Life & Culture

Let Will Self leave us, the real prize is to conver lost millions in love with Judaism


'Sorry, Will Self, but you ARE a Jew' ran the Jewish Chronicle headline a fortnight ago. And with his trademark stinging erudition, Geoffrey Alderman used his column that week to explain to Self why being born to a Jewish mother makes him as Yiddishe as the chasidim of Stamford Hill - whether the celebrated writer of fiction and journalist likes it or not. The celebrated writer of fiction and journalist likes it not, of course.

In 2006, Self publicly resigned as a Jew (via the Evening Standard), and this month he reminded us of his departure, and the reasons for it, in the Guardian: "My resignation (he explained) wasn't a protest against Israeli aggression - why would they care about such a gesture? - but aimed, I believed, against prominent, left-wing English Jews, who, despite the complete contradiction between their espoused values and the undemocratic, apartheid and territorially expansionist policies of the so-called Jewish homeland, continued vociferously to support Israel." Nonsense, said Alderman: ethnic origins are indelible. If Self wants to express antagonism towards Israel, he should do so as a Jew, for that is what he is.

So what, say I. So what, if Will Self is technically Jewish: why bother claiming him and his ilk?

There are lots of halachic Jews who care not a jot about being Jewish, let alone about Jewish national self-determination. And there are many who, to put it politely, struggle with both concepts.

"What people think they are is undoubtedly their own affair," says Self, and I couldn't agree with him more.

What you think you are is, invariably, about who you feel you are. And having Jewish parentage doesn't, sadly, always make you feel part of the tribe.

Conversely, there are many non-Jews who certainly do feel part of the tribe or, rather, who would like to, if only we would let them through the door.

Yossi Beilin, former leader of the Meretz party, first floated the idea of secular conversion in 1996 and it has stayed with me ever since. Stripped to its essentials, his idea is that any non-Jew who wants to be part of the Jewish people, who throws his lot in with us, if you like, should be welcomed.

Secular converts would be expected to demonstrate a basic familiarity with Jewish custom and practice and to have some Hebrew, but, crucially, would not have to feign belief in a supreme creator.

In Beilin's words: "Why is someone like me allowed to be an agnostic Jew, while a convert to Judaism is not." Or, as Alderman put it last week: "The quality of Jewishness has little to do with religious belief."

Very little indeed for the estimated two- thirds of world Jewry who have moved away from organised religion; and very little, too, for the 70 per cent of Israeli Jews who describe themselves as secular. And, presumably, very little for the partners and spouses of these secular Jews, a significant proportion of whom are, surely, potential secular converts? Particularly in America where six million Jews reside and where around half of them now marry out. That's a lot of 'lost' Jews. Doesn't it make sense to keep them in the fold and to swell our tiny numbers by letting their presumably philo-Semitic partners become Jews, too? Jewish in the way that most of us are...

The thinking behind Beilin's proposal was, initially at least, specific to Israel.

He wanted to end the exclusive authority of the country's Orthodox rabbinate over conversion. Twenty years on, the frightening phenomenon of Israel's growing strictly Orthodox, largely anti-Zionist community, makes his proposal more pressing than ever. But the truth is that both Israel and the diaspora desperately need more secular and committed Jews.

Still not convinced by Beilin's voguish idea? Actually, it is not a new concept. "Where you lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people," said Ruth of Moab, the first secular Jewish convert on record.

For me, her words are the most emotionally stirring in the Old Testament. Because in life, you side with the people you love. So, let those who love us, become part of us. And let the Will Selfs of this world, leave us.

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