This text is a reflection on two kinds of crossings: the move into Judaism and the move out of Judaism. It is decisively not an attempt to uncover the spiritual making or unmaking of a Jew or a Muslim. I do not want to engage in any psychosocial objectification of converts and am not haunting after “divine calls” supposedly present in the innermost chambers of converts’ selves. My focus is the political meaning of Jewishness as actively forged and publicly highlighted versus its political meaning when deliberately effaced. In other words, what follows is an analysis of conversion’s political significations, rather than personal motivations, and in this sense, it is an attempt to grasp and name the national-epistemological frames that structure, inscribe, and determine both Jews and Muslims before they speak for themselves. Even though these political significations do not rest exclusively on converts, they become specifically salient and pronounced in the moment that a boundary is crossed.
Converting to Islam
Becoming Muslim, my friend mentioned in passing, was not a move that thrilled his peers in a positive way. My friend had grown up in Vienna in a Jewish-Israeli family and, long before we had met, had converted to Islam. I’d not be thrilled either, I thought, imagining myself as my friend’s mother. Yet, peers here did not refer to family members, or other Jews, but to left-wing Austrian liberals, whose dismay about their friend’s conversion to Islam appeared somewhat less self-evident. From the perspective of a non-Jewish Austrian lefty, what is so difficult about a secular Jew becoming a Muslim? Why does it even matter? Would any fuss have been made had he converted, say, to Catholicism?
According to one line of explanation, such unease with a secular Jew’s conversion to Islam is rooted in the left’s traditionally vexed relation to religion. Much of contemporary left-wing discourse is historically and ideologically bound to the liberational impetus of 1968 that declared nations, borders, religions, and other conventions either obsolete and/or fundamentally oppressive and thus to be abandoned (Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too). The deliberate making of a religious self is thus naturally difficult for leftists to apprehend, as it clashes with the left’s default commitment to secular subjects. A conversion to Catholicism would, in this line of thought, not be reproached any less; unease will erupt whenever a formerly enlightened individual chooses to embrace what has been identified as backward, oppressive, patriarchal, and generally unreasonable, thereby questioning narratives of progressive evolution and secular redemption. Yet, it seems to me that this is not the whole story. A Jew’s conversion to Islam seems to constitute not only a wrong choice, but a choice much worse than a conversion to Catholicism. Why? Why was the crossing of this particular boundary so difficult, scandalous, outrageous to this man’s peers? What kind of anxiety does a Jew who becomes a Muslim arouse among non-Jewish, secular-liberal Europeans?
A State’s Conversion
In the heat of August 2018, footage of French policemen forcing a veiled woman to remove her veil and “burkini” at a beach in Nice made their round in news media and social networks. In protest, a local Jewish-Muslim social activist group in Berlin organized an event coined a “burkini-beach-party,” right in front of the Embassy of France and next to Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor, a landmark of unified Germany. In expectation of pictures featuring “religious minorities in bathing suits,” the number of attending journalists outweighed the number of participants.
“You are a Muslim, right?” one journalist asked me, absent-minded, while positioning his microphone in front of me. I shook my head, “No, actually not, I am Jewish.” “Oh no!” Suddenly agitated, he exclaimed, “I need a Muslim! Can you quickly organize me a Muslim?”
I must have looked as if a dinosaur stood right in front of me. This was the first and only time in my life that a journalist “needed a Muslim,” that a Muslim voice displaced, for a moment, the Jewish voice so valued within the representational economy of German news media. I was so surprised that I forgot to ask why exactly he “needed a Muslim.” What is certain, however, is that this entirely exceptional scenario points at the non-exception, the norm; when a public platform is occupied by persons marked and fixated as “Jew” and “Muslim,” the “Muslim voice” matters insofar as it either affirms or counters the “Jewish voice.” The prism through which a regular German journalist and his or her audience gazes at Muslims is the prism of the (more often than not, absent) Jew. The discourse circles around the question of whether or not Muslims are or are not a threat to Jews, whether Jews in Germany are better served through an exclusion or rather through an education of Muslims.
