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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

Jeff Moskowitz
December 13, 2011
(Daniel Hertzberg)
(Daniel Hertzberg)

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.

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.

Jeff Moskowitz is a journalist living in Jerusalem.

Jeff Moskowitz is a journalist living in Jerusalem.