A Jew of No Religion

Yoram Kaniuk has won: The prominent Israeli novelist is now very officially a Jew of no religion.

Hundreds of other Israelis, inspired by his legal victory, want to follow his example and change their religious status to "none" in the country's Population Registry, while remaining Jews by nationality in the same government database. A new verb has entered Hebrew, lehitkaniuk, to Kaniuk oneself, to legally register an internal divorce of Jewish ethnicity from Jewish religion.

Kaniuk is 81 years old, one of the surviving writers of Israel's founding generation. His latest and most lauded book is a memoir about fighting in the country's 1948 war of independence. He's also a veteran and sharp-penned critic of Jewish religion, which he has at times represented as an amalgam of the national religious extremism of the settlements, ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, and the state's clerical bureaucracy. During the escalation of the secular-religious kulturkampf that followed the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Kaniuk penned a furious article proposing a two-state solution: a political split between the Israelis of the Mediterranean coast, supposedly all secular, and the Jews of Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements, purportedly all religious.

Kaniuk certified the change of his religious status this month, after a Tel Aviv District Court judge overruled bureaucratic objections. The writer gave two reasons for his choice: Because his wife is an American-born Christian, his daughters and his infant grandson are registered as having no religion; and besides, he "has no desire to be part of a 'Jewish Iran,'" a phrase he did not parse but was apparently aimed at any form of state-linked religion.

Kaniuk's case has been celebrated as a victory for separation of state and religion in Israel. Actually, he may have fought the wrong battle. The court decision gives people more freedom to define themselves, but only according to predetermined categories. The division of Jewish ethnicity and religion is an embarrassingly simple bureaucratic distinction in place of the mixed up identities of real Jewish life -- the kind of complications on which a novelist should thrive.

That said, the Kaniuk case has its benefits. It sheds light, for instance, on how Americans and Israelis misunderstand each other when they use the word Jew. And it helps show that the current Israeli government's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is silly.

To explain, let me give a rough idea of what "Jewish" meant until two or three centuries ago. I'll start in an unlikely spot: detective writer Tony Hillerman's novels, placed on a Navajo reservation in the American Southwest. The Navajos more or less share common ancestry, though members of other tribes have married in. They have their own cosmology and customs, though some are more exacting about keeping traditions than others are. In Hillerman's Talking God, a man shows up wanting to be accepted into the tribe. He's blond, has one Navajo grandparent, doesn't speak the language but deeply believes in the mythology. The old Navajo teachers of tradition need to figure out what to do.

For "Navajo," read "Jew" -- except that Jewish teachers decided a couple thousand years ago that an outsider could join the tribe by accepting its beliefs and way of life. In English, this process is given the religious name "conversion," but "adoption" might describe it just as well.

Sometimes, half seriously, Jews call themselves a tribe, but in the modern West, the word always has an Orientalist tinge of "primitive" and "other." When Jews began integrating into modern European society, they could choose between two Western categories for what made them distinct: Nationality in the ethnic sense, or religion. In the multinational empires of Eastern Europe, as political scientist Charles Liebman wrote years ago in his book The Ambivalent American Jew, the most accepted way to express minority identity was as an ethnic group seeking national rights, and Jews largely adopted that model.

Those who migrated to America arrived in a country that was tolerant of religious division than ethnic separatism, Liebman explained. It's acceptable in America for Catholics to have parochial schools, but separate schools for Italian Americans would be illegitimate. As a result, American Jews switched categories: They identify as a religion but often behave more as an ethnic group. For many, synagogue membership really means belonging to an ethnic club, and Israel functions as a replacement for the lost "old country" of Eastern Europe.

Nonetheless, if "Jewish" refers to religion, then "Jewish state" sounds like "Christian country" or even "Islamic Republic." But the Jews who established Israel were actually taking the nationalist definition of Jewish to the logical conclusion -- self-determination, creating a political space where they could express, preserve, or even radically transform their national culture. For most Israeli Jews, a reasonable parallel to "Jewish state" is "Czech Republic." Many of the founders, especially those with Eastern European roots, wanted to reform Jewish life by purging it of religion all together. Implicitly, they favored a Jewish form of Kemalism -- Kemal Ataturk's hope of purging the Turkish nationality of Islam.

That said, trying to unsnarl ethnic and religious doesn't really fit how Jews think about themselves. In a landmark 1962 case, Israel's Supreme Court had to decide if someone born Jewish who'd become a Catholic monk could benefit from the law giving Jews the right to immigrate. The court ruled that the secular, civil meaning of Jew depended on how the person on the Israeli street used the word -- and the person on the street assumed that if you convert to another religion, you've left the tribe. As the Kaniuk case shows, you can still belong if you have no religion at all.

To this tangle, add the complication that in the first years of Israel's independence, the Orthodox minority used coalition politics to preserve a system of established religion inherited from Ottoman rule of the Middle East. The state rabbinate's actual power is mostly limited to marriage and divorce. The registration of citizens' ethnic nationality and religion has its own murky history -- but has virtually no legal import for the individual. The state rabbinate and the extreme positions of clerical parties do, however, serve the usual function of established religion: making religion distasteful.

By changing his religious registration to "none," Kaniuk found a symbol for expressing that distaste. Implicitly, though, he affirmed the clerical establishment's claim to represent Judaism. The court affirmed a constitutional right to define oneself according to one's conscience -- but only according to the inadequate categories of nationality and religion. Real freedom of conscience would require the state to stop registering religious and ethnic identity. Actual separation of synagogue and state would mean abolishing the official rabbinate, enacting civil marriage, and ending government involvement in religious education. Kaniuk himself might have contributed more to understanding the confusions of Jewish identity by writing a novel than by hiring a lawyer. But to be fair, he's 81 years old and said in his suit that he didn't feel he had much time left to define himself as he chose.

Glance beyond Kaniuk to the larger issues of war and peace: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government insist that as a condition for peace, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Does Netanyahu really know what he means by "Jewish"? Even if he does, members of his own cabinet would disagree. So would a large portion of the public -- and would disagree in different ways according to their mood.

Israel doesn't need a Palestinian stamp of approval to be a Jewish state. Nor does it need the registration system that Kaniuk used to voice his anger. It needs only a majority that considers itself Jewish in one not-quite-consistent way or another and that has the freedom to conduct a roiling, constant argument about Jewish culture. If Kaniuk's suit reminds the rest of the tribe of how messy the issue of Jewish identity is, how unsuited it is for sharp delineations, he will have performed a service.

You may also like