It is the omnipresence of this perspective, and the sheer unthinkability of its reversal, that explains why any address of anti-Muslim racism must perpetually stress it is not anti-Jewish. The classical configuration of liberal anti-racist activism therefore goes something like this: we fight all kinds of racism, regardless of the ethnicity of the wrongdoer. Muslims may be anti-Semites, homophobes, sexists, but this is no reason to discriminate against them. In line with this, there does not exist one German left-wing organization, initiative or NGO that would declare its only mission to be the fight against anti-Muslim racism. If one’s cause is anti-Muslim racism, one is duty-bound to position oneself against “all forms of racism,” as the formula is going. One will not survive politically without this formula, because declaring one’s mission genuinely and uniquely about Muslims would inevitably be interpreted as implying an anti-Jewish/antisemitic/anti-Zionist1 agenda. It is for this reason, too, that the most successful strategy by far when speaking about anti-Muslim racism entails the demonstration of parallels between Islamophobia and antisemitism; once Islamophobia is associated with antisemitism, one may legitimately oppose it, because then and only then, is it really and truly evil. (As if, in the case that Islamophobia is unlike antisemitism, then everything’s perfectly fine.)
Within this configuration, a person’s Jewishness inevitably matters. The “Jewish voice” here legitimizes the stance against anti-Muslim racism as actually directed also against antisemitism—an identification with Muslims passes as long as it is configured as an identification with Jews too (as in, he fights against the discrimination of Muslims because as a Jew he knows what it is like to be discriminated against). The Jew who became Muslim, my friend discussed above, thus could no longer serve as this figure who, through his very Jewishness, endows anti-racist activism with its legitimizing baseline. One could no longer configure his politics as representing the interests of a Jewish collective, or as being motivated by an identification with Muslims “on account of being a persecuted people too.” He forced his surroundings to come to terms with a fact that is as simple as it is apparently shocking—his agitation against anti-Muslim racism was motivated not by an identification with Muslims as a Jew but by an identification with Muslims as a Muslim.
And this scenario seems to hint at a nightmare, or an entire series of entangled nightmares. When the fight for the Muslim other loses its Jewish other, then Muslim existence will have to matter whether or not it affects Jewish existence. And possibly even more problematic, if the Jewish other can “metamorphose” into a Muslim other, then does this metamorphosis remain the singular, exceptional act of an individual? Or, does it hint more generally at a possibility that Jews might not lend themselves to a national agenda, including a “tolerant multicultural liberal” agenda, and do so also as Jews?
Converting to Judaism
“You know,” she said hesitatingly, “there is something I’d like to ask. When I converted to Judaism, basically everything remained the same. I mean, my parents, Christmas, friends, all that…but you…”
“Hmmm,” I answered, and privately wondered (or maybe envied), how can a conversion be possibly perceived as less than a major rupture? How can conversion hardly play out in one’s actual life, something hardly even felt? I think that what this conversation indicates is that conversions into Judaism and Islam can be, as far as their political signification is concerned, diametrically opposite moves. A conversion into Judaism today can be a simple and easy move into the hegemonic center, whereas a conversion out of Judaism (and so the more a conversion out of Judaism and into Islam) can be a move out of the hegemonic center. It was, after all, Ivanka who converted to Judaism, and not Jared who became Christian. Moving into Judaism can be, in eyes of the mainstream, a theologically, aesthetically, and politically plausible move.2
