He doesn’t have the same name recognition to American Jews as Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman or Aharon Applebaum, but Yoram Kaniuk is considered one of the most gifted writers in Israel and recognized internationally. His books have been translated into twenty languages and he is the recipient of prestigious awards such as Prix de Droits de l’Homme, Bialik Prize, as well as the celebrated Prix Mediterranee Etranger. It is for these reasons that I was deeply pained and perplexed to have read in Haaretz on May 15, 2011 that he requested from the Ministry of Interior to change his religious status from “Jewish” to “Without Religion”. This isn’t the first time he has requested this from the Ministry of the Interior. In a previous request (which was refused by the ministry) he commented that he didn’t want to be associated with a “Jewish Iran”, or what is today understood as the “religion of Israel”. My initial reaction was to write him off as a “self hating Jew”. How can an intensely serious Jew (no matter that he isn’t ritually observant), I asked myself, recant his Jewish identity? It seems so perfidious! But upon stepping back and reconsidering Kaniuk’s maneuver I began to understand his profound frustration with living in a democratic state but having to cope with decisions and outcomes of a despotic rabbinic superstructure that acts and behaves as though the enlightenment and emancipation never happened.
Kaniuk’s gambit reflects the sentiments of many Israelis. He maintains, as so many others believe that the rabbinate in Israel hijacked the religion from the “amei haaretz”, from the people. His own grandchild is registered with the Ministry of Interior as “Without Religion” since the child is, in fact, not Jewish due to Kaniuk’s wife not being Jewish (and therefore technically, the offspring aren’t either, halachically). And perhaps this is the conundrum for Kaniuk as it is with so many others: His children who are Israeli citizens and served in the military and fought in defense of their country are relegated to a second-class status halachically. They are a subclass of people who although are versed in Jewish history, culture and Tanach and willing to die for their people can’t marry them or be interred in a Jewish cemetery. Kafkaesque! There is something fundamentally wrong with the way its citizens are treated and for that matter the manner in which Israel functions on a religious level.
Yet, Kaniuk is thoroughly Jewish, inside and out. He thinks like a Jew and feels like a Jew. In one of his articles commenting on Nakba Day he limned that although we won the war of Independence the “enemy was not a geometrical unknown, but rather a people that still exist…the Nakba fighters fought heroically, but we fought better…” Being sympathetic to the Palestinians even though Kaniuk fought in the war of Independence and was severely wounded is supremely Jewish. After all, we are taught not to gloat over the demise of our enemies. Kaniuk bemoaned the fact that he hopes that while he is still alive Israel will be turned into a Jewish state not one populated by zealots, but rather by the kind of Jews we once were: “a state where we respect those who fought against us and were defeated.” Kaniuk seems to be rejecting the Judaism that is reinforced in the Haggadah when we chant “shfoch chamotecha”. That is the Judaism polluted and diminished by the exile and our unfortunate European sojourn. It isn’t the Judaism of Kaniuk who envisions an Israel in the spirit of the prophets. In another article he derides the mistreatment of foreign migrants by the rabbinic establishment referencing the Story of Ruth as the model by which foreigners ought to be treated. Although he overstated his case, his unabashed derision of the rabbinate’s prejudice towards non-Jews is ironically and clearly a Jewish position. He dreams of the day when enlightened clerics will apply Jeremiah’s message in place of those who are mired in the culture of medieval Europe.
Clearly Yoram Kaniuk, a principled and committed non-religious Jew is authentically Jewish in his critique of current day Israeli society deeply influenced and manipulated by an ignorant rabbinate. But forfeiting his Jewish identity (on a registry in the Ministry of Interior) is an overreaction with little or no positive outcome. Reneging on his Jewish identity won’t change who he is or how people view him. A Jew by any other name is a Jew. The narrative of our history is inextricably linked with our religious praxis and accompanying idiosyncrasies. To deny them or to deny one’s Jewishness would alter the integrity of our narrative. Kaniuk realizes this but wishes to make an issue out of the fact that Israel has no definition or sense of nationality without religion as its defining quality. And here Kaniuk stumbles into his conundrum: Judaism isn’t a religion, it is a state of being; it is peoplehood.
Perhaps by diminishing the role of religious ritual, trappings and their offshoots, and by removing religious clerics from the state apparatus Israel would go a long way in sculpting a state where Jeremiah’s message would ring out and at the same time maintaining the integrity of our narrative.