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
On the night of Oct. 9, hundreds arrived. Young people fresh from the summer tent protests had found out about it on Facebook, and older Israelis had heard about it in the press. “I was amazed,” said one participant, Ilai Harsgor-Hendin, a 31-year-old software engineer who came from Kfar Saba to sign his name. “There were hundreds of people. I didn’t expect it in any way. I expected maybe 40.”
“It was pretty moving,” Carmeli said. “People drove from the north and from the south. A Knesset member came.” That was Nitzan Horowitz from the liberal New Movement-Meretz Party. “And Uri Avneri—he’s like 90 and one of the models of the Israeli left. He just sat there in the first row listening to us.” There were even religious people who signed up—observant Jews who want to voice their protest against the rabbinate, according to Carmeli.
On the roof, the older people sat in folding chairs while the young crowd stood behind them. They listened to speeches by Carmeli and Kaniuk—the keynote speaker—before lining up at tables where the two lawyers collected signatures. Another speaker was Mickey Gitzin, who at 30 years old has already become something of a professional political instigator. He doesn’t dress like the Rothschild tent-dwellers—he looks like a hip high-tech worker—but Gitzin shares their sensibilities. His organization, Be Free Israel, is devoted to achieving a separation of synagogue and state in the country. This puts him at the forefront of a lot of big issues right now: the ongoing segregation between men and women on some buses, lack of a core curriculum in religious schools, and whether state money will continue to be given to the Orthodox for studying in yeshivas. Earlier this month, he held a public concert for female singers in Jerusalem, something that has drawn fierce opposition from the ultra-Orthodox.
Gitzin believes that this kind of a movement is a “last resort.” “I’m Jewish, I’m born Jewish, I want to be Jewish my entire life, but there is the real issue of getting someone else to say what is to be a Jew for me,” he said of the rabbinate. “We used to say we don’t have popes. But now we do.”
After the event, Gitzin and Carmeli took about 150 signed declarations with them to the Interior Ministry. They did not know what the response would be, though they were fairly certain the ministry wouldn’t direct all of these people to clog up the court system. But that’s exactly what happened. The Interior Ministry denied every request that was submitted—a move that, far from dampening their nascent movement, seemed to inflame it even more.
That’s to say nothing of its effect on Kaniuk.
After seeing the passion of people at the Rothschild event, the writer decided he wasn’t done fighting. True, he had gotten what he wanted, but because the decision was made by a district court, not the Supreme Court, his case could not set a precedent. No one else could do what he did without similarly going to trial, which is why the ministry had refused all the declarations. But the members of that group could not afford to go to trial individually. So, Kaniuk hatched a plan.
He called his lawyer, Yael Katz-Mastbaum. For Kaniuk’s case, Katz-Mastbaum had taken advantage of a relatively recent change in Israeli law. Israel, which has never had a constitution, functions on a system like the British one, where parliament and courts build a foundation of bedrock rights and principles over time. In 1992, the Knesset passed a series of “Basic Laws,” fundamental laws that gave the Supreme Court the power to strike down regular laws that violated them. The Basic Laws were ultimately meant to be codified into a sort of de facto constitution, but the process was never finished because of political infighting and disagreement about what should qualify as a fundamental right.
One of the Basic Laws that was enacted is the Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, which states that “all persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity.” This law has been interpreted by judges as something akin to the Bill of Rights in the United States. It explicitly protects life, body, privacy, and freedom from unprovoked arrest or imprisonment. The law has been used in previous Supreme Court cases to defend citizens’ freedom to practice any religion. It was this law that gave the Tel Aviv judge the legal power he needed to decide in Kaniuk’s favor.
Katz-Mastbaum couldn’t represent the entire group. But, as she explained to Kaniuk, she could appeal his case to the Supreme Court in an effort to set a precedent. And because the ministry didn’t appeal as well, Kaniuk’s original victory cannot be struck down. If he wins at the high court, it will force the government to accept the declarations from the Rothschild group, and they will be allowed to change their official status to “without religion” as well. Kaniuk filed his appeal on Oct. 11, and Katz-Mastbaum says she expects the trial to be heard within the year.
As Kaniuk pushes toward the Supreme Court, and Gitzin and Carmeli work on upcoming events, a third group has sprung up as well.
Before he retired, 76-year-old Amos Amir was a general in the Israeli Air Force and later a vice president of El Al. His father was one of the founders of the Ministry of Agriculture, and his mother won the Israel Prize for Poetry in the 1970s. His roots in this country go back decades to before there was a state.
But even when they lived in Poland, Amir’s family was never religious. He has never considered himself a religious Jew. “If I’m not religious,” he said, “I cannot accept that I will be listed in some offices of the government as a member of the Jewish religion. This is a lie. It’s not true. I cannot accept that.” Amir has already called Katz-Mastbaum and told her that if her Supreme Court appeal gambit doesn’t work, he would like to file an individual suit just like Kaniuk’s. She told me that Amir is one of many who have made the same request.
Amir said he wants to be an inspiration to what he sees as a burgeoning trend of secular Israelis standing up for their rights. “I want many Israelis to do it, and that’s the point,” he said.
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