When the State Winks

The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel

Michal Kravel-Tovi

Columbia University Press

When the State Winks

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Pub Date: September 2017

ISBN: 9780231183246

320 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $65.00£54.95

Pub Date: September 2017

ISBN: 9780231544818

320 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $64.99£54.95

When the State Winks

The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel

Michal Kravel-Tovi

Columbia University Press

Religious conversion is often associated with ideals of religious sincerity. But in a society in which religious belonging is entangled with ethnonational citizenship and confers political privilege, a convert might well have other motives. Over the last two decades, mass non-Jewish immigration to Israel, especially from the former Soviet Union, has sparked heated debates over the Jewish state's conversion policy and intensified suspicion of converts' sincerity. When the State Winks carefully traces the performance of state-endorsed Orthodox conversion to highlight the collaborative labor that goes into the making of the Israeli state and its Jewish citizens.

In a rich ethnographic narrative based on fieldwork in conversion schools, rabbinic courts, and ritual bathhouses, Michal Kravel-Tovi follows conversion candidates—mostly secular young women from a former Soviet background—and state conversion agents caught between the contradictory demands of their nationalist and religious commitments. She complicates the popular perception that conversion is a "wink-wink" relationship in which both sides agree to treat the converts' pretenses of faith as real. Instead, she demonstrates how their interdependent performances blur any clear boundary between sincere and fraudulent conversions. Alongside detailed ethnography, Kravel-Tovi develops new ways to think about the complex connection between religious conversion and the nation-state. Kravel-Tovi emphasizes how state power is created and managed through "winking"—the subtle exchanges and performances that animate everyday encounters between state and citizen. In a country marked by tension between official religiosity and a predominantly secular Jewish population, winking permits the state to save its Jewish face.
In this probe of state-religion relations in Israel, Michal Kravel-Tovi brings the critical but sympathetic curiosity of a skilled ethnographer to explore the use of religious conversion for the purpose of creating national belonging. Addressing the substantial divergence between rabbinical practice and theological ideals and portraying converts whose reasons for choosing Judaism are often practical rather than spiritual, she shows how officials of state as well as rabbinical judges wink collusively at the short shrift given to doctrinal requirements in favor of well-trained performances of sincerity. Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University
The question of who is allowed to convert to Judaism in Israel, and how and when, is deeply charged with both spiritual and political commitments. Kravel-Tovi's insightful, thoughtful book helps us to understand the nature of these contradictions and their consequences and the way that converts themselves come to experience their conversion. Tanya Luhrmann, Stanford University
When the State Winks is an excellent, original work that uniquely situates its analysis not just within an anthropological framework but also within a broad, humanistic one. Kravel-Tovi tells a compelling story about the political and personal complexities of conversion in Israel that will be of interest to anthropologists, sociologists, and historians as well as scholars of Judaism and religion more generally. Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University
The best recent ethnography of state bureaucratic practice in Israel and the best ethnography of state-assisted conversion more broadly. With clarity of prose, pathbreaking ethnography, and a humanizing argument, Kravel-Tovi’s work moves beyond accounts that treat ‘the state’ as a monolithic and inimical entity. Real people—rabbis, converts, and state workers—emerge from these pages, not stick figures of the sociological imagination. Don Seeman, Emory University
A beautifully written and engaged ethnography of the overlooked topic of state-sponsored conversion to Judaism. Kravel-Tovi illustrates how the complicated playing field of conversion is constrained with tensions between state secularism and religion; Zionism and Judaism; and bureaucracy and sincerity. Esra Ozyurek, London School of Economics
Acknowledgments
Prologue: The Naked Truth on Tel Aviv’s Beaches
Introduction: Taking Winking Seriously
Part 1. The Conversion Mission
1. National Mission
2. State Workers
Part 2. The Conversion Performance
3. Legible Signs
4. Dramaturgical Entanglements
5. Biographical Scripts
Epilogue: Winking Like a State
Glossary
Notes
References
Index

About the Author

Michal Kravel-Tovi is assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University. She is coeditor of Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life (with Deborah Dash Moore, 2016).