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? 


  1. I finished reform giyur this August, I live in France (not Paris) but I´m not French. I didn´t stop shopping in kosher shops after the attack in January and I´m used to security guys (and occasional checks of bags etc.) in front of synagogues. Life has to go on. Beit din, of course, asked the question. Luckily, in my homeland (Czech republic) the antisemitism is very weak, so my parents are not scared. They were scared by my idea to have a vacation in Israel in the spring (because of the stabbing attacks), but now, after the attack in Paris, I think they will admit, that the risk is not much higher...
    I´m very happy to be there. If it will be neccessary, I will leave France, but not judaism.

    1. Sarah,
      I'm an American living in Paris and am beginning the process of conversion here. I'd love to talk to you about it so please let me know if you'd be willing to!


  2. Hi

    Sadly antisemitism seems to be always with us and the key is not to assume every goy is an antisemite or Jew hater by default (although anti Israel people will often refer to Zionism and Zionist as codes for their antisemitism).

    Here in Europe the sources of antisemitism are all over the place :from the traditional far right, Islamist preachers and somewhat paradoxically (given their self proclaimed liberalism and tolerance) secularism /atheism, where there's a strand of attacking infant male circumcision and kosher slaughter. And Israel. Although they'd hotly deny any link between antisemitism and those topics as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths (so to speak).... Even when you point out vicious persecution of Jews starts with attacks on these two practices.

    But anyways Shabbat Shalom!

  3. Hey!

    It's really interesting to read that the question about antisemitism should be/is asked during the coversion process, I don't recall me being asked that question, not even once...
    I converted quite young (I was 22) so I didn't really think about antisemitism and the consequences of me converting to Judaism regarding antisemitism and my safety. I do believe my family does worry, especially when attacks happen or when I was in Israel. I try my best to reassure them and promise to be cautious... it works so far but it doesn't mean I'm not scared sometimes...

  4. Now that the topic-of-the-day is anti-Semitism, I humbly suggest teaching people how to join the fight against The New Anti-Semitism:

    Israel is being buried-alive under an
    avalanche of media bias and false accusations.

    These web sites can help refute those
    biases and false accusations:





































    www.VictimsOfArabTerror.co [not com]







  5. As a black woman, I am no stranger to racism, sadly. Anti-Semitism is vile, but an increase in Jewish pride will help diminish its effects.