October 21, 2011


A Jew of No Religion: An Israeli novelist gets a legal writ of divorce between Jewish ethnicity and religion. (Gershom Gorenberg, October 19, 2011, American Prospect)

[I]n 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.

So is the world required to recognize a permanent Jewish state of Israel even when Jews--however defined--become the minority?

Posted by at October 21, 2011 6:02 AM

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