The incorporation of Judaism into something like a “Judeo-Christianity” has been tackled by a number of scholars such as Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Daniel Boyarin, or Tomoko Masuzawa. In Germany specifically, the institutional embrace of Jews can be placed in the context of German post-war rehabilitation politics and, after 1989, of post-unification state ideology. A “flourishing of Jewish life” was imagined to be of pivotal importance for Germany’s rehabilitation in the circle of civilized states. In face of the fundamental absence of Jews in Germany, however, I would argue that a sort of “Jewish prism” was incorporated and eventually embodied by non-Jewish Germans themselves. Holocaust-commemoration, as is documented by sociologist Micha Bodemann, became increasingly infused by moments of merging, incorporation, and interchangeability.3 “In order to accomplish national redemption,” so Bodemann argues, “they (German non-Jews, H.T.) had to become, in their own consciousness, Jews themselves.”4 For instance, the motto that accompanied the commemoration ceremonies of the November pogroms, or Kristallnacht, in 1988 was an entirely decontextualized quotation of the Baal Shem Tov: “Remembering is the secret of deliverance, and forgetting prolongs the exile.” In other words, the call for remembrance gained its moral force through having Germans do the same thing that Jews do. Germans, like Jews, remember, and Germans, like Jews, will be rewarded with redemption: the former through a national self that is untainted by genocidal stains, and the latter through a return to Zion. I am aware that this is a broad claim, requiring a more thorough analysis and attention to nuance; nonetheless, for the sake of the argument here, I propose that within the specific German context with which I am concerned, it was not the difference between Jews and non-Jews that dominated commemoration, but rather a notion of proximity and familiarity that marked German citizens as standing “on the good side.”
Such merging of a “new German” prism and a Jewish prism (or rather, the appropriation of what is imagined to be a Jewish prism by the participants of new Germany) rendered the Jewish minority in a privileged yet vulnerable position. First, this merging implied that Jews became carriers or symbols of “new Germany.” A brief glance at the recent emergence of the German “kippa-demonstration” may suffice to illustrate this; in the early summer of 2018, a Syrian refugee attacked with a belt an Arab Christian citizen of Israel who was wearing a kippa. Exact reasons for this are hitherto unknown. Following this attack, which occurred in an affluent and heavily gentrified neighborhood of Berlin, the city’s Jewish Community (JGzB) initiated a “solidarity-demonstration,” calling upon the demonstration’s participants to wear a kippa. In media reports that covered the attack and advertised the demonstration, the attack’s more intricate details (for example, that it involved two Palestinians, the victim and the perpetrator) slid into the predictable fault-lines of “Jew versus Arab” and, eventually, “us versus antisemites.” The act of wearing a kippa was extracted from the context of religious practice and became framed as a practice, or posture, of the anti-antisemitic citizen. As far as its public, media-political use is concerned, the kippa today transcended its traditional, conventional semiotics and stood as a symbol of the tolerant, liberal state, of “our democracy” and “our values.”
Second, the incorporation of Jews into Germany’s national imaginary was predicated upon the transformation of the older “Jewish question” into a “Muslim question:” The problematization, surveillance, and criminalization of practices associated with Islam, embodied by former migrants and refugees now all fixed as Muslims. Jewish practices can, of course, dangerously resemble Islamic practices, so that the Muslim question can incidentally entail a Jewish question. A crossing of Jewish and Islamic practices occurred, for instance, in the course of a “circumcision debate” in 2012, when German citizens and media debated criminalizing ritual circumcision. Circumcision was eventually protected by the creation of a new law. This law, however, was born out of historical conscience and not out of a normative commitment to freedom of religion. Memory of the Nazi genocide infuses German politics with political mercy towards Jews, which necessarily prevents criminalizing Jewish practices (and only Jewish practices). It is therefore a kind of protection that will not only fade once memory fades; it is also a kind of protection for which Islamic practices cannot plea. Jews and Muslims may do things that are similar, but the way the German state reads and values these things is not.
