through a conversion without being asked the question in this specific formulation (whether that's a decision or only an accidental oversight, I can't say). But you should always be asked how you feel about assuming the risk of anti-semitism, whether you've suffered any so far, and how your family feels about you taking on this risk. There's no right or wrong answer; they just want to make sure you've really thought through the risks of the decision to convert. Being a Jew can be dangerous, quite frankly. 

Of course, it seems silly to ask this of patrilineal Jewish conversion candidates since society already views them as Jews, and they are just as susceptible to anti-semitism as any other Jew. Particularly since they're more like to carry last names perceived as Jewish! You can be born Jewish and have the last name O'Malley, yet many people who aren't halachically Jewish have names associated with being Jewish. But the idiocy of saying "so and so must be Jewish" based on a last name is a pet peeve of mine... 

The Statistics

So let's take this question out of the theoretical and into the real world: the FBI has released its 2014 hate crime statistics. Thankfully, the number of crimes in the US (that get reported to the police and then passed along to the FBI) are relatively low for the huge size of our population, and the numbers have been declining for the most part. But those numbers still represent people dead and injured and property destroyed. Things are much more serious in Europe. You can find more statistics about that compiled in this article in Slate: Anti-Semitism Trends in Europe Are More Complex than the U.S.

When You Enter the Community Affects How You Perceive Antisemitism Risk

When I entered the Jewish community about 12 years ago, antisemitism wasn't really on my radar as a real risk to me. Maybe some rude comments, but death or injury? Not really. Speaking to other converts from that time, this conversion experience wasn't unusual. It wasn't a very bad time to be a Jew in America, and we were hopeful things were improving. I knew these things were problems in Israel and maybe even Europe, but I came in after the Second Intifada had ended and wasn't being talked about on a regular basis anymore. I've seen anti-semitism creep up in the last few years, and we've suffered some very serious attacks even here in the US. You may not have heard of the more "minor" attacks because they're rarely picked up by the national media unless there are several deaths. (If you're in the Jewish social media world, you'll hear about it.) Vandalism, property damage, harassment, workplace and school discrimination, even physical harm to one or two people at a time...these things are very much alive. Even an attempted terrorist act wasn't covered very widely because no one was harmed: someone in a car shot repeatedly at a Jewish elementary school (I can't even find a link to a news story about it because only shootings with casualties are showing up in my Google searches).

Obviously, I think it's worth being here despite the danger. I think people get threatened by people who are different, and especially when those differences ring of truth. Humans don't like to be uncomfortable, and the existence of the Jews makes other people uncomfortable. (I wish Judaism made more Jews uncomfortable with how they speak and act, but that's a different problem...) 

What About Your Family?

No matter how comfortable you are with your risk level, your non-Jewish family may not be okay with it. Even your Jewish or not-halachically-Jewish family may not be okay with you putting yourself more into harm's way, which is what happens when you start attending synagogue or Jewish events or dressing more obviously "Jewish."

You may even be a little thankful when specific anti-semitic attacks don't get a lot of press because you don't want your parents to worry (I'm guilty of that). The best thing you can do for your family is show that you think it's worth being here, despite any potential danger. After all, the statistics for any particular individual are in your favor. And most importantly, show how the community supports each other and protects each other. Show that you're confident that the community takes threats seriously and values your safety. Personally, I may have played up the neurotic Jewish parent stereotype to convince my parents that the community worries just as much about me and my safety as they do. For my parents, that seemed to help. And so does time. And so did meeting people in my community to see that orthodox Judaism is a lot more than "don't do this and don't do that." Unfortunately, that's most of what they see when I visit. I think they "got" why I was okay with assuming this risk once they could see more of what I'm gaining by being here.

I believe I'll be ok (#MandatoryPoohPoohPooh), and I believe the relatively-minor antisemitism of everyday life is worth being here. I also believe it shows I'm on the right path. But that doesn't mean I didn't shake while I sat in bomb shelters in Israel last year. On the bright side, I survived, and I called my parents every day. My calm demeanor and boring stories about museums seemed to help. It's not like either of us knew that regular life could continue in a war zone. It helped them develop trust in the capability of Israel to protect us, as well as learning how to compare my experience with what they saw portrayed on TV. 

But sometimes I still wonder why I've chosen to join a minority group when I enjoyed a lot of privilege as a white American (and some non-Jewish "friends" have attacked me on this point when I denounce antisemitism), but I believe that this perspective has made me a better person as well as a better Jew. 

Choosing to subject yourself to anti-semitism is a double-edged sword (both good and bad in its way), and your feelings can and will change with time and circumstances. 

How do you relate to antisemitism, and has that feeling changed over time? How do you think your family handles it? Are there ways you can reassure them?