The Inherent Narcissism of Proselytizing

Sam Hirschel
July 20, 2023

I feel fortunate that my university, California Polytechnic State University, has not been subject to as much antisemitism as other campuses, individual or institutional. As an ambassador for Jewish on Campus, an organization that gives a voice to Jewish students on college campuses across the United States and Canada. I must run at least one tabling event that touches on issues and experiences of Jewish college students. I decided that because of the few incidents of antisemitism on campus, I would educate and bring awareness to broader facts about antisemitism. I hoped for an engaging and illuminating experience for students. Still, I got a message I didn’t expect: my religious and ethnic heritage and identity were “wrong,” and we needed “saving.”

The interaction came as a shock. That day I decided to wear a “Jewish and proud” shirt and my Magen David necklace, which made me an easy target for Christian proselytizers. 

I set up my table at the University Union, where most students spend a sunny day or get Starbucks. A man had his table set up about fifty feet from mine. I selfishly hoped his table wouldn’t distract people from coming to mine. When he walked over and grabbed my attention by asking, “Who in your life shows you unconditional love?” I assumed it was for a behavioral study. I didn’t realize at first that he was there to “spread the word of Jesus,” but I soon understood his true intentions. It was my first time experiencing proselytization.

To Jews, proselytization — attempting to convert someone to another faith — is a threat akin to cultural genocide. Our existence as Jews is not inherently “wrong” or “sinful,” and we should not be made to feel so. Proselytization can often be with what the proselytizer believes are good intentions and done out of a “love” for Jews. Still, if they genuinely love Jews, they will respect our 4,000 years of history, culture, and deep-rooted religious beliefs. 

I was proselytized a second time while still trying to shake my feelings of discomfort from earlier. There had been relatively slow engagement, so it was exciting when two people approached me, seemingly interested, and even asked me questions. One of them had even expressed how glad they were that I was doing this event as they had Jewish ancestry. However, eventually, they revealed their true intention: they only feigned interest in my table for the chance to convert me. It is vile to feign interest in learning to recognize and combat antisemitism while engaging in an insidious form of antisemitism yourself.

Jews do not need “saving,” and Jewish students should not be made to feel unsafe or unwelcome on our college campuses. Jewish students should not have to feel uncomfortable walking around campus. College campuses are meant to be diverse and inclusive, where students can freely express themselves and their beliefs. Proselytizing creates an unwelcoming environment for Jewish students and makes them feel targeted or excluded.

What was supposed to be a day of discussion and education left me feeling uncomfortable and alienated from my fellow students. Can I exist as a proud Jewish student? Why do I have to change and deny my entire culture? 

Proselytizers would argue that they are simply showing you the beauty of their religion and that Jews are wrong for rejecting their unwanted advances. Therein lies the inherent narcissism of proselytizing. It argues that the proselytizers’ way of thinking and their religious identity is the only correct and valid interpretation or way that life should be lived. Proselytization is a profoundly selfish practice. It relies on believing that there are inherently “superior” belief systems and everyone who doesn’t subscribe to it must conform to be a good person.

Jewish students and Jews, in general, deserve respect. It is essential to recognize the harm and danger that proselytization has wrought over the Jewish community for thousands of years, such as the Conversos, the Sephardi Jews in 15th century Spain who had been forced to convert to Catholicism under the threat of the Inquisition and Spanish Crown. Or during the Middle Ages, Muslim rule subjected Jews under their authority to live as second-class citizens, convert to Islam, or be executed. Jewish students should be free to celebrate their Jewish heritage and present outwardly as Jewish without fear of being told that our way of life or existence is wrong and needs to be fixed. Jewish students deserve better.

This piece reflects the views of author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jewish on Campus.

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