“The Jewish voice,” then, is an integral part of the German state’s legitimation and exercise of power. The necessity to protect Jews from “imported antisemitism” can be brought forth as an argument in favor of a restriction and fortification of border and asylum policies. At the same time the memory of the Nazi genocide (and a normative commitment to “Never Again”) accompanies arguments and policies in favor of liberal migration and against Islamophobia, for “tolerance education” and so forth. Within a German post-unification context, the “Jewish voice” thus ultimately stands for a given political stance’s compatibility with the state’s national imaginary. It may offer a critique—or even fundamentally challenge—existing policies, but it cannot undo, evade, or trespass the conditions that give it political weight in the first place. Both a Jew who fights Islamophobia and a Jew who supports Islamophobic policies signifies the compatibility of his or her stance with the state’s investment in Jews as “good others.”
Speaking “as a Jew”
In the introduction to this essay, I announced that this would be an analysis of “conversion’s political significations…an attempt to grasp and name the national-epistemological frames that structure, inscribe, and determine both Jews and Muslims before they speak for themselves.” My tentative conclusion points at the inextricable entanglement of the state, here specifically the German state, and Jews—the embrace of a Jewish other is integral to the German state’s legitimization and exercise of power. It is an embrace that does not require Jews’ consent at all, for even a rejection of this embrace will neither undo Jews’ identification with it nor undo Jews’ instrumentalization as a figure of thought, a tool, of the state. And why, to begin with, should one reject this arrangement at all? Most Jews today live in states of Euro-Christianity, and they do so largely in prosperity, security, autonomy, and full participation as citizens.
My suspicion of this arrangement—at times, my outward rejection of it—can be situated in the specific experiences I have amassed over the past decade as a Jewish convert in Germany. Oftentimes (which is to say, virtually always) when invited to speak, I am invited as the Jewish voice. I try to evade this, arguing that as a convert I simply cannot function as a representative figure, apart from the fact that I do not have anything “Jewishly” to say that would be of interest to a wider German public. Yet these attempts of de-representation generally fail. In a German context, conversions undermine the Jew’s categorization as “good other,” and situate him or her instead as a product of the post-war, post-unification incorporation of Jews into the state’s reason.
When at first meeting my friend, the “ex-Jewish Muslim,” I understood his conversion to Islam less as a rejection of Jews and more as a rejection of the ways Jews are implicated in contemporary power. For how much can one stretch one’s identification with the West’s others when one’s own Jewishness is inevitably co-opted as a figure that strengthens the West? Is there any way to speak and act as a Jew without serving as a “good other” and providing the state with one of its most important, legitimizing assets? I do not know if this is a correct reading (nor is this any of my business). Yet thinking about it has fostered in me, in a way, a certain radicalization of Judaism. I am clinging to the tools through which Jews have acted in this world for the past millennia and that simply cannot be appropriated: the mitzvot, the commandments. Observance does not absolve one from accountability regarding all those things done in the name of Judaism. Yet it restores the Jew to the immanence of his or her body, to some kind of physical, material being that will not dissolve and points beyond us. They remain, whether or not the world is set in flames.
An earlier version of this text was presented as part of a workshop organized by Nomen Collective in Bilgisaray, Berlin, in 2017. It was published in Hebrew as “When a Jew Converts to Islam: on Religious Border-Crossings in the European Left” in Mikan Ve’eylakh: Journal for Diasporic Hebrew.
- In German public discourse, the interchangeability of these terms is a given. The very questioning of their interchangeability is perceived of as a threat.
- Even biographically, a conversion into Judaism is often framed not as a transition, but as a mere enactment of what one has been all the time in any case. Converts often refer to their conversion as no more than a little paperwork to get done, the acquisition of a little official stamp, a minor bureaucratic disturbance.
- This phrase was written also by Joschka Fischer, foreign minister from 1998 to 2005, into the guestbook of Yad Vashem in 2000. Richard v. Weizäcker used it in a speech on occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1985.
- Michal Bodemann, “Reconstructions of History: From Jewish Memory to Nationalized Commemoration of Kristallnacht in Germany,” in: Bodemann (ed.), Jews, Germans, Memory. Reconstructions of Jewish Life in Germany (Ann Arbor; The University of Michigan Press, 1996), 212.