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Converts are part of us — 
at all levels

There is nothing to be ashamed of in our past. The time of trembling is over: we can be proud of how complex we really are, writes Ben Judah

    Solomon's Temple, showing the the Council of the Sanhedrin.
    Solomon's Temple, showing the the Council of the Sanhedrin. (Printer of a souvenir of Gerhard Schott’s model tour of London circa 1723-1730, via Wikimedia Commons)

    Once upon a time, Judaism was a little bit different.

    Tucked away in a small Maronite village in Galilee are the tombs of two sages, Avtalyon and Shmaya, now so forgotten their existence is almost a secret.

    The Mishnah tells us they were the righteous of their generation; they were a light unto the nation. Shmaya was the Nasi, or the president of the Sanhedrin, and Avtalyon, the Av Beit Din, or his vice-chair. Both were converts.

    When they were buried here, in Israel’s wooded north, when the Jewish people were last in their land, around a century before the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were proud and not ashamed of converts.

    This could be seen to anyone walking in Jerusalem in the first century CE. North of the City of David, the pilgrim coming for Yom Kippur would have passed the towering palaces of Queen Helen of Adiabene and Monobaz II. They were converts, and never seen as anything but Jews.

    The Talmud, proud of this royal house ruling in Northern Iraq, is gushing: how they donated gold vessels to the Temple, founded Torah academies in their capital Arbela, and fought hand-to-hand as Jews against Rome, the King’s brothers even falling, as Jews, into captivity.

    Our present attitude to converts, and to Judaism’s history of converts, are the reflexes of the old, humiliated diaspora. The reflexes of rabbis frightened to convert, let alone sing the praises of the convert, for fear of being sliced by a Polish Prince.

    They are the reflexes of Islam’s dhimmi status, where any conversion had to be kept as secret as possible, for it undermined the Koran’s claim to utter finality. Conversion to Judaism was more often than not a crime; one that fearful communities were made to pay for in blood.

    With our own state, and our own success, we don’t have to live like this any more. When the American President’s daughter is proud to be a Jewish convert, it is time for Jews to reclaim the rich history of the converts who are — alongside, of course, the Israelites — our ancestors.

    We should be proud of Khania, the warrior Queen of a converted Berber tribe; and proud of the Kingdom of Himyar, from the fourth to the sixth century, in Yemen. Why should we forget King Abu Kariba, who, healed by Jewish doctors while at war, converted in gratitude.

    Wanting to forget the converts in our blood is a reflex of a diaspora without a state. A reflex of a time when the Jews, persecuted, felt only by claiming pure bloodlines would their longing for Israel be seen as legitimate by the ethno-racialist Western mind of 1948.

    This is why we choose to forget the Royal House of the Khazars, who from the seventh to the eleventh century ruled between Ukraine and the Caucasus.

    Historians dismiss as fanciful the idea that all Ashkenazi Jews stem from the Khazars: it was probably only ever a Jewish aristocracy. But historians of Judaism equally dismiss as fanciful the idea all Jewish families today, no matter how pious, are purely descendent from the exiles.

    All Jewish families descend directly from the first Israel, but also from converts. Not warrior kings but little, forgotten converts from Polish and Moroccan villages, who took huge risks to join a Jewish people they loved; whom the Torah not only asks us, but requires us to love.

    There is nothing to be ashamed of in our past. The time of trembling is over: we can be proud of how complex we really are. And reclaim our forgotten kingdoms.

    Ben Judah is the author of ‘This is London’


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