MIT Anthropology Spotlight

Conversion court proceeding

Yehuda C. Goodman — Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Visiting scholar studies differentiated conversion of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants in Israel


Yehuda Goodman, senior lecturer in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting scholar at MIT Anthropology, studies conversion to Judaism among immigrants recently arriving in Israel. Becoming a more integrated citizen in Israeli Jewish society involves a complex process of conversion, carried out in religious courts by Orthodox rabbis who act as official agents of the state. Goodman explores the variable interpretations and constructions of the converted subjects by the courts — especially Russian and Ethiopian immigrants — as well as the discursive negotiations among the participants.

Building on many years of study on the formation of the complex identities characteristic of late modernity, Dr. Goodman focuses on the contradictory forces shaping personal biographies: on the one hand, they are governed by dominant modern discourses, particularly professional knowledges, which are presumably inclusive and universal (like psychology, or the nation-state and its institutions). On the other hand, however, at the basis of these seemingly objective discourses lie moral voices and power relations. Identities are formed, claimed, and enforced upon and by actors as part of deep contestations within and between social groups, within self/other relations, and in the midst of shifting social boundaries. In particular, Goodman explores the processes by which various discourses de-politicize questions about religious, gender, ethnic and national conflicts. He studies how subjectivity is formed (and re-formed) in liminal social spaces and in moments of deep existential transformations including: madness in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, ethnicity in high schools, moral reasoning and self formation by soldiers during the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada), Jewish proselytizing industry, and state-sponsored conversion. In these liminal sites, the obviousness of reality is shattered, and taken-for-granted identities of individuals and collectivities are questioned.

In the current project on state sponsored religious conversion, Goodman demonstrates how the act of inclusion of new immigrants in the Israeli collective reproduces social differences and hierarchies. Although the state and the rabbis aim at incorporating all these immigrants into Jewish Israeli society, they differentiate between the Russians and Ethiopians immigrants. In particular, the rabbis serving as the state’s agents, use different conversion practices, configured along different notions about the immigrants' subjectivity, which express (and used) to justify differences and inequalities. The non-strictly-religious practices – not defined explicitly as crucial for the conversion itself — organize the process differently for each group. Following a binary logic, differences are embodied in the timing of conversion (immediate/late), its location (periphery/center), converted social unit (families/individuals), type of change (behavior/knowledge) and voice (silenced/heard). In short, the Ethiopians are interpreted as collectivistic-familial human beings, with a simple, naïve patriotic sentiment empowered by religious belief. They are suspected for belief in Jesus Christ, a belief which needs to be redirected towards the right religious object. Even more problematic, for the rabbis, is their primitivism, and lacking in modern knowledge and skills. The Russians, by contrast, are mostly women before marriage wishing their children to be considered Jewish. These immigrants are constructed by the rabbis as autonomous individuals, knowledgeable and skilled. But, having lived in a secular communist regime they are constructed as lacking in "natural" religious emotion and are constantly suspected as of their true motivations for converting.

This conversion is thus not merely about incorporating citizens on the basis of a desired Jewish nationality. Rather, the process reflects the state’s ambivalence between its modern and nationalistic aspirations. Ethiopians are constructed as religious and patriotic but primitive. They answer the demand for national sentiments, but lack other aspects of the modern nation-state: knowledge and rationality. Russians are constructed as matching the state’s modernist and Enlightment projects, but lacking in their faith. They are modern but not religious enough. The conversion practices are thus filled with ambivalence towards both groups, European white Russians and African, black Ethiopians. Together they form a split object of desire for the state (and its religious brokers). Each group is conceived as having a self of both attraction and repulsion, so that the citizenship project further constructs differences and inequalities between these social groups.

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