Yoram Kaniuk, a rambunctious 81-year-old author, was hailed by
Israeli secularists this week for winning a court victory that
compelled the state to stop listing Judaism as his “religion”
while keeping “Jewish” as his “ethnicity.” He is the first Israeli
Jew to have done so.
Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic” state.
Kaniuk’s legal triumph comes at a
time when society is increasingly polarized between those who say
the state’s Jewish character must be strengthened and opponents
who say this comes at the expense of civil rights and liberties.
“I feel great relief,” news agency Reuters quoted Kaniuk, one of
Israel’s best-known writers.
“I was sick and tired of an extremist right-wing religious
establishment taking over our lives. We are a secular majority and
we just give in to it. I hope (my) court ruling will change this,”
he said to Reuters.
Kaniuk’s wife is Christian, and because Orthodox rabbinical law
identifies only those born to a Jewish mother as Jews, the
couple’s daughters are classified as “without religion.” It was
seeing his grandson also classified as without religion that
prompted him to mount his protest against the influence of the
“I was never a practicing Jew and I don’t believe in God,” he
said. “When the Jews were scattered across the world, religion
bound us together, but we don’t need this any more.” Tensions run
high on issues of citizenship, ethnicity and faith. All three
categories are used in the census to classify Israelis, the
majority of whom are listed as “Jewish” under both religion and
Kaniuk and his supporters from within the Jewish secular majority
demand a clear separation of religion and state, and say they
suffer religious coercion.
Public transport on the Jewish Sabbath is at best scarce, rabbis
have powers in family matters and the state only recognizes
rabbinical marriages for Jews who wed within its borders. Those
who want a civil service must marry abroad.
Yael Katz-Mastbaum, the lawyer who advocated Kaniuk’s case, said
that since the Tel Aviv court issued its ruling last week she had
been flooded with dozens of queries by Israelis asking her to help
them follow in Kaniuk’s footsteps.
“These aren’t young people acting on a whim, but older people who
have thought this through after years of feeling stifled by the
religious establishment,” Katz-Mastbaum said.
She said the ruling might mean Jewish couples who both changed
their classification to non-religious could wed in a civil
Amos Amir, 76, a retired air force general, hired Katz-Mastbaum
after he heard of Kaniuk’s win.
“What once was moderate, sane and dignified Judaism has been
overrun by an extremist, even racist, Judaism that is damaging an
entire religion and stealing the state away,” he said.
Mickey Gitzin, director of Be Free Israel movement that advocates
freedom from religion, said he too has been contacted by dozens of
Israelis looking to change their status to “without religion,”
following Kaniuk’s case.
“This is mostly symbolic. It has few practical implications but it
is still a meaningful step,” he said.
About 75 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population are classified
as Jewish, almost 17 percent are Muslim, about two percent
Christian, a little fewer Druze and about 4 percent classified
Palestinians say Israeli demands to recognize the country as a
Jewish state would compromise the Arab minority and would
effectively remove the right of return of Palestinian refugees who
fled or were forced from their homes in Arab-Israeli wars.
Kaniuk’s battle was not tied to diplomatic tussles aimed at ending
a decades-old conflict, but was instead a thumb in the eye to what
many Israelis see is a growing rise of religious zeal at the heart
of the state.
“This was just one case, but perhaps I have opened the way for
many more people who are fed up with the religious establishment.
Maybe one day there will be true separation of religion and state
with a pluralistic society,” Kaniuk said.