Author Yoram Kaniuk - Daniel Tchetchik - 2009
Author Yoram Kaniuk in 2009. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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On Tuesday morning, Yoram Kaniuk entered an Interior Ministry office, spent some time in a booth, and emerged back into the Tel Aviv sun half an hour older. That was the only thing that had changed about him, that and one word altered in his status as listed in the National Population Registry. Liberal-minded Israelis have been applauding the veteran writer's legal victory last week in court, which allowed him to delete the word "Jewish" from the religion category on his population registration, replacing it with the rather uninspired "without religion."

I can't see what there is to rejoice about. Of course I support his basic democratic right to be registered as a member of whatever religion he chooses to belong to, or not to belong to - in his case. It just seems that Kaniuk has committed the worst crime possible for an author of fiction: he has exhibited a total lack of imagination. He is not alone in his crime. Millions of Israelis are guilty of the same, but he is the first to actually have it enshrined in an official government database.

Kaniuk and his supporters are admitting defeat: They are saying that after 63 years of Israeli independence and 114 years of political Zionism, the secular camp has finally given up all attempts to try and present its own interpretation of Judaism for the modern age. I wonder if any of those who rushed to congratulate Kaniuk - apparently there are hundreds of Israelis who plan to follow in his footsteps - noticed that unlike previous clashes between state and religion, in this one, the rabbinical and ultra-Orthodox establishment did not join the battle.

Kaniuk had to take the Interior Ministry to court because there was no procedure for changing a citizen's religious status without a recognized act of conversion, but that was typical bureaucratic obduracy, not Haredi coercion. Not only did the religious politicians refrain from blocking the precedent, some positively gloated over it. MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism ) said "as far as I'm concerned he can register himself as a monkey or an alien from outer space. It doesn't matter to me either way, it's his personal affair." But Eichler's glee is because this is not merely a personal affair, and he knows it. Kaniuk's step simply proves what Eichler has been preaching for years, that secular Israelis are rootless transients and that Zionism, at least in its non-religious form, is no more than a footnote in Jewish history.

What is Kaniuk, and those who plan to follow his example, actually saying? I can hardly fault their criticism of the stranglehold the rabbinical hierarchy has achieved over the national definition of Jewishness. Why should any of us be held hostage to their ever-narrowing interpretation of a splendid ancient tradition? But what is his alternative? In jettisoning his religion, Kaniuk has, in interviews and articles, tried to posit a vague secular, Jewish and Israeli nationality for his identity. But the expert chronicler of the early days of Tel Aviv and the state seems almost inarticulate when describing his Jewishness. "There is something in Judaism besides religion," he said in an interview with Haaretz in March, "and religion had a culture which is absent today. Judaism has become racist and rabbinical. Rabbinical Judaism in my opinion exterminated the Jews. There is no Jewish nation here, no Jewish people, only a religion that is rotting away. I think of the Jews who were a durable, devilishly clever and cautious people. A nation that knew how to survive, knew how to be wise." Hardly a unique national manifesto.

Kaniuk, 81, believes that the resourceful and wily Palmach men and women with whom he fought in the War of Independence were the epitome of Jewishness, but why has he failed to come up with a 21st century version of the Palmachnik? Blaming the Orthodox is too easy. Claiming that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a nationality or a culture is a cop-out. It denies the efforts, successes and noble failures of generations of pioneers, writers, thinkers and heretics who fought to reclaim our heritage from the clutches of reactionary clerics and prove that there are ways to be Jewish and live by Jewish ideals, other than a ritualistic small-minded adherence.

Religion is part of it, though some of the religious would have us believe that religion is all there is. For the last century or so, Zionism (and the opposition to Zionism ) has also been part of it, but Kaniuk and other Israelis seem to have fallen into the trap of believing that Zionism is enough on its own. Disillusionment with the current political situation inevitably creeps in; the state isn't all they hoped it would be, and Kaniuk, through his failure of imagination, is left without anything to believe in.

But he is wrong.

Jewish and Israeli values, tradition and current culture offer the components for viable alternatives, which while not perfect or void of dilemmas, do not necessitate a divorce from religion.

This week, we were constantly reminded that Technion Professor Dan Shechtman is now the tenth Israeli to be honored with a Nobel laureate and that over the last decade, on average, every couple of years one of the country's professors is awarded the world's most prestigious prize in chemistry or economics. But the first Israeli on the podium in Copenhagen was not an academic, but an author. S. Y. Agnon, who received the 1966 Nobel literature prize along with Yiddish poet Nelly Sachs, fused modern Hebrew with the words of the prophets, combining in his works the life of the shtetl with the experiences of the early pioneers in Palestine, proving that religion, culture and nationalism could come together in a compelling narrative.

If you have a spare moment on Yom Kippur, read the story of "Hemdat, the cantor" in his collection of short stories, "Near and Apparent." It captures both sides of the Day of Awe - the earnest reckoning alongside the hypocritical posturing, with all the humor, irony and richness that mark the life of the east European Jewish township.

Kaniuk's act is perfectly legitimate in a democratic society; no person or government has any right to impose a religion on any individual. On a historical level though, what he did is equivalent to raising a white flag over the Hebrew University, Habimah Theater, the Israel Museum and every other center of secular learning and culture in Israel.