Israel Court Grants Author's Request to Register 'Without Religion'

Sapir Prize winner Yoram Kaniuk sets legal precedent implying that all Israelis can self-determine their own religious identity.

After brief deliberations on the eve of last week's Rosh Hashanah holiday, a Tel Aviv judge ruled that Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk could register his official religious status as "without religion."

"Freedom from religion is a freedom derived from the right to human dignity, which is protected by the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom," Judge Gideon Ginat of the Tel Aviv District Court wrote in his unusual ruling.

kaniuk - Moti Milrod - October 2 2011
Moti Milrod

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He went on to say that he believed that the Basic Laws, which function as constitution law in Israel, and in particular the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, alleviates from the plaintiff the burden of proof in demanding to be defined as religionless.

"The only question that must be weighed is whether the plaintiff proved the seriousness of his intentions ... I see no need to impose on the plaintiff any burden with the exception of bringing his request before the court," Ginat wrote.

"This is a ruling of historic proportions," Kaniuk said to Haaretz yesterday, with audible emotion. "The court granted legitimacy to every person to live by their conscience in this land, in ruling that human dignity and freedom means a person can determine their own identity and definition. In this way I can be without religion but Jewish by nationality. I am so thrilled," Kaniuk said.

In May Kaniuk asked the court to order the Interior Ministry to allow him "to be liberated from the Jewish religion" by changing his "religion" entry in the Population Registry from "Jewish" to "without religion." The ministry had refused his earlier request.

In his petition, Kaniuk explained that he had no wish to be part of a "Jewish Iran" or to belong to "what is today called the religion of Israel."

Kaniuk, 81, sought to equate his standing to that of his grandson, born last year, who is registered as "without religion" at the Population Registry.

The infant was originally classified as a Christian American, like his mother. Kaniuk's daughter was born in Israel but is defined by the Interior Ministry as an American Christian because her own mother was born in the United States and is a Christian.

After some discussion, Population Registry officials agreed to change the baby's status. When Kaniuk requested the same change be made to his own religious status, officials said he needed to obtain court approval for the amendment.

Kaniuk, famously a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence, whose book "1948" was awarded the Sapir Prize earlier this year, said that the request reflected his ongoing disgust with the way that the Jewish religion has rejected the principles enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence.