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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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

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Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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