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Jewish Journal

Israeli Covenant Seeks Consensus

by Gil Sedan

January 24, 2002 | 7:00 pm

A fervently Orthodox Jew talks to a secular Israeli woman in downtown Jerusalem. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

A fervently Orthodox Jew talks to a secular Israeli woman in downtown Jerusalem. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

In Israel, there is nothing like an attempt at national unity to stir up a national controversy.

The latest such controversy is a 10-article document called "The Kinneret Covenant," designed to find common denominators among different segments in Israeli society -- religious and secular Jews, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Israelis, right and left.

One element not included in the new national manifesto is the Israeli Arab community -- and this is not by accident.

The covenant was created last October, but released only recently. It was the first significant product of a group of Israeli intellectuals called "The Forum for National Responsibility," 60 individuals from all walks of life who decided that Israeli Jews should start talking with each other instead of yelling at each other.

The infant charter had hardly left the presses, however, when it faced heavy criticism from right and left, religious and secular, Jew and Arab. Only the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it seemed, largely ignored the document.

The driving force behind the initiative was Yisrael Harel, a West Bank settler and former chairman of the main settlers' body. The money came from the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies in Tel Aviv.

The gallery of participants included former Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir, head of the Rabin Center and one of the founders of Peace Now; Reserve Gen. Ephraim Fein, who now is a hawkish National Religious Party activist; and Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, head of the National Security Council and a candidate for army chief of staff.

Also participating was Uzi Arad, former political adviser to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; Noa Ben-Artzi, granddaughter of Yitzhak Rabin; Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a leading settler rabbi; Arnon Soffer, a geographer at Haifa University; Rabbi Uri Regev of Israel's Reform movement; Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad; and Brig. Gens Gershon HaCohen and Ya'acov Amidror.

The covenant is phrased like the Declaration of Independence, the document read out by David Ben-Gurion when he declared the State of Israel's independence on May 14, 1948. The Declaration of Independence laid out the general values of the fledgling state, and is considered the closest thing Israel has to a constitution.

The covenant is an attempt to phrase a national consensus to questions every Israeli asks himself: Who are we? What are we doing here? What are we fighting for?

Precisely because the answers to those questions are so controversial, the new document tried to leave aside most controversial issues. That meant that most of its conclusions were fairly bland.

The historic justification for the existence of the State of Israel is described as "a sublime existential need," based "on the devotion of the People of Israel to its heritage, its Torah, its language and its country."

There is no mention of the fact that Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a secular Jew, or that secular Zionism was the driving force behind the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel.

Were it not for the impressive gallery of signers, it is doubtful that the covenant would have created the public stir it did. The charter was composed in a three-day marathon meeting in a hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and was distributed recently in the weekend editions of the three major newspapers.

The reaction was astounding -- page after page of letters to the editor, supporting and opposing the very idea behind the document.

"The 'Kinneret Covenant' forum is pathetic and revolting," Yosef Rosenfeld of Bnei Brak wrote in Ha'aretz. "It encourages illusions" that the Jewish people can ever be unified, he wrote.

The covenant states time and again that Israel is a Jewish and democratic country, and that the State of Israel manifests the Jews' right to "life, sovereignty and freedom."

"In order to continue the existence of a Jewish and democratic Israel, one should continue and maintain a significant Jewish majority," the drafters wrote. "Such majority shall only be preserved through moral means."

But what about the freedom of the other national group living in the Land of Israel?

"Israel will preserve the right of the Arab minority to preserve its linguistic, cultural and national identity," the covenant declares.

The covenant states that Israel does not want to rule another people. Many of Israel's Arab citizens -- and even some of its Jewish ones -- might question that statement.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that representatives of the Arab sector were not invited to take part in the meeting to draft the document.

"The meeting for an internal Jewish dialogue was the result of the systematic campaign of Israel's Arabs, under the umbrella of the Israeli democracy, to see themselves committed first to the Arab Palestinian nation and only then to the State of Israel," said Hava Pinhas-Cohen, one of the covenant's signers.

Once the Jews clear the air among themselves, it will be time to incorporate Arab views into the charter, Pinhas-Cohen hinted. In other words, she seemed to be saying, the initiators of the charter believed that if the Arabs were to be included, there would be no charter.

"I signed the 'Kinneret Covenant' not because I accept every solution that it offers for every important issue," said Assa Kasher, a leading philosopher. "I did so because I identify with its general gist and the main points. It is always more important to help fill the cup than to stop it, because the cup is not yet full."

Shulamit Aloni, former education minister and Meretz Party leader, said the document only proved her argument that the Rabin Center had been captured by the right.

In criticizing the Covenant, however, the arch-secular Aloni found herself in the same camp as fervently Orthodox rabbis incensed that the mayor of Bnei Brak, Mordechai Karelitz of United Torah Judaism, played a key role in drafting a document that seemingly gives equal merit to the lifestyles and beliefs of secular, liberal and Orthodox Jews.

Seeking to strike a balance between personal freedoms and the Jewish character of the state, the drafters wrote: "We believe that Jewish tradition should have an important place" in Israeli life, but "the state should not enforce religious norms on individuals."

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, one of the most respected halachic scholars of the generation, was quoted as saying that the initiative would "certainly have a negative influence."

Despite the criticisms from many sectors, members of the forum have not given up, and plan to push their idea ahead. A subcommittee headed by Reserve Gen. Herzl Bodinger, former commander of the Israeli Air Force, is putting together a document dealing with problems of education in Israel. Other papers will deal with issues such as ownership of state land and the Arab minority.

Those behind the Covenant reject criticism of the fact that current and former senior army officers helped draft a political paper.

"I am well acquainted with Uzi Dayan, Gershon HaCohen and Ya'acov Amidror," Kasher said. "I am quite confident that if every important discussion, especially in the political world, would take place with their level of integrity, depth and sophistication, we would have lived in a state with a much better human quality and moral level."

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