In its troubled peace talks with the Palestinians, Israel
has demanded that it should be recognized as a Jewish state, but there is deep domestic division on what that means.
Yoram Kaniuk, a rambunctious 81-year-old author, was hailed by Israeli secularists recently for winning a court victory that compelled the state to stop listing Judaism as his "religion" while keeping "Jewish" as his "ethnicity." He is the first Israeli Jew to have done so.
Israel defines itself as a "Jewish and democratic" state. Kaniuk's legal triumph comes at a time when society is increasingly polarized between those who say the state's Jewish character must be strengthened and opponents who say this comes at the expense of civil rights and liberties.
"I feel great relief," said Kaniuk, one of Israel's best-known writers.
"I was sick and tired of an extremist right-wing religious establishment taking over our lives. We are a secular majority and we just give in to it. I hope (my) court ruling will change this," he told Reuters.
Kaniuk's wife is Christian, and because Orthodox rabbinical law identifies only those born to a Jewish mother as Jews, the couple's daughters are classified as "without religion." It was seeing his grandson also classified as without religion that prompted him to mount his protest against the influence of the religious establishment.
"I was never a practicing Jew and I don't believe in God," he said. "When the Jews were scattered across the world, religion bound us together, but we don't need this anymore."
Tensions in the Holy Land run high on issues of citizenship, ethnicity and faith. All three categories are used in the census to classify Israelis, the majority of whom are listed as "Jewish" under both religion and ethnicity.
Kaniuk and his supporters from within the Jewish secular majority demand a clear separation of religion and state, and say they suffer religious coercion.
Public transport on the Jewish Sabbath is at best scarce, rabbis have powers in family matters and the state only recognizes rabbinical marriages for Jews who wed within its borders. Those who want a civil service must marry abroad.
Yael Katz-Mastbaum, the lawyer who advocated Kaniuk's case, said that since the Tel Aviv court issued its ruling last week she had been flooded with dozens of queries by Israelis asking her to help them follow in Kaniuk's footsteps.
"These aren't young people acting on a whim, but older people who have thought this through after years of feeling stifled by the religious establishment," Katz-Mastbaum said.
She said the ruling might mean Jewish couples who both changed their classification to non-religious could wed in a civil ceremony.
Amos Amir, 76, a retired air force general, hired Katz-Mastbaum after he heard of Kaniuk's win.
"What once was moderate, sane and dignified Judaism has been overrun by an extremist, even racist, Judaism that is damaging an entire religion and stealing the state away," he said.
Mickey Gitzin, director of Be Free Israel movement that advocates freedom from religion, said he too has been contacted by dozens of Israelis looking to change their status to "without religion," following Kaniuk's case.
"This is mostly symbolic. It has few practical implications but it is still a meaningful step," he said.
About 75% of Israel's 7.7 million population are classified as Jewish, almost 17% are Muslim, about 2% Christian, a little fewer Druze and about 4% classified "without religion."
Palestinians say Israeli demands to recognize the country as a Jewish state would compromise the Arab minority and would effectively remove the right of return of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in Arab-Israeli wars.
Kaniuk's battle was not tied to diplomatic tussles aimed at ending a decades-old conflict, but was instead a thumb in the eye to what many Israelis see is a growing rise of religious zeal at the heart of the state.
"This was just one case, but perhaps I have opened the way for many more people who are fed up with the religious establishment. Maybe one day there will be true separation of religion and state with a pluralistic society," Kaniuk said.