A Jew of No Particular Religion

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect.

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.

Read the rest here.

5 thoughts on “A Jew of No Particular Religion”

  1. Not one of Mr. Gorenberg’s more insightful columns. Of course Israel doesn’t need a Palestinian stamp of approval to be a Jewish state – what kind of ridiculous straw man is that? Israel is demanding that recognition in order to defend itself legally, politically, and morally against further Palestinian (and other) attempts at delegitimation after a peace agreement is signed. Unless you believe that a peace agreement will somehow magically end the struggle over Israel/Palestine, it would be irresponsible of the Israeli government not to insist on that condition.

    Netanyahu may not be a political philosopher, but I’m sure he knows what “state of the Jews” or “Jewish state” means in the context of 19th-century nationalism. The Palestinians know what it means too, which is why they refuse to recognize Israel’s existence as such.

    On that cute little jibe about the function of established religion being to make religion distasteful: yeah, cute, and of course there’s some truth to it. But all cuteness aside, it would be interesting how many polities in the world that have establishment, object to it. My guess is that there’s lots of complaining about the people running things, but not much against the establishment itself.

    To take one such polity in particular: if establishment is so bad for Israel, why don’t a majority of Israelis vote against it? Gorenberg’s snarky comment represents one nonrepresentative slice of Israel: secular, middle-class, left-leaning Ashkenazim.

  2. The idea that Israel is really two different countries, “Israel” (secular) and “Judah” (religious), was popular soon after Oslo, when people thought there’d be peace with the Arabs. It was a bogus idea then and it’s a bogus idea now. (To give an idea how stupid it was, I think Avraham Burg endorsed it.) Judaism in Israel is a continuous spectrum, far more continuous than Judaism in America, despite American Jewry’s apparently more flexible structure.

    The division in the State of Israel is and will for the foreseeable future continue to be between Jewish and Arab citizens. Compared to that division, the difference between Sheinkin St. and Bnei Brak is negligible.

  3. The fact that the Rabbinate hasn’t been abolished doesn’t prove that Israelis support it, any more than the continued existence of the embargo on Cuba or settlements in the West Bank hinterlands prove that a majority of Americans and Israelis support those policies. It just means that the problems those policies cause aren’t acute enough to generate political momentum. As John Hart Ely said, voters aren’t presented with one-issue referenda; they’re presented with packages of policies called “parties.” I don’t know how Israelis actually feel about establishment, but the first article I found on Google indicates that 56 percent of Jewish Israelis think there should be separation of state and religion: http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/10/04/3089672/majority-of-israelis-support-non-orthodox-marriages-survey-shows

  4. RK, good point about majorities. I agree completely.

    I was surprised that 56 percent of Israelis say they support separation of state and religion. But you’re right, the other 44 percent want establishment much more strongly.

  5. RK, I like that John Hart Ely quote. Expresses democracy beautifully. Good article, G. Check out my latest blog post for more on the Kaniuk “triumph”.

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