What is the background to the Covenant?
Before the establishment ofIsrael and in the first years after independence, the “status quo” arrangement served as a consensual framework for relations between observant and non-observant Jews in the country. Complex processes in Israeli society, the shifting relations between Israel and the Diaspora, and changes in Western society in general have undermined this common framework, broadened the internal fissure, and significantly weakened the accepted mechanisms for resolving disagreements.
Many have begun to feel the need for a new framework agreement between the different factions of the Jewish community in Israel, leading to increased activity in this sphere during the last two decades.
Israel Harel, the former head of the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District, initiated the discussions between Professor Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Ya’acov Medan and suggested the novel course of a dialogue between two persons rather than a larger forum.
What institutions have been behind the Covenant project since its inception?
Many distinguished institutions hosted the Covenant project during the years when it was being drafted and since its publication. In 2000–2001, its authors worked out of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Rabin Center. In September 2001, Professor Gavison and Rabbi Medan won the AVI CHAI Prize for their authorship of the Covenant. The Israel Democracy Institute and the AVI CHAI Foundation published the Hebrew text of the Covenant in January 2003.
In the summer of 2003, the AVI CHAI Foundation established the Gavison-Medan Action Group. Since the summer of 2005, the Action Group has been affiliated with the Melitz Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education.
What subjects are addressed by the Covenant?
The Covenant addresses many spheres, more than any other similar document: the Law of Return, citizenship, conversion; marriage and divorce; the Sabbath; religious councils; kashrut; pathology and organ transplants; burial; public prayers at the Western Wall plaza; the Israel Defense Forces; legal arrangements concerning religion and state.
How would the Covenant change the current situation?
The key proposals of the Covenant are as follows:
* The Law of Return: Any “member of the Jewish people” will be eligible to immigrate to Israel. A “member of the Jewish people” will be defined as the child of a Jewish parent, or a person converted through a recognized procedure. This expands the current situation by extending aliya eligibility to those who are not necessarily Jews according to Halakhah (a Jewish father and not only a Jewish mother). At the same time, the Covenant would abrogate the grandparent clause in the Law of Return, which today permits many non-Jews to immigrate to Israel.
* Citizenship: Aliya eligibles will acquire Israeli citizenship after a waiting period of three to five years, following a declaration of allegiance to the State of Israel and a demonstration of minimal proficiency in the Hebrew language and of familiarity with Jewish tradition and Israeli history. Although social integration as a prerequisite for naturalization is not practiced in Israel today, it is the norm in many other countries.
* Conversion and the Population Registry: Anyone who wishes to be listed as “Jewish” in the religion field of the Population Registry will declare the basis of his or her Jewishness. Conversion by any recognized current of the Jewish people will be recognized for this purpose, but the registry will be transparent (the basis of a person’s Jewishness will be stated explicitly).
* Personal status: The law of the state will recognize any form of wedding ceremony chosen by the parties, and the type of ceremony selected by the parties will be indicated in the Population Registry. Divorces will be granted by civil courts or by religious courts. After the dissolution of a previous marriage, an individual will have to be unmarried both according to civil law and according to the law of his or her religion, in the most stringent interpretation, in order to remarry. Today there is no civil marriage in Israel.
* The Sabbath: The Covenant would entrench in legislation the distinction between cultural and entertainment activities (which will be permissible on the Sabbath) and manufacturing and commerce (which will be prohibited). Public transportation will operate in a reduced format. Disagreements about specific Sabbath arrangements will be submitted to a mediation committee. Today, the Hours of Work and Rest Law bars the employment of Jews on the Sabbath, but the law is not enforced, despite rulings by the High Court of Justice. The current statute does not distinguish between culture and entertainment on the one hand and manufacturing and commerce on the other.
* Legal arrangements: the Covenant will be entrenched in legislation that makes it difficult to amend its arrangements piecemeal and unilaterally. The courts will not have the authority to nullify laws associated with the Covenant. In order to encourage consensual interpretation and avoid recourse to the judicial system, interpretation of the Covenant, when no legal proceedings are under way, will be the province of an agreed-upon representative public body. Today, the courts deal extensively with matters of religion and state that are the subject of broad public controversy.
Who is Professor Gavison? Who is Rabbi Medan? Whom do they represent?
Prof. Ruth Gavison holds the Haim Cohn Chair of Human Rights in the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Prof. Gavison was one of the founders of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and served as its president in 1996–1999.
Rabbi Ya’acov Medan teaches at the Har Etzion Yeshiva and the Ya’acov Herzog College in Alon Shevut. In 1999/2000 he was a member of the board of the Conversion School set up by the Neeman Commission. In December 2005 he will become co-dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva.
One of the key questions associated with the Gavison-Medan Covenant is, “Whom do they represent?”
Prof. Gavison and Rabbi Medan do not “represent” anyone. They were not elected and their proposals do not constitute an agreement between the different camps. It is an agreement only between themselves, although it should be noted that their proposals were drafted with the assistance of a focus group whose comments influenced the content of the Covenant.
