When an 81-year-old novelist sued to become the first Jew in Israel officially labeled “without religion,” he didn’t realize he would start a movement
According to the Israeli government, there are roughly 5,800,000 religious Jews in Israel, 1,320,000 Muslims, 150,000 Christians, 130,000 Druze, and exactly one secular Jew. His name is Yoram Kaniuk—and if a new movement that he has inspired continues to grow, he won’t be alone for long.
In Israel, every citizen has a religious classification and an ethnic classification. For the majority of Israeli citizens, “Jewish” is listed as both. It’s not a simple formality: One’s religious classification has profound effects, determining whom and how one can marry, the process of divorce, whether one can get buried in a Jewish cemetery, and whether one must serve in the army. The “state” in this case is embodied in the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a quirk of the Israeli democratic system that stretches back to the country’s founding in 1948. At the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave representatives of the Orthodox religious community, numbering only in the hundreds, a host of powers dramatically out of proportion to their size on the assumption that these Jews would soon turn away from the religion of the shtetl.
Ben-Gurion, needless to say, got it wrong. The ranks of the Orthodox have swelled to well over a million, yet the rabbinate still retains the sole power over deciding who is a Jew. Because of the strength of their voting bloc and the keystone role that Orthodox parties hold in Israeli coalition governments, there has never been a successful bid to challenge the rabbinate’s control.
But Kaniuk, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, may have accidentally found a loophole. And if it gets widened by the Supreme Court in an important case now pending, it could grow big enough for a large section of the country to step through.
Kaniuk wasn’t necessarily trying to upend 60 years of Orthodox rule when he took his case to court this past spring. At 81, he hardly seems like a revolutionary. He walks slowly with a cane, wears large glasses, and bangs his hands on the table when he’s upset. He fought in the War of Independence and ferried Holocaust survivors from Europe to Israel in the 1940s. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. He says he reads a chapter of the Bible every day, but he doesn’t go to synagogue except on Yom Kippur, when he sits outside behind the building to hear the melodies he remembers from his grandfather. He never goes inside for services. “Once I tried,” he told me, “but then you have to stay the whole time.”
A year and a half ago, Kaniuk welcomed his first grandson into the world. The baby’s mother is a Christian, but because the newborn wasn’t baptized, the Ministry of the Interior decided that the infant should be labeled as “without religion.” At first, Kaniuk was furious. He did not want his grandson stigmatized and unable to marry. But as he thought it through, he realized that what he really wanted wasn’t to change the boy’s status but to change his own. Kaniuk was very proud to be a Jew, but he had never been religious, so why should he be labeled as such?
The Interior Ministry turned down his request to be labeled “without religion” in November 2010 with a Kafkaesque flourish. According to Kaniuk, the government claimed that without a certificate of conversion, his official religion could not be changed. Of course, there is no way to get a certificate signifying that you have given up religion altogether.
So, Kaniuk petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to force the ministry to act. Not only did he win his case in September 2011, but the judge wrote a remarkable opinion that provided the legal framework to defend a citizen’s right to be recognized under the law as any religion (or no religion) he or she wishes. “We face a demand for freedom from religion in the civil registry,” the verdict read. “Freedom from religion is derived from human dignity, which is protected in the basic law: human dignity and liberty. When the given law is laconic, the fundamental right shall decide, which tilts the scales in favor of the claimant and his self-definition in the registry.”
“This judge seems to have been waiting for me for 30 years,” Kaniuk said of the verdict, which was handed down on Rosh Hashanah. Kaniuk started the new Jewish year as the only Jew in the country officially “without religion.”
The case made national news, and it quickly ignited a public conversation. A few days after the story broke, Oded Carmeli, a 26-year-old poet, posted an event on Facebook calling for Israelis who also wanted to be labeled “without religion” to meet on the roof of an abandoned building on Rothschild Boulevard that had been used as a community center during the August tent protests. There, he planned to have everyone sign affidavits in front of lawyers asserting that they wanted to be “without religion” as well. Carmeli figured that if he could gather a big enough group, then he could take all of their papers to the Interior Ministry together and it would be harder for the government to turn them down.
“Even in the first few hours I saw the attending numbers jump up,” Carmeli told me of watching replies roll in. “I think I sort of hit a nerve.” Expecting a crowd, Carmeli called a pair of lawyers he met during the tent protests, and they offered to attend the event and witness the signatures.
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