A New Battle To Change What It Means To Be Jewish In Israel

A veteran of Israel’s 1948 war, Yoram Kaniuk is a well-known and outspoken critic of the Israeli government. But the 81-year-old Jewish writer has sparked a wider debate by fighting for his right to be “religionless.” It is a personal cause that could hav

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (Bertrand Hauger)
The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (Bertrand Hauger)
Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM - Is he a dangerous terrorist looking to undermine Israel by attacking the Jewish religion at its foundation? Prize-winning Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk has been accused of that – and many other things. A soldier in the 1948 war who went on to be an activist preaching peace between Jews and Palestinians, Kaniuk is the author of 25 books translated in a dozen languages. In those works he explores a recurring theme: Jewish identity.

When you finally meet Kaniuk, you realize that the 81-year-old actually enjoys being controversial. It all started with his grandson, Omri, who asked him: "Grandpa, why aren't you like me?" Kaniuk's wife is Christian, meaning according to rabbinic law, their daughter can't be Jewish. Neither, therefore, is her son, Omri, who is classified as "religionless' on the register.

That's when Kaniuk, who has "always loved Judaism, as a memory, a culture, a history," but who doesn't believe in God, decided to become "religionless' too. But the Israeli Interior Ministry refused. To change his formal religious status, he had to give a certificate proving he converted to another faith.

Kaniuk's goal, however, was to have no religion at all, meaning he had no interest in conversion. He fought the Ministry in court – and eventually prevailed.

A Tel Aviv court recently granted his request. "Religion is a freedom derived from the right to human dignity," ruled judge Gideon Ginat. This historic ruling galvanized hundreds of Israelis who like Kaniuk, believe Judaism has been perverted by its association with the state of Israel.

"For me it was about the principle. I want to live in a country where religion is a choice, not a dogma. We cannot accept a democracy that is ruled by a dogma, otherwise Israel becomes Iran or Saudi Arabia," the elderly writer says.

Posing dangerous questions

The ultra-orthodox Shas party that controls Israel's Interior Ministry sees this court decision as a Pandora's box. For them, Kaniuk is a dangerous troublemaker, especially since he is asking the most sacrilegious of questions: "What does it mean to be Jewish?"

Never has this existential question been asked with such force in a country where secularists feel increasingly besieged by religious forces. For Kaniuk, the answer is quite simple: "One should be able to be Jewish without being of Jewish faith." That is to say that the Jewish identity isn't the same as the Jewish faith.

In Israel, judges and intellectuals don't have a say in the "Halacha," Jewish law. Rabbis do. Among them, Kaniuk says the ultra-orthodox have created "a real dictatorship over the rabbinate," making Judaism "a rabbinic racism." The monopoly held by the orthodox Haredim over marriage, divorce and burial rites is slowly pushing people to revolt.

A growing number of practicing Jews choose private weddings in order to escape the Rabbinate, which has strong ties among politicians, including member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. That same legislature will soon have to make a decision on the official definition of Israel. Right now it is classified as a "Jewish and democratic State." Depending on how the Knesset votes, Israel could become a "State of the Jewish people." The priority would be clear: Jewish first, then democratic. This all falls in line with a move by the Israeli prime minister, who asked Palestinians to recognize Israel as a "Jewish State."

Sari Nusseibeh, chairman of the Al-Quds Palestinian University, underlines the ambiguity of the word "Jewish," which he says refers to the Israelite race and its descendants, as well as to those who practice the Jewish faith. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish State would make it either a theocracy or an apartheid State. Either way it would stop being a democracy. And that is at the foundation of why Kaniuk, whose bestsellers include the 2006 The Last Jew, would rather be "religionless."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Bertrand Hauger

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