Nevertheless, the positions held by Prof. Gavison and Rabbi Medan are not marginal in the secular and religious communities. Rather, they reflect the ideas of large sectors (reflect rather than represent). Since the publication of the Covenant, the arrangements they propose and the very idea of dialogue have garnered increasing public interest and support.
What values and considerations motivated the authors of the Covenant?
According to Prof. Gavison, “through the social covenant initiative I wish to defend my freedom to maintain my lifestyle, because this is my chosen lifestyle. Simultaneously, however, I wish to defend the multiplicity of lifestyles, and also the corresponding liberty of groups with different lifestyles. The success of the covenant initiative will relieve us all from the struggle for liberty and against coercion, freeing us to develop features of the ‘good life,’ in accordance with our respective understanding of what that entails.”
According to Rabbi Medan, “a national consensus issuing from goodwill and a maximal readiness for concessions on both sides is likely to emerge only if each party is convinced that the other is also compromising to the best of its ability. … A covenant is not a quid pro quo transaction. It is a genuine partnership, and views the common ground as the main focus, with each party obligated to contribute all it can to the collective good.”
In their joint conclusion to the Covenant, Professor Gavison and Rabbi Medan wrote that “the need for a covenant of this type existed in the past as well. But now, in light of our existential distress and the growing concern that the powers of discord will overcome the defenders of the common interest and unity among the Jewish people as a whole and within the State of Israel in particular, what was formerly a need for a new social covenant has become an absolute necessity. Quite possibly, the time is ripe to aim for a broad consensus in favor of the covenant, with its main points and principles.”
Is it possible to accept some points of the Covenant and not all of it?
The fact that the Covenant is broken down into several sections indicates that each of them can stand alone, independent of the acceptance or rejection of the others. It would be possible to accept the Covenant’s proposals concerning one issue without accepting those concerning others (for example, to accept the proposals about the Sabbath but not those about marriage and divorce).
But it is clearly out of the question to accept only some details of the accord in a particular domain, because the are “easy” to implement, while rejecting other points of the same issue because they are “too hard” (for example, permitting cultural activities on the Sabbath without putting an end to the widespread commerce now taking place on the Sabbath).
To implement only some details of the accord in a particular area, while rejecting others, would empty the Covenant of its meaning.
Is the Gavison-Medan Covenant the only proposal on these matters?
The Gavison-Medan Covenant is certainly not the only proposed social compact. In recent years, the acute deterioration of relations between the observant and non-observant has spurred many to think about these problems. Conspicuous examples are the compact drafted by the Religious Kibbutz Movement and the Meimad-Beilin-Lubotsky compact. In the past, Prof. Gavison and Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun drafted a document that dealt only with the Sabbath. Other compacts have dealt with relations among Jews in Israel in general terms: the Peace in Israel compact and the Kinneret Charter. The Siah Ahim charter on the mechanisms for making decisions concerning the future of settlement in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, was published in the summer of 2005.
In addition, bills dealing with matters of religion and state are submitted in the Knesset from time to time. The most prominent example is the bill sponsored by former Member of Knesset Nahum Langental. There have also been many committees that studied various issues addressed by the Covenant (notably the Zameret Committee on the Sabbath closure of Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem and the Neeman Commission on Conversion).
What distinguishes the Gavison-Medan Covenant from the other proposals?
The Gavison-Medan Covenant is distinguished from other similar documents in a number of ways: the time dimension, the process, and the final product. Prof. Gavison and Rabbi Medan worked on the Covenant for three years—a much longer period than that devoted to similar endeavors. The other groups were large forums, whereas Prof. Gavison and Rabbi Medan worked one-on-one and then submitted their ideas to a focus group for its reaction and criticism. With regard to the final product, Prof. Gavison and Rabbi Medan supplemented their practical proposals with explanations and introductions that state their personal credos as reflected in the entire enterprise.
Experts on matters of religion and state consider the Gavison-Medan document to be “the most important and most complete covenant that has been proposed to date, … the boldest and most comprehensive attempt.” It has recently been described in the media as “a sort of final-status accord that proposes detailed solutions to every difficult issue, of the sort we could only dream to achieve with the Palestinians.”
What has been done so far to promote and implement the arrangements of the Gavison-Medan Covenant?
In August 2003, the AVI CHAI Foundation established the Gavison-Medan Action Group, which works with the help of a steering committee composed of public figures from many spheres. Since the summer of 2005, the Action Group has been affiliated with the Melitz Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education. The Action Group’s efforts to implement the Covenant focus on several levels: legislative, public, local, and educational.
Of the various subjects addressed by the Covenant, the Action Group is currently highlighting the draft Sabbath Law based on the Covenant.
According to Dr. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on matters of religion and state, “the Gavison-Medan Covenant is the only document that has stimulated broad activity aimed at repairing the religious-secular fissure.”
Can the Covenant change the situation?
The Covenant can and does aspire to change the situation.
Since the publication of the document, the Gavison-Medan Action Group has been working to realize some or all of its proposals. Many public figures who have studied the Covenant project support it. It must be remembered, however, that a situation that has been around for decades cannot be altered in a matter of days and that every journey begins with a single step.