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Michel Kravel-Tovi


It was an honor and a delight to receive the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, in the Social Science, Anthropology and Folklore category, at the last AJS Annual Conference in Boston. I would like to thank Jordan and Arlene Schnitzer for their generosity. I would also like to thank the book award committee for recognizing the value of my book and, in so doing, placing my work alongside the wonderful scholarship of past recipients of the award. 

My book When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel tells the story of an impossible endeavor that the Israeli state has taken upon itself: the "national mission" of Jewish conversion. This mission is an organized attempt to convert to Judaism non-Jewish immigrants (olim)—many young women, most part of the mass waves of migration to Israel from the Former Soviet Union since the late 1980s. The paradoxes underlying this endeavor ground the ethnographic and analytic framework of the book. The point of departure for the book is the incongruity between the two thresholds at play: the inclusive, even missionary, biopolitical aspirations of the Israeli state to bring these immigrants into the national fold, and the exclusive rabbinic Orthodox gatekeeping practices in use, focused as they are on the religious conduct of individuals. The book follows the actors who bear the weight of the national mission in its mundane enactments: conversion agents, mainly administrators, rabbinical judges, and educators, most connected to religious Zionist circles; and conversion candidates, mostly secular Israeli women with FSU backgrounds. I engage all these interlocutors in the sites where they engage each other: the conversion school, the rabbinical conversion court, and the ritual bath.

At the heart of When the State Winks lies an ethnographic riddle. I seek to determine how, in the context of these contradictory forces, conversion agents and candidates manage, respectively, to facilitate and undertake conversion. I unpack several dimensions of this riddle by detailing the joint performances of sincerity that transpire between agents and candidates, permitting both sides to work toward their shared goal. Challenging the salient—and, I think, simplified—public notion of the "wink-wink conversion," the book presents a morally-imbued and deeply-engaged "win-win conversion." These moral transactions are based on complicated entanglements, unfolding in a gray area that blurs truths and lies, sincerity and deception. The concept of winking relations that frames the book allows us, I suggest, to think analytically about the nuanced modes of interactions and alliances involved in the construction of both state power and state subjects, in Israel and elsewhere. 

Some of the threads that defined my study of conversion run through my current projects. But I have moved away, for the present time at least, from a focused study of Israel as a Jewish state. In the book-length project that I am currently working on, I analyze the role played by quantified knowledge and socio-demographic surveys in the making and shaping of communal engagement with the future of Jewish life in the USA. In my second project, I investigate emerging, groundbreaking trends among Haredi communities in Israel, to address and battle sexual violence.