I know from Jewish history what a convert to Christianity evokes from his former kinfolk. There's a word for convert in Hebrew, and it is meshumed. In Yiddish, at least, it is pronounced as a guttural although there are no Rs to facilitate it. A nasty guttural. A book can be written about the conversion phenomenon among the Jews; many books have probably been written already. From what I know of this subject, conversions were rarely honest, honest in the simplest sense. By this I mean that, when a Jew converted to Christianity, it was highly unlikely it was because he or she had suddenly seen the truth of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. Conversion was in the Middle Ages a matter of life and death for Jews. Convert or die. At best, convert or be deported from where you live.
The more complicated conversions occurred at the dawn of modernity through the nineteenth century and deep into the twentieth. I call these sociological conversions. Economically upwardly mobile Jews were tempted by further upward mobility that would otherwise be barred to them. Barred from certain kinds of work, barred from certain salons, barred from marrying "outside," barred from politics and power -- except, of course, as bankers and doctors. I don't now how many Jews actually converted to Christianity over the last two centuries. But my guess is that the numbers were more than many hundreds of thousands. If any of you know this (all I've got with me in Paris -- where Jews don't convert anymore but just stand aside -- in my laptop) please post below.
Many Jews converted but stayed loyal to their people and its history, if not exactly loyal to their God. Benjamin Disraeli was converted to the Anglican Church after his father had an argument with the man who was preparing the son for his bar mitzvah. (I had an argument with the Harvard Hillel rabbi while my son was being prepared for his bar mitzvah. We didn't convert.) Heinrich Heine converted and remained a Jew, certainly psychologically and spiritually. Felix Mendelsohn Bartholdy's case was more complicated. He was the son of the great Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelsohn, and Felix's conversion wasn't a straight up and down matter either. Arnold Schoenberg converted to Christianity and then reconverted out of the desperate pain of isolation. His Kol Nidre, composed to the opening prayer of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, should be read as part of his tshuvah, his penance for converting. Lord Montagu, a member of the British World War I cabinet, argued against the Balfour Declaration almost as an alternative to conversion.
All of this is a prelude to the conversion of an Italian Cairo-born Muslim, Magdi Allam, to the Roman Catholic Church. Converted by Pope Benedict himself, Allam is deputy editor of Italy's largest and perhaps most influential newspaper, Corriere della Serra. His narrative appeared in a Wall Street Journal story last week in an article, datelined Rome, by Gabriel Kahn and Andrew Higgins. When he arrived in Rome as a student he moved to the radical left. "But," as the WSJ recounts, "Mr. Allam began to shed his left-wing credentials." He also joined the fight against Muslim extremism, becoming perhaps the most prominent personality in what many believe to be a twilight struggle. It may be later than we think. With thirty other prominent Italian Muslims he signed "a manifesto renouncing terrorism."
I know Magdi Allam a iny bit. We met twice in Tel Aviv, once when he was there to receive from the University of T.A. the much coveted Dan David Prize. (Others who have received the prize are people ranging from YoYo Ma to Fred Wiseman. In mid-May, Al Gore will honored in like manner.) I interviewed Allam then. What I was struck by was his conviction that the survival of civilization really rests on the survival of Israel,not because Israel is the center of civilization but it seems to be the polity that enemies of civilization have targeted specifically.
Israel is close to his heart and also his mind. He has written a book called Viva Israel.
Now that he has converted to Catholicism, with the blessings of the Vicar of Christ, no less, and taken on a new middle name, Christiano, he has "unleashed cries of betrayal by Muslims and shouts of triumphs from Christians." Why are Muslims so angry? Unlike Jews in the days when many of them converted, the Muslims are not a group with declining numbers. Indeed, I read in some paper today that there are now more Muslims in the world than Roman Catholics. Maybe moderate Islam feels under siege. It should. But the ultras certainly don't. They are in triumphal ecstasy.
Of course, the Koran imposes death on an apostate. We should be relieved that all there seems to be mobilized against Magdi Cristiano Allam -- at least right now -- is